Born in December 1944, McTell was a part of the post-war fatherless generation of boys, raised by a working Mum. Ralph spent his childhood in Croydon and the town had a profound influence on him, and still does to this day. Being a child from a broken (rather than widowed) home, his Mum struggled to support two boys with no state assistance and this privation, combined with an early exposure to the miscarriage of justice in the famous local case regarding Derek Bentley and Chris Craig, fired a nascent social conscience in the young McTell.
He 'escaped' to the Infantry Junior Leaders Battalion but realised his mistake immediately and spent six months struggling to stay sane. After borrowing enough money to buy his way out , he returned to education (briefly) and began a lifelong commitment to the guitar. A spell as a gardener gave him the means to repay his army loan. College completed and loan repayed, McTell began hitch-hiking around Europe with his guitar, emulating his hero Woody Guthrie, and got as far as Istanbul before dysentry put paid to his ambitions to reach India.
Part of an itinerant and disaffected youth movement, McTell returned to England, taking a series of manual jobs, mainly on building sites and continued to play guitar whenever he could, forming a bluegrass band called the Hickory Nuts. Eventually deciding that if he was “broke, it might just as well be in Paris as on a Croydon building site” he hitched to France in the winter of 1965. There he met guitarist Gary Peterson, who was avoiding the draft in his own country and he showed McTell techniques and songs he'd learnt from Rev. Gary Davies. It was in Paris that McTell finally began writing songs in earnest and in Paris where he met his Norwegian wife Nanna.
By the summer of 1966, McTell was back in England, and Nanna had returned to Norway. Though they had planned to meet up again the following Spring, the discovery that Nanna was pregnant hastened the reunion and they were married in Oslo in November of that year.
McTell continued to write and play at night, working whatever jobs came his way, and he and his wife and baby son spent the Summer of 1967 in Cornwall where McTell was a campsite maintenance man by day, Campsite entertainment by night. Some very early recordings still exist of McTell playing at the Folk Cottage in Mitchell from this time; a tiny firetrap of a barn in Cornwall that hosted an impromptu club. Folk luminaries such Wizz Jones, Michael Chapman and Pete Stanley all graced the 'stage' at the Folk Cottage.
Feeling a strong sense of responsibility, McTell enrolled in teacher training college in order to find a career that would support his young family. However, he continued to play folk clubs up and down the country, driving his ex-GPO minivan to anywhere he
could get a gig. One such show didn't recoup enough to pay both McTell and the star of the show, so the promoter gave McTell his most treasured possession – A Robert Johnson LP. Paul Simon took his £15 fee.
The pressure of daytime studying and night time performance was beginning to show on McTell and after encouragement from his wife, McTell gave up teacher training college and committed to life as a musician full-time.
He perfomed around London, developing lifelong friendships with other guitar players, like Wizz Jones, Bert Jansch and a young John Martin. Nick Drake's last public performance was supporting Ralph at Epsom college. A record deal appeared and McTell began to play festivals, creeping up the billing from early afternoon slots to headlining.
An appearance at the 1969 Cambridge Folk Festival stunned him when the audience sang along to one of his own compositions – Streets of London, which he'd written in Paris and only performed at folk clubs gigs. Not realising the song had taken on a life of it's own,
McTell was rendered almost voiceless by the experience.
The momentum of the song and a new record deal with Warner Brothers meant that McTell had financial backing for new albums and promotion, and having already worked with super producers such as Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti, McTell elected to produce himself on the album Streets. While this was to prove a success, the leap from festivals and folk clubs to concert venues pulled McTell up sharply and he decided to rethink his professional direction after the round of promotional commitments required to support the 'hit'. He wanted to spend more time with his growing family, feeling the strain of long absences particularly when his third child failed to recognise him on his return home after an Australian tour.
An 18 month hiatus followed the last of McTell's international tours around 'Streets'. He recorded briefly with US producer Shel Talmy but had lost his desire for commercial success and the compromises it necessitated. He returned quietly to performing with a concert in Belfast, becoming one of the only performers to appear during a period of much violence in the region.
The contract with Warner Brothers concluded, McTell began to develop a career that reflected his professional vision. Writing at his own pace on the subjects that mattered to
him without needing to consider commercial viability, the beginning on the 1980s saw McTell undertake some of the most complex and politically conscious songs of his career
to date. Heavily influenced by the social and political context of the era, his writing questioned and challenged.
However McTell's love for the blues and more specifically “blind, sometimes crippled, dead black musicians from the Mississippi delta region of the US” led him to record twoof his finest guitar albums – 'Blue Skies, Black Heroes' and 'Stealing Back' which showcased his intuitive and dextrous guitar playing.
A brief detour into children's programming “probably the last time I let anyone convince me to do something I wasn't sure was right for me” was a surprise success and though McTell rejected the role of children's TV performer, he wrote and recorded almost 200 songs which have continued to sell successfully to this day. “I tried to write as Woody
[Guthrie] had for children. It may not have been the best direction professionally, but I am truly proud of the work I did.”
Married for nearly 45 years, with four children and ten grandchildren, McTell has continued to write and record to his own agenda. Despite rejecting convention, he has carved a successful touring and writing career, still playing sell-out shows around the UK and internationally. From charged political commentary to quiet personal reflection, his
songwriting continues to probe and question without diatribe and polemic.