Pine Tree Flyers shine a light on New England music

The Pine Tree Flyers, from left: Emily Troll, Neil Pearlman, Katie McNally, Owen Marshall, will officially launch their debut album on May 5 at Club Passim. Photo by Dylan Ladds


  There are bands – whether Irish, pan-Celtic, rock-n-roll, jazz, pop, funk, death-metal, or any other genre – that come together by circumstance or by accident, or even just for laughs.

Then there are bands like the Maine-based Pine Tree Flyers, a quartet formed with a purpose and a desire: to uphold the virtues of New England traditional music, and perhaps change some less than hospitable attitudes about it along the way. PTF, which comes to Club Passim in Harvard Square on May 5 to launch its debut album, has appeared at Celtic Connections in Glasgow, Celtic Colours in Cape Breton, the Festival of Small Halls in Prince Edward Island, the Ossipee Valley Music Festival, and at this past January’s Boston Celtic Music Fest. 

Of course, PTF also was envisioned as a focal point of fun by its members, Owen Marshall (guitar), Katie McNally (fiddle), Neil Pearlman (piano), and Emily Troll (piano accordion), all of whom have been in and around Portland for some years now but have various ties to the Boston area and its traditional music scene. 

Marshall (who sat in with Irish group Dervish during its recent US tour) was a frequent member of the house band for “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” and has played in collaborations with, among others, Joey Abarta, Nathan Gourley, and Lindsay Straw; McNally, who grew up in Westford, has appeared numerous times at BCMFest and been a mainstay in Scottish and Cape Breton music locally; Pearlman – who has long played with McNally as a duo and as part of her trio – also is a BCMFest regular and directs the Boston Scottish Fiddle Club and Orchestra; Troll, a Lynnfield native, was involved in numerous folk and traditional music activities from childhood on and is a member of contra dance trio Anadama. 

One notable experience for all the PTF members during their youth was taking part in community bands that played, and sometimes provided, music for contra dances – long a cornerstone of the New England folk tradition. These were opportunities to sample tunes found in Irish, Scottish, French-Canadian as well as American traditional music, along with others from more recent decades composed by New England musicians like Dudley Laufman, Bob McQuillen, Lissa Schneckenburger and Keith Murphy. As the PTF members note, these community bands and contra dances helped make the point that this kind of music is not a solitary exercise, but something to be shared and enjoyed in a social context. 

Most of all, each of the four got to know and appreciate the qualities that give New England traditional music – especially that of the fiddle – its uniqueness. Tunes like “Lady Ann Montgomery” or “Out on the Ocean” played in the New England way might, on the one hand, sound pretty much as they do in a traditional Irish vein – yet at the same time, they don’t. The same holds true for, say, a French-Canadian reel or an Appalachian tune.

“There’s a twist, a style, a special personality to the New England tradition,” Troll says. “Tunes are played with big rhythm, clear phrasing, and a bit of drama.” 

But as they made the rounds of the wider folk and traditional music community, McNally, Troll, Pearlman, and Marshall found little acknowledgement, or even awareness, of the New England fiddle style. In fact, some musicians regard New England more as a pilferer of other traditions, as WBUR arts and culture writer Amelia Mason (an accomplished New England musician herself and Troll’s Anadama bandmate) writes in her superb foreword for the PTF album: “An Irish or Scottish tune that becomes popular among dance musicians in the Northeast will usually remain an ‘Irish’ or ‘Scottish’ tune – an artifact perpetually on loan. The New England tradition itself never quite transcends its influences.”

McNally says PTF was in the back of her mind for a long time, especially when she began attending the Maine Fiddle Camp several years ago and was elated to hear dance bands “absolutely ripping these tunes from my childhood and to see a bunch of folks in their 20s and 30s who also love this music. 

“It made me think long and hard about why folks outside of New England don't know that we have an amazingly vibrant scene here and our own thriving tradition,” she says. “There are even plenty of bluegrass, old-time, and Americana musicians who live in New England who have no idea that there is local, American music going on. So I wanted to have a band that shredded the old chestnuts on concert and festival stages and elevated New England music to a national and international level.” 

