May 13 is Mother’s Day this year, but it’ll be a “Fathers and Sons Afternoon” on the Burren Backroom stage. That’s because the Backroom series will feature a concert at 4 p.m. with Boston-area bouzouki player and singer John Coyne and Seattle-based fiddler/guitarist Randal Bays. And for good measure, the opening act will be their sons, accordionist Rory Coyne (13) and Owen Bays (14) on concertina.
“Always great to get the boys together,” says Bays, and deadpans: “We just hope they don’t upstage us.”
The event is an all-too-rare gathering for Coyne and Bays, what with being on separate coasts and leading busy family lives. But theirs is a collaboration, however occasional, solidly built on respect for one another’s musicianship, and most of all, simply enjoying one another’s company. Any opportunity to indulge in both these things is a welcome one – and even better when they can bring their offspring in on it.
Coyne’s superb bouzouki accompaniment, fine singing voice – redolent of his native Limerick – and extensive song repertoire have become a welcome fixture in Boston’s Irish music scene, especially at The Druid Pub weekly sessions. He has also worked with well-known musicians like Mary MacNamara, Mickey Dunne, and Frankie Gavin, to name a few. But his most meaningful musical activity is with his own family: wife Lisa (flute, whistle, vocals), daughter Josie (fiddle), and Rory. The Coynes have performed at The Burren, BCMFest and “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” and farther afield, including at last month’s CelticFest in Mississippi.
Bays is one of the most celebrated American fiddlers in the Irish tradition, especially the styles of Clare and Galway. He’s toured and recorded with, among others, James Keane and Daithi Sproule (as the trio Fingal), James Kelly, and the late Michéal O’Domhnaill; the Irish Times picked his live album with Roger Landes, “House to House,” as one the top five traditional recordings of 2005. Bays is equally renowned for his finger-style guitar, and he recorded two landmark albums with fiddler Martin Hayes. Not only that, Bays’s musical career has an entrepreneurial component: In the early 1990s, he started his own record label, Foxglove, one of the first independent labels to emerge at the dawn of the Internet age.
Ironically, a Boston Irish music institution played an indirect role in bringing Coynes and Bays together. Bays was invited to teach for a couple of years at the then-weeklong Gaelic Roots festival and school held annually at Boston College during the summer, and it provided the inspiration for him later on to establish his own music week, Cascadia. Two years ago, the Coynes – looking to try a different Irish music immersion experience – went out to Cascadia and enjoyed its small, intimate setting and the caliber of performers and teachers there, including Josephine Marsh, Angelina Carberry, Cormac Begley, and of course, Bays himself.
“I was playing at the sessions around there, and happened to run into Randal, and we just hit it off,” recalls Coyne. “Later on during the week, he brought me up to play with him at the concert. We just worked very well together.”
The encounter at Cascadia led to a series of other gigs, including a few in North Carolina on which Owen Bays accompanied his father. “I said, ‘Well, I suppose I could bring along Rory for the craic,’” says Coyne. “It was a lot of fun – we wound up playing at this cool theater in Galax, Va. So we just kept building from these performances.”
Adds Coyne, “I just feel honored to be playing with Randal – I mean, you see some of the people he’s worked with, and it’s very impressive. And as good as he is as a fiddler, his guitar playing is just phenomenal. He’s not only a fantastic musician, but he’s got the history behind the tunes.”
“The older you get, the more you value getting to know someone as good as John,” says Bays. “I love his music, I love his approach. He just gets it. And he’s just a nice guy to be around.”
There were also the family parallels: Like Coyne, Bays has a fully musical household – his wife Susan Waters is a fiddler, and his older son Willie plays flute – although they haven’t yet managed to get all the Coynes and all the Bayses together at one time.
More to the point, both Coyne and Bays have experienced the joy and satisfaction of seeing the music they love become a part of their children’s lives. No, they are quick to point out, there’s no magic formula. Kids will either embrace the music or they won’t, and in the end it’s really up to them.
That being said, Coyne and Bays point to an important characteristic common to their children’s musical development: that it all seems just a regular part of life.
“Our kids have been around great Irish music since they were born,” explains Bays, whose “A Rake of Tunes” album features his wife and children. “I think one of the best ways you can encourage kids to take up music is to model it – you show them how it’s not just lessons and practicing, but a way to socialize and make friends. That may be challenging for parents who aren’t musicians themselves, of course. Still, if you can normalize music as part of family life – something that can truly be enjoyed – that helps a lot.”
Coyne says there is no happier experience than playing with his family, whether by themselves or with friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers.
“One of my favorite things is coming home to find Rory playing tunes on his own,” he says. “Sometimes it’s an organic thing where he’s been working on a tune or an accompaniment to a song, and we’ll just sit down together and play. And then maybe Lisa and Josie will come join us. It doesn’t happen every day, and it doesn’t last forever. But it’s definitely something special, and we all value it.”
Bays says the family and personal dynamic of playing Irish music can’t be emphasized enough.
“As someone who began playing professionally at the age of 12, what struck me about Irish music, and other traditional music, was that it isn’t just the province of professionals. I think it’s kind of unfortunate that the ‘performance culture’ has become so ingrained in music, even Irish music, that we don’t recognize what it means to us on an everyday level. No matter how famous an Irish musician you may be, you’re still connected to that tradition, and ultimately it’s about just sitting in a room with people playing music for the sheer enjoyment of it.”
For tickets and information about the May 13 show and other Burren Backroom events, see burren.com/EventsCalendar.html.