Bud Sargent: A chat with the maestro of ‘Four Green Fields’

This year, Bud Sargent is celebrating three decades as a broadcaster of Irish music and culture via “Four Green Fields,” Saturdays from 10 a.m.-noon on WCUW, 91.3 FM (and via the web at wcuw.org). A native of Worcester who works as an attorney for his “day job,” Sargent also has become a high-profile promoter for Irish music events in and around Central Massachusetts. He recently spoke with Sean Smith of the Boston Irish Reporter about his 30 years behind the mike.

BIR: Bud, I guess there are two threads in your life to ask about: How you got into Irish music, and how you wound up doing a radio show devoted to it.
Sargent: I grew up in a very Irish-American family. My maternal grandfather was from near Skibbereen, and my mother was a Foley. So there was definitely Irish music in the household when I was a kid, and I remember hearing “The Jimmy Dooley Show” on a radio station from Manchester, NH. Now, interestingly enough, my father was not Irish, but when I was 12 or 13 he bought a Clancy Brothers album, and I listened to that all the time.
So I went away to college, to St. Anselm in New Hampshire, and while I was there I got some broadcast experience working at the college’s radio station. After I graduated I started getting back into Irish music: I particularly liked listening to “The Sound of Erin” on WBOS, with John Curran and Henry Varian. I eventually moved back to Worcester, and started listening to WCUW. They’d had an Irish show called “The Half-Door,” and when Pat McDonagh from Galway became the host he changed the name to “Four Green Fields.”
As it happened, a friend of our family was a volunteer at WCUW, and I told her that if they ever needed a substitute for the Irish show, I’d love to do it. Then in August of 1983 I began filling in for Pat, who eventually went on to another station closer to Boston, and in January of 1984 I took over full time.
Even now, after all these years, I get a little giddy talking about it. This was a life-changing event in many ways. Doing the show was great in and of itself, and then it morphed into the opportunity to promote music events, with people like Donal Clancy, Danu, Paddy O’Brien, Niamh Ni Charra, and Lunasa, among many others.
I should add that for the last 20 years or more, I have been ably assisted every Saturday by Michael “Des” McLoughlin, from Roscommon, who is president of ArTeanga Fein, the Irish language club of Worcester.
BIR: Talk about your format – obviously, you play all kinds of Irish music, but you often do interviews, too, right?
Sargent: I don’t have guests on every week, but I have an “open door policy.” We have a very active Irish-American community in the Worcester area, so I like to make the show a meeting point, where people have a chance to talk about not only Irish music but also other parts of Irish and Irish-American culture, history, literature and so on. Maybe one week it’ll be the organizers of the Worcester St. Patrick’s Day parade, and another it might be a representative from the Ancient Order of Hibernians, or the GAA. I’ve also spoken often with Matt Carr of Pilgrim Soul Productions, who stages Irish theatrical works.
Or maybe I might do phone interviews with performers who are coming to town. As I mentioned, over the last 15 years or so, I’ve gotten involved in promoting concerts, other events, and it’s a great “hobby.” And I have to say, in all the time I’ve been doing that, I’ve never had a band or a performer who was uncooperative or rude. I’ve found them to be gracious, unpretentious – a pleasure to work with.
But I do try to strike a balance. I’ve only got two hours, after all, so I don’t want to do too much talking and get away from playing music.
BIR: Music-wise, it seems like you shoot for variety, from “pure drop” to ballad groups to contemporary to the old favorites. I’m sure that, like most any radio show host, you’ve got the challenge of playing what you think is really good and should be heard, and what your listeners prefer to hear – which may not always be the same thing.
Sargent: [Laughs] You know, I get that from my mother: “Why don’t you play this? Why don’t you play that?” And I say, “Ma, why don’t you come down and do your own show?” But it’s true, I’m serving an Irish-American audience, which is actually pretty diverse. And sure, a lot of people might like to hear, say, Connie Foley [a Tralee-born singer popular in the 1950s who lived in Worcester for a while] – but if you just play Connie Foley, then nobody will know about all this other Irish music.
It’s been an evolving thing, because so much has gone on in Irish music in these 30 years I’ve been doing the show. This is not a “trad show,” although personally I prefer the traditional stuff. I tried to expand the scope at the beginning, bringing in the Bothy Band, Planxty, Moving Hearts, and I always try to keep it eclectic, playing somebody like [singer-songwriter] Damien Dempsey, who I think is terrific. But I’ll mix in, say, Paddy Reilly doing “Fields of Athenry,” or The Dubliners, Danny Doyle, and then the Wolfe Tones, The Chieftains, The Saw Doctors, Teada, Glen Curtin – I mean, there’s no shortage of possibilities. Plenty of people from Boston, New England or the Northeast to feature, too: David Doocey – he’s from Worcester, but living in Ireland now – Joey Abarta, Open the Door for Three, The Yanks, Colm O’Brien, Tony Giblin, and so on and so on.
If someone calls and asks, “Hey, can you play so-and-so?” I can usually find something from that person or band I like, a song that we can live with. I guess my biggest hope is I’ll play something that will make someone say, “Wow, I never heard that before. That’s great.”
BIR: What about your St. Patrick’s Day show? You must get all kinds of requests for any and everything under the sun that’s remotely Irish.
Sargent: Well, I do tend to stay away from a lot of the stage/vaudeville kind of Irish music – but that being said, Mick Moloney has made some wonderful recordings in that genre these past several years.
BIR: There’s been some interesting discussion over the past decade or so about where IRA/rebel songs and the protest songs that came about during The Troubles fit into Irish music nowadays, what with the Good Friday Agreement and the new era for Ireland and Northern Ireland it ushered in. What’s your take?
Sargent: It is an interesting subject. Obviously, a lot has changed from when I started out. I don’t play them much at all, unless there’s a strong reason to, maybe a landmark date. For example, my first show in March this year, I noted that this was the anniversary of Bobby Sands’s death. I said, “I don’t normally play rebel music, but this was a very significant event in Irish history, and it’s important to remember things like that,” and I played “Back Home in Derry.”
I subscribe to Jimmy Crowley’s philosophy. There is, of course, so much more to Irish music than the rebel songs, as Jimmy says, but he is not embarrassed to play them. He says they are the part of Irish history “that is not subsumed to political correctness.” So yes, if you play the songs, you put them in an historical context.
BIR: What, for you, are some of the more exciting developments in Irish music in the 30 years of “Four Green Fields”?
Sargent: I really like what groups like Lunasa have done with the tradition – how, without vocalists, they have taken the music in fascinating directions. But I also look at bands, like Teada, that are staying closer to the tradition.
The trend I’m particularly excited about is toward Americana, with Tim O’Brien, The Three-Ocean Trio, Nicola Joyce, Grada, The Unwanted, The Whileaways, The Lee Valley String Band. I really like the cross-pollination. And, of course, it’s a perfect example of the ties between Ireland and America.
There also have been some marvelous female singers coming out of Ireland, like Karan Casey – I was blown away by her new album [“Two Hours”] – or Mary Black, who I remember seeing at the old Irish Embassy Pub, and she was fabulous. Or, if we’re talking about Americana, Maura O’Connell; I love her song selections.
And of course, there’ve been outstanding male singers, like John Spillane and Sean Keane and Tommy Fleming. You almost don’t want to name names, because you’re sure to forget someone.
BIR: I’m sure it’s hard to pick just one, but what’s the most memorable show you’ve done?
Sargent: For years, I tried to get Butch Moore – you know, of “Butch ’n Maeve” – to come into the studio. And then he and Maeve happened to be in town at the right time, and I invited him in, and I wound up having Butch on for the whole show. And it was wonderful, just the best time. He passed away not long after that [Moore died in April of 2001], so I felt very fortunate in having had the chance to talk with him. He was such a huge figure in Irish music.
BIR: You’ve talked about the local Irish American community – much as the music has changed in many ways over these 30 years, I’m sure the community has, too.
Sargent: Yes, that’s true, but one thing that hasn’t changed in all this time is how much support the community has given me, and “Four Green Fields” and the station. I can’t emphasize enough what an absolute honor it has been to do the show, and how many great friends I've made who share the love of this music with me. And that community includes my wife Sheila and children Cait – who’s in a band herself, The Stone Clovers – and Brendan. I’m really grateful for their support.
BIR: No immediate plans to stop doing the show, I take it?
Sargent: If I have my way, I’ll die on the air. [laughs] No, I keep going at it; there’s always something to keep it interesting. For example, I found a website on “crazy holidays,” so I might refer to that for inspiration. Recently, my show happened to coincide with “National Pig Day,” and so in honor of it I played Paudie O’Connor’s “The Pigs Eating Nuts in the Wood.” You can do other fun things, too: I played “Out on the Western Plains” by The Unwanted – the one that has the chorus, “Come-a-ky-ky-yippee-yippee-yay” – and I paired it with tracks like Teada’s version of “Saddle Tramp,” and “The Guns of the Magnificent Seven” by Nomos, and just for laughs, Frankie Lane’s “Fastest Gun Around.”
You just look for a way to break up the routine a little. So far, it’s worked pretty well for me.