One of the better British progressive bands of the early '70s, the Strawbs differed from their more successful compatriots - the Moody Blues, King Crimson, Pink Floyd - principally in that their sound originated in English folk music, rather than rock. Founded in 1967 as a bluegrass-based trio called the Strawberry Hill Boys by singer/guitarist Dave Cousins, the group at that time consisted of Cousins, guitarist/singer Tony Hooper, and mandolinist Arthur Philips, who was replaced in 1968 by Ron Chesterman on bass. That same year, the group - now rechristened the Strawbs, and doing repertory well beyond the bounds of bluegrass music - briefly became a quartet with the temporary addition of Sandy Denny, who stayed long enough to record a relative handful of tracks with the group on the Hallmark label before joining Fairport Convention.
In 1969, the Strawbs were signed to A&M Records, and cut their first album, the acoustic-textured Strawbs, that same year. For their second album, Dragonfly, recorded and released the following year, the group broadened their sound with the presence of a group of session musicians, including piano/organist Rick Wakeman. Soon after the release of this record, the group became a full-fledged band with the addition not only of Wakeman but also Richard Hudson and John Ford, on drums and bass, respectively. These changes, coupled with Cousins' increasing dexterity on electric guitar, gave the Strawbs a much more powerful sound that was showcased on their next album.
The live Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios (1970) sold well, and was followed up the next year with From the Witchwood. In 1971, Wakeman left the Strawbs in order to join Yes; he was replaced by Blue Weaver formerly of the Amen Corner. Grave New World (1972) showed the band entering its strongest period, with Cousins' songwriting augmented by the new prowess of the composing team of Hudson and Ford. The record became their best-selling album to date. Unfortunately, its release also heralded the exit of Tony Hooper. He was replaced by Dave Lambert, a more aggressive, rock-oriented guitarist, and his addition brought the group into its peak period. The Strawbs' 1973 album, Bursting at the Seams, featured two Top Ten UK hits, "Lay Down" and "Part of the Union," became Top Ten British hits, and one album track, "Down by the Sea," racked up substantial airplay on American FM radio.
It was all too good to last, and it didn't. Blue Weaver left after one more tour, while Hudson and Ford exited to form Hudson-Ford, also signed to A&M. The Strawbs regrouped in 1974 with Hero and Heroine, recorded with a new lineup consisting of Cousins, Lambert, keyboardist John Hawken, bassist Chas Cronk, and drummer Rod Coombes. The new album was a critical and commercial failure in England, but proved popular in America. Their next two albums, Ghosts (1975) and Nomadness (1976), both did better in the US than they did in the UK. None of this was enough to sustain the group, however, which continued to lose members and also left A&M Records. Two more albums on the Oyster label were poorly distributed and received, and one album for Arista, Deadlines (1978), was a failure, while a second record for the label was never released. The group ceased to exist at the end of the 1970s, and Cousins embarked on some solo projects in association with guitarist Brian Willoughby that attracted the interest of die-hard fans but few others. That might have been the end of the group's history, if it hadn't been for an invitation to play the 1983 Cambridge Folk Festival. The Strawbs responded, in the guise of Cousins, Hooper, Hudson, Ford, Weaver, and Willoughby, and the response was so favorable that a tour was scheduled, which, in turn, led to their return to America in the mid-'80s. The group followed this up with two new studio albums released in Canada, and still plays whenever other commitments allow Cousins and company (with Rod Demick on bass and Chris Parren on keyboards) to get together. In 1993, they released their own retrospective concert album Greatest Hits Live!, which summed up many of the high points of their history.
Bruce Eder, AMG