Almost Heaven, South of Galway

What common bonds are there between Irish folk traditions and U.S. country music?

October 26, 2002

What common bonds are there between Irish folk traditions and U.S. country music?

Few Irish groups who have played the island's traditional music have enjoyed more success or influence than The Chieftains. Formed in 1963 by Sean O'Riada, the group reinvented the notion of what it meant to be a "band" playing Irish music.

O'Riada's approach emphasized a faithfulness to the Gaelic language — and to those instruments that were unique to Irish folk music (harps, pennywhistles, pipes and fiddles). At the same time, The Chieftains' music looks forward — with fresh arrangements of traditional songs.

It is thus fair to say that The Chieftains revolutionized Irish traditional music. They also paved the way for other groups who followed in their wake — the Dubliners and the Pogues.

Yet, The Chieftains' urge to innovate and experiment has expanded far beyond simply reviving Irish traditions. Over their 40-year career, they have juxtaposed Irish music with many other forms of music.

Among the many artists with whom they have worked are legendary Irish rock and folk star Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones, poet/songwriter Tom Waits and U.S. country singer Linda Ronstadt.

They have also taken their music to Scotland with flutist James Galway. And on to China, where they made a recording or their 1987 concert and called it The Chieftains in China. Another "stopover" was Galicia, for their 1996 Spanish-themed album, Santiago.

For all these musical experiments, it is perhaps the Chieftains' explorations in the country music of the United States that have been the most successful. After all, the affinities between Irish traditions and U.S. country music are numerous.

Not only did U.S. country music have direct roots in the Irish and Scottish folk traditions, but both musical forms actually share a strong reliance on the sturdy, yet flexible fiddle. Plus, music for dancing is a key element in both musical strands.

Irish musicians and U.S. country musicians also share lyrical concerns. In the Irish folk tradition and in the songs of Nashville and Appalachia, one can find highly similar songs about the beauties and comfort of home, the brutality of work in horrible conditions — as well as a taste for whiskey.

The Chieftains' new album, The Old Plank Road, is not the first time that the group has taken a shine to the country sound.

In 1992, the group recorded Another Country — a collaboration with notable U.S. country stars that included guitarist Chet Atkins and songwriters Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Emmylou Harris.

Now, ten years later, The Chieftains have gathered another group of country music's stars. They include songwriters Lyle Lovett and Vince Gill, singers Martina McBride and Ricky Skaggs and bluegrass sensations Allison Krause and Gillian Welch.

Together, these musicians explore once again the intimate connections between Irish folk music and its American cousin.

The resulting 14 songs underscore the obvious relationship — and serve as a reminder of the impact of Irish culture in the United States.

Most of the songs on The Old Plank Road are traditional Irish airs. This includes the rollicking title song about the eternal resolution made after a night of drinking too much — never to do so again.

At times, the music of both countries is intertwined so skillfully that it becomes impossible to determine their port of origin. The Chieftains do this on a medley of Irish and U.S. reels — performed with U.S. multi-instrumental sensation Bela Fleck on banjo.

But one stand-out song on the album is The Chieftains' version (with country superstar Vince Gill on vocals) of U.S. songwriter Merle Travis' song about coal mining — "Dark as a Dungeon."

The song is a stark reminder that this particular industry — and the powerful U.S. economy which it helped to build after the Industrial Revolution — was built on the labor of Irish immigrants and many others who worked in the dangers of the mines.

The Old Plank Road's lighter moments outweigh such darkness, however. In fact, the album ends with an inspired ten-minute "jam" on the traditional tune "Give the Fiddler a Dram." In this piece, the Chieftains and their guests trade bursts of wild improvisation on mandolin, dobro, pipes, banjo and fiddle.

It's yet another confirmation that the Chieftains' marriage of their own traditions with those of U.S. country music is a rousing success.