Category: Archive

Trad Beat Altan says ‘Hello, Dolly’ again

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

One of the last recordings on which flutist Frankie Kennedy (1955-1994) appeared with Altan, the Irish traditional band he helped to found, was 1994’s "Heartsongs" by Dolly Parton. That recording session went well, and Parton, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame who successfully crossed into bluegrass territory with 1999’s all-acoustic "The Grass Is Blue" (Sugar Hill/Blue Eye), invited Altan back into the studio with her to record the follow-up, "Little Sparrow."

The country star is enjoying a career resurgence. She shared a 1999 Grammy with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt for their rendition of Neil Young’s song "After the Gold Rush" on their "Trio II" album. Last

year, Parton also copped album of the year honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association for "The Grass Is Blue."

In 1971, she wrote and recorded "Coat of Many Colors," a country classic that first made her popular in Ireland. And in 1992, another classic song Parton wrote, "I Will Always Love You," became a monster hit for Whitney Houston in Ireland and everywhere else.

For her new album, a blend of bluegrass and Appalachian folk, "I wrote a few pieces that lend themselves to an Irish treatment," Parton said.

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Four of the 14 tracks on "Little Sparrow" (due in stores Jan. 23) feature Altan members, and three are Parton originals. "My Blue Tears" has guitarist Mark Kelly, bouzouki player Ciarán Curran, and button accordionist Dermot Byrne on it. Byrne and Ciarán Tourish on low whistle play on "Mountain Angel." Kelly, Curran, Byrne, and Tourish join another Irish-born musician, Maura O’Connell, who once sang lead for De Dannan but has been based in Nashville for many years now, on "Down From Dover.

The one track featuring all five members of Altan — Curran, Byrne, Tourish, Dáithí Sproule (replacing Kelly on guitar), and vocalist Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh — is "In the Sweet Bye and Bye." This tender country hymn from the early 1900s is the album’s most moving cut. Parton sings the song in English, while Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh sings the Irish verse translated from the English by her father, Proinsias Ó Maonaigh. Their

vocal harmony is just beautiful, and Byrne’s delicate box playing matches well with Jerry Douglas’s dobro playing.

Participating on the Parton album was one of many highlights for Altan last year. When President Clinton, New York Senator-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea, arrived in Ireland recently, Altan performed for them and some 30,000 spectators in Dundalk. RTÉ, ITN, and the BBC televised portions of the event.

Last August, readers of Dublin-based Irish Music magazine voted the band’s "Another Sky" as the best Irish traditional album of the year. They toured Sweden, Japan, Holland, Canada, and the United States, and from September on, good friend and former Altan album producer Dónal Lunny filled in for Ciarán Curran, incapacitated by a trapped nerve problem. Curran is expected to recover by the time of the Frankie Kennedy Winter School.

Also, Dermot Byrne and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, who are husband and wife, now own a decidedly music-friendly pub, Cúl a Dúin, in Teelin, Southwest Donegal.

Kennedy Winter School

For those who need a musical reason to travel to Donegal between Christmas and New Year’s, the annual Frankie Kennedy Winter School in Bunbeg, Letterkenny, is the best inducement of all.

Officially opening the school on Dec. 28 will be Dónal Lunny, a founding member of three seminal Irish groups: Planxty, the Bothy Band, and Moving Hearts. The whole schedule of performances, as always, is exceptional. Hothouse Flowers’ lead vocalist Liam Ó Maonlaí will join guitarist Steve Cooney on Dec. 29, fiddler Tommy Peoples will play with singer-guitarist Paul Brady on Dec. 30, fiddler Paddy Glackin and guitarist Mícheál Ó Domhnaill will link up on Dec. 31, fiddler Dermot

McLaughlin and his uilleann piping brother, Joe, will perform on Jan. 1, and Altan will finish with a concert on Jan. 2.

The school also offers music classes during the day at Dunlewy’s Lakeside Center, and there are céilí and set dancing, sean-nós singing, and a "matinée flute blowout" that is something to behold. Shrugging off cold, wind, and rain (or snow) typical of the Donegal winter, many of the best musicians in Ireland drop into Bunbeg for the craic, and the pub sessions are both mammoth and marathon.

If you’re interested in attending — time’s ticking down fast now — contact the school’s director, Gearóid Ó Maonaigh, at

gearoidm@iol.ie, or telephone 075-32127 (message service). You can also go to Altan’s website (www.altan.ie) for a full breakdown of the winter-school schedule and other information.

String Sisters

For two to three weeks every January, Glasgow hosts Celtic Connections, a winter festival of traditional and contemporary Celtic music held in over 20 citywide venues, including the Royal Concert Hall. January 2001 will mark the eighth anniversary of the event, and it is bringing back an act that proved a big hit last year: the String Sisters.

The lineup comprises fiddlers Liz Carroll and Liz Knowles from the U.S., Annbjørg Lien from Norway, Catriona MacDonald from the Shetland Islands, Natalie MacMaster from Canada’s Cape Breton Island, and Ireland’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. There will also be one or two male musicians supporting them, including Dermot Byrne.

Why hasn’t a stateside appearance or tour by these six female fiddlers occurred yet, and why hasn’t some enterprising indie label snapped them up for a recording? Both seem overdue.

Early January concerts

In 1981, Brian Conway and Tony DeMarco, two outstanding young New York fiddlers, joined guitarist C’sar Pacifici to record an album bearing bright testimony to the influence of such great fiddlers and teachers as Andy McGann, Paddy Reynolds, and the late Martin Wynne. Sligo-style fiddling dominated "The Apple in Winter" (Green Linnet), and to mark its reissue on CD, Conway and DeMarco will be in concert with keyboardist Felix Dolan at 9 and 10:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 5, at the Blarney Star, 43 Murray St. (at Church Street), in lower Manhattan ([212] 732-2873).

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