Category: Archive

Ciar_n Tourish’s skills range far

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

A hidebound attitude among these benighted Irish music critics toward
bluegrass has impeded the chances for each genre to seriously explore
the other. The two are related, after all. Immigrant Irish and Scottish
music mingled with African melodies and instrumentation (banjo
especially) and with rural Southern mountain strains to produce old-time
music, a precursor to old country music and its offshoot, bluegrass,
established in 1939 by Kentucky-born singer and mandolinist Bill Monroe.
These same critics would be on firmer ground if they claimed that very
few Irish traditional musicians can play bluegrass faithfully or
straight up. Ireland’s Lee Valley String Band, proficient as they were
individually, could not match the likes of, say, the Red Clay Ramblers
in old-time or the Del McCoury Band in bluegrass. By the same token,
those two stateside bands would have trouble keeping up with the Irish
traditional music of, say, Dan_ and Altan.
A notable exception to this loose rule is Tipperary-born tenor banjoist
Gerry O’Connor, whose last solo album, “No Place Like Home,” offered an
outstanding rendition of “Billy in the Lowground.” Another notable
exception is Buncrana, Donegal-born fiddle and whistle player Ciar_n
Tourish, best known for his playing with Altan since 1990.
Before he joined Altan, Tourish had played with a mostly
bluegrass-newgrass group, the Snug Band, featuring M_ire O’Keeffe on
second fiddle, Tommy Feeney on guitar, and Bill Whelan (not of
“Riverdance” fame) on double bass, with fiddler Dermot Diamond sometimes
sitting in. They usually played in a snug in Hughes’ Bar in Dublin, and
I saw all five perform as the Snug Band in the Ormond Hotel at the 1990
Dublin Traditional Music Festival. The three-fiddle frontline, plus
acoustic guitar and acoustic bass, immediately reminded me of Fiddle
Fever, an American quintet with the same instrumentation in the 1980s.
Tourish also performed with the Pyros, another mostly bluegrass band
featuring Billy Robinson, John Cutliffe, and Four Men and a Dog lead
vocalist Kevin Doherty, and the Gooseberries, a contemporary country
group. Both those bands were based in Donegal.
So Tourish comes to American bluegrass, old-time, and old country music
with a long-term familiarity and deep appreciation, making him one of
the very few native Irish fiddlers who can play faithfully and straight
up in any of those genres.
For proof, listen to how his fiddle comes in behind Tim O’Brien’s lead
vocal in “Are You Tired of Me, My Darling?” on “Down the Line,”
Tourish’s long-awaited solo debut released on June 7 by Nashville’s
Compass Records. Sourced as far back as 1877, the song was made famous
in 1934 by the Carter Family and became a signature for them. The
rendition sung by O’Brien, with harmony vocals from Alison Krauss, is
transfixing, backed by Jerry Douglas on dobro, Darrell Scott on guitar,
Viktor Krauss on bass, Kenny Malone on percussion, O’Brien on mandolin,
and Tourish on whistle and fiddle. His fiddle fills are spot on and
reveal a bluegrasser’s touch and understanding of dynamics. Admittedly,
it’s hard to make an Irish tin whistle sound like bluegrass, but Tourish
comes as close as any. The track works as well as it does because no
instrument sounds out of place in it.
The remaining two songs on the new CD, “Dreams Will Come” and “Sl_n Le
M_igh,” are sung respectively by Paul Brady and Maura O’ Connell. In
Brady’s song, which first appeared on his “Trick or Treat” album in
1991, Tourish plays fiddle and twins a low whistle and a high whistle to
create a richer texture behind a moving vocal from Brady. Ennis-born
Maura O’Connell, a longtime Nashville resident, passionately sings “Sl_n
Le M_igh,” a song in Irish, backed by Brady on organ-like synth and
Tourish on whistle.
Taught by Shandrum fiddler Dinny McLaughlin and gaining further
technique and repertoire by playing in the past with Drumfree fiddler
Pat Mulhearne, Ciar_n Tourish combines an incisive, intuitive grasp of
ornamentation with a quickness that never elides or shortchanges notes.
Nowhere is that more evident than in “Port Chuilin/The Cordal Jig/Paddy
Taylor’s Jig,” “Lord Gordon’s Reel,” “Molly Ban/Flowers of
Edinburgh/Famous Ballymote,” and “Lucy Campbell’s/The Flogging.”
Guitarist Arty McGlynn accompanies Tourish on the first three of those
traditional instrumental cuts, and their interplay is riveting and
rousing, especially in “Lord Gordon’s Reel,” made famous by Michael
Coleman in 1934. Tourish braids the melody line with embellishments so
swift and expert that he makes this old tune new. It is a tour de force
in full service of the tune–an achievement whose deceptive ease comes
from a lot of hard work.
“Lucy Campbell’s/The Flogging” reels were previously recorded for Paul
Brady’s six-program series on RT

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