To be clear: While New England contra dance figures prominently in the collective and individual experience of Pine Tree Flyers, and while they’ve played for a few contra dances, they are not a contra dance band.  

“That's not what this project is about,” McNally explains. “We are actively making a point of playing New England tunes at festivals and concerts for listening audiences. A lot of other trad and roots genres have crossed over into listening or art music, but music from New England has not really made that leap. We've actually had some trouble convincing concert promoters that we know how to put on a concert and at times have had to really muscle our way into a mainstage slot at a festival instead of just a dance tent slot. We've had more success playing at international festivals, where there aren't preconceived notions of what we are, than at American festivals.”

The PTF album fulfills the band’s mission, offering an encapsulation of New England music over a period of decades: from earlier times, when foundational figures like Laufman and McQuillen helped revive and popularize contra dances, to the more recent era, in which bands such as Wild Asparagus, Airdance, Nightingale, and Elixir championed innovative, more complex arrangements of the music – in fact, making it as appropriate for a concert setting as a dance hall.

One track starts off with “Smith’s Reel,” composed by Rhode Islander George Sanders more than 175 years ago but a staple of Irish and Cape Breton repertoires, the quartet all in from the beginning as McNally and Troll glide along in unison to the rock-steady rhythm by Pearlman and Marshall. Then McNally takes the lead on a major/minor Québecois tune, “Pointe-Au-Pic,” and Troll shifts to chords, until the second time through when she switches to melody while McNally plays exquisite harmonies on the A part.

By contrast, a pair of Irish jigs – often played as a medley by Laufman’s legendary Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra – starts off with a lighter touch, McNally and Marshall holding forth on “Haste to the Wedding,” Pearlman and Troll gradually joining in, then all transitioning to “Coleraine,” which features some particularly stellar rhythm from Marshall and Pearlman through some astutely devised chord changes.  

A medley with a more contemporary vintage to it encompasses “Shadows on the Lawn” by Doug Feeney (who has played with prominent contra dance bands like Fourgone Conclusions and Moving Violations) – ushered in with a compelling solo by Pearlman – followed by the Irish jig “Banks of Lough Gowna,” featuring Marshall’s flatpicking alongside Troll, and then a riveting Troll-McNally interlude segues into a Marshall original, “The Prince of Seals.”

One particularly striking track involves Marshall’s slower-paced, tender reworking of Bob McQuillen’s “Echoes of Scotty O’Neill,” which gradually picks up speed until Troll breaks into a Scottish march, “The 79th’s Farewell to Gibraltar,” which completely resets the momentum in stirring fashion. As with “Scotty O’Neill,” the band takes a similar approach to “Glise de Sherbrooke” by slowing it down a bit; McNally and Troll take the melody first, with the drone from the accordion’s bass notes resembling a parlor organ, adding an almost meditative quality. 

Other highlights include the rip-roaring “Opera Reel/Golden Wedding Reel” set, which gets off to quite the exhilarating start with Marshall joining McNally on the melody; the latter tune was written by New Brunswick fiddler Don Messer, notes McNally (“I think it perfectly illustrates how the fiddle scene in the Northeast of the US is simultaneously a distinct tradition and in conversation with music from just over the border”). PTF also has a ball with a classic Québécois pairing, “La Bastringue” and the aptly named “Joys of Québec,” during which Pearlman dives into some south-of-the-equator-style syncopation.

 “Digging into the drama and expressiveness of these tunes was really special, and it feels good to be part of the living tradition that is growing and developing as we speak,” says Troll.

“This whole project to me has been meaningful as an opportunity to reflect and acknowledge some of the folks who got me on the path of traditional music,” says Marshall. “People like Sarah Blair, Jeremiah McLane, Pete Sutherland, and David Surette were all present and active in my adolescence and early adulthood and they all invested a wealth of energy into both my musical and personal growth. 

“Not to put words in anyone else's mouth, but I think the rest of the band would agree that going back and drawing from this familiar well of material reactivates the memory of some of the very first informative and extremely exciting moments we experienced as teens in the music scene.” 

For more on the Pine Tree Flyers, see their website at

Tickets for their May 4 Club Passim show are available via