From an interview I did with Maura O’Connell in 2002:
“A song from any time should feel comfortable in any time. A song is a song is a song, if it has potential to live past its own time. It’s a folk song, no matter where it comes from. I do like to sing songs like ‘Down In The Sally Gardens.’ It’s such a strong song it sits right next to a Patty Griffin song. They’re equally present in our day as poetry.”
It is enriching indeed to sit and talk with someone who is nearly as elegant speaking about the resonance and reach of songs as she is singing them. In O’Connell’s case, she’s got mountains of experience through which such observations get filtered. She was the precocious, singing little girl with a singing mom in an Irish community where singing was as regular and natural as breathing and eating. It was the cause of and result of gatherings of families and friends. As a young woman, O’Connell joined the traditional Irish group De Dannan and then spread her wings in America where she was drawn to country and bluegrass music, especially the players and artists who pushed their boundaries.
In her many years in Nashville, O’Connell has regularly collaborated with folks like Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck and Sam Bush. Her contributions to American roots music have served to highlight the strong Celtic influence that helped shaped it. And most recently, she went all in for vocal purity with the 2009 release Naked With Friends, where she’s heard singing together with other beautiful voices and no accompaniment whatsoever. It’s a reminder that nobody is more honest with a song than the great Maura.
O’Connell is only our most famous and most Irish participant on the Music City Roots St. Patrick’s Day special season closer. Alison Brown is not Irish herself, but her banjo fusion music draws deeply from Celtic traditions, and Compass Records, the label she co-founded with husband Garry West, is arguably the best and most consequential purveyor of Celtic music in the U.S. Like O’Connell, Brown has taken a tradition (bluegrass in her case) and stretched it by listening widely and pouring all kinds of ideas into her virtuoso playing and her ensemble. Her quartet features bass, drums and piano in a classic jazz posture, ready to swing, groove or drive at any second. It will truly be one of the instrumental tours-de-force we’ve had yet on the Roots stage.
A good deal of North America’s Celtic influence came via the East Coast of Canada, and guest Shannon Quinn will be our exemplar of that. Raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she’s a fiddler with a warm touch and glorious tone. And of course as I mentioned before, bluegrass also wouldn’t be bluegrass without Scotts/Irish bedrock of sounds and songs. Picking up that torch on this night will be The Chapmans, a true family band of three brothers and a dad who have been making music professionally together since 1989. They don’t look old enough for that to be true, but look it up. With each of their recordings, they’ve shown that while they love the old school, they’ve always had an eye on the horizon. Killer harmonies and an overall ensemble integrity will show you why they’ve won competitions and been picked up by the aforementioned Compass Records for their current project and hopefully many more.
And finally, this season closer will be exciting because we’re at last going to get to hear our own Aly Sutton, the Vietti Chili Cowgirl, perform her own music. We’ve heard good things about her take on country music, so we’ll be all ears.
It’ll be an all green kiss-off to winter, just before we take a two-week break to inhale and tend our gardens before the spring season comes beautifully upon us. See you at the Barn.