On one recent early autumn evening, a severe rainstorm with winds of up to 70 mph battered the 150-year-old house in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, that Boston-area fiddler Doug Lamey now calls home. In a couple of months, the rain will be replaced by an even more generous helping of snow, ushering in what is likely to be a long, cold winter – one that in comparison will make Massachusetts resemble a Caribbean idyll.
And for Lamey, there's no place he'd rather be.
"I love it here," he said, speaking by phone, with the occasional howl of wind and a bark or two from the family dog Angus in the background. "I've spent a lot of time in Cape Breton during my life, but ultimately, I'd always go back home to Boston. But this feels like home now."
For Lamey, 28, the last few years have been a period in which he has fully embraced his musical and familial roots – which are inextricably linked – like never before. The result? A change of address that has turned out to be long term and, not so incidentally, his recently released first solo recording, "A Step Back in Time."
Recorded at the Celtic Music Center in Judique, on the western end of Cape Breton, "A Step Back in Time" is first and foremost a tour-de-force of the classic Cape Breton fiddling that made Lamey a fixture in Boston's Celtic music scene for years, whether playing at major area venues like Club Passim, the Irish Connections Festival, and BCMFest, innumerable ceilidhs at Watertown's Canadian-American Club and in various kitchens and parlors from one end of Greater Boston to another where he earned the friendship and respect of many local Irish musicians along the way.
But the album also stands as a loving musical memoir of Lamey's family, especially one of the most influential people in Lamey's life: his late grandfather Bill Lamey, a fiddling legend himself who during the 1950s and 60s was a central figure in Boston's Cape Breton community and its ties to the local Irish. Appropriately enough, audio excerpts of Bill Lamey's reminiscences on Cape Breton life and music are interspersed among some of the CD tracks, underscoring the reverence with which Doug Lamey regards the tradition personified by his grandfather.
Lamey's childhood memories of his grandfather carry a certain poignancy. Arthritis and the toll of past injuries had ended Bill Lamey's fiddle-playing by the time his grandson was born. But Doug's parents made sure he knew about his grandfather's achievements: "When we were in the car, my father would always put on a compilation of my grandfather's old 78 records, so I heard him constantly." At age six, Doug happily told his grandfather over the phone that he had started taking fiddle lessons, and looked forward to getting some tips during the next visit to Cape Breton, where Bill Lamey had retired.
"But the next time I came," Lamey recalled, "it was for his funeral."
Yet over the years, and in particular during the period he recorded the CD, Lamey's musical, and personal, appreciation for his grandfather has deepened. "I have listened to him more than any other musician," he said. "I still get tips from him."
Lamey acknowledges an inescapable subjectivity in his assessment of Bill Lamey's playing ("It seems very familiar to me, obviously") but feels his grandfather's exalted status is well deserved. "He was very intricate. His playing – the ornamentation, the double-stops – was just so correct. You listen to different kinds of fiddlers, and you hear what the world now sees as 'correct' playing, and there's no question he was at that standard."
Other family connections on the CD include the presence of Lamey's cousins, guitarist Sandy MacDonald and pianist Johnny MacDonald, who accompany him on many of the tracks, and Jeff MacDonald, who sings two songs in Gaelic that, like much of the material on the album, has special relevance to Lamey and his family. A recent addition to the family, Lamey's fiancé Kaitlin MacDonald, plays piano on two tracks.
"Even the title of the CD has a special meaning," explained Lamey, who was seven when his grandfather died. "Coming up here to Cape Breton and living in a 150-year-old house, I've 'stepped back in time' to the place where my family came from. But there's more to it than that: There's the actual timing of the music and how the newer generation plays much faster than the old. I don't consider myself part of that category, so I'd be more 'A Step Back in Time' as opposed to "Too Fast.' "
And intermittently throughout the CD is the voice, and spirit, of Bill Lamey, acting as an interlocutor of sorts. "You have to realize: There was nothing else to do in those days. There was no television, no radio...The music had a better chance to live," he says, preceding the first track, a set of pipe jigs that begins with the formidable "Pipe Major Donald MacLean of Lewis" – when Doug's fiddle enters, you can practically see the image of a wind-swept Cape Breton coast.
In the most haunting, and enlightening, excerpt, Bill describes how isolated early Scots émigrés to Cape Breton were from their native country, relatives and friends back home seldom knowing where they had landed. But as Scottish culture, including the music, languished for several generations under English suppression, he explains, it was the Cape Bretoners on the other side of the world who kept the musical traditions alive. "We took [the music] with us; we sort of took it away from them," he says, as Doug introduces the pensive, sad air "Gloomy Winter's Now Away."
"A Step Back in Time" is full of many stories, and Lamey's experience in planning and recording it is a chapter unto itself, with both disappointments and happy surprises. "Everything kind of came in waves," he said. "Some details would all fall into place, and then there'd be a change of plans, and a succession of other events would happen."
When he originally conceived of the album a few years ago, Lamey, who recorded a CD in 2009 as a member of the band Tri, knew he wanted to make a traditional Cape Breton fiddle album, and he knew he wanted his cousins on it: "I've played with them since I was a kid." And serendipitously, Alan Dewar, the Celtic Music Center director, expressed interest in recording Lamey.
"It completely fit in with the plan," said Lamey. "Recording in Cape Breton made perfect logistical sense, because then people wouldn't have to travel down to Boston to do the work – I'd just go up there."
Lamey envisioned a CD that included tracks on which he would play alongside old recordings of his grandfather, but had to scuttle the idea because obtaining the rights to them proved to be too difficult. Fortunately, says Lamey, "we came across these tapes of him giving a lecture. They were of good enough quality to be usable, and more importantly, there were fascinating to listen to – I'd never heard him speak like that. So we decided to use those as 'introductions' to some of the tracks."
Another important element in the recording process was cellist Natalie Haas, a good friend of Lamey's for some years. The cello is not uncommon in the Scottish tradition to which Cape Breton music is closely related; Haas, in fact, is one-half of a renowned duo with Scots fiddler Alasdair Fraser. But, with a few exceptions, the instrument doesn't appear much in the fiddle-piano-