Here at Hearth Music we're pretty obsessed with traditional roots music. You know, like Irish fiddle, old-time banjo pickin', Cajun accordion, French-Canadian foot-tapping, and so on and on. But what we REALLY like is when master artists jump across genres and look for inspiration in other traditions than their own. The resulting musical melange is nothing short of delicious, in most cases.
One of our favorite genre-jumping inspirations comes from traditional Irish musicians playing American old-time music. There's something about the blend of deep-rooted Appalachian rhythms meeting the florid embellishments of the Celtic lands. Guess it's kind of a mystical thing. Or something.
So imagine how happy we were upon hearing that the great Irish singer Cathy Jordan, of Irish super-steamroller-group Dervish, had joined up with her Americana-leaning bandmate Seamie O'Dowd and American folk musician Rick Epping, to record an album of songs and tunes that cross back and forth over the "watery main" (as the Atlantic used to be called). The group is The Unwanted, and the CD, out now on Compass Records, is pretty awesome. I can't stop listening to this track in particular, a Leadbelly song called "Out on the Western Plain", that brings the rough-and-tumble cowboy experience of the West back to some of its Irish immigrant roots.
Out on the Western Plain: The Unwanted
Did you notice the bass in that track? That was Cathy Ryan playing the basslines on her Irish bodhran (frame drum)!! The Unwanted are pretty great instrumentalists too, and here they are trying their hand at a popular old-time tune, Shove the Pig's Foot A Little Further in the Fire, followed by a rarer American version of the Irish tune Greenfields of America:
Shove The Pig's Foot Set: The Unwanted
This got me to thinking about the other examples I had of powerhouse Irish trad players jumping into the old-time pool at the deep end. So here are some great tracks from my collection.
Accordionist Sharon Shannon is probably the Irish trad musician best known for jumping traditions. She's included old-time tunes in her CDs, as well as French-Canadian, Scandinavian, Klezmer, really whatever catches her fancy. Here's a spectacular rendition of the old-time tunes Billy in the Lowground and Lost Girl from Shannon's collaboration with Irish fiddle god Frankie Gavin.
Billy in the Low Ground: Sharon Shannon/Frankie Gavin/Mick McGoldrick
Actually, Shannon's home county of Clare in Ireland is home to most of my favorite Irish old-time tunes. The music of Clare, renowned for its long-drawn out melodies and thoughtful rhythmic phrasing, has a lot in common with Appalachian music, and these connections seem to remain to the present day. Here's a fun version of the old-time chestnut Stone's Rag, transformed into a memorable Irish tune with an even more memorable title.
48 Dogs in the Meathouse: Kevin Griffin (Irish tenor banjo)
And then there are those fiddlers in Clare that just sound like they came out of the Appalachian old-time scene. The best example is Mary Custy, who often tours with Sharon Shannon. Custy's playing is certainly Irish, but to me seems to dip towards old-time fiddling at times. You can judge for yourself, but I hear some kind of connection there that bridges the divide between the traditions.
Road to Miltown: Mary Custy
Of course, some artists have gone looking for the connections between Irish and old-time music, sometimes with spectacular results! The Transatlantic Sessions united the best musicians of Ireland and America in an exploration of common roots. The results were pure genius. Check out this super-group of musicians from both side of the water playing that familiar tune, Shove That Pig's Foot A Little Further In The Fire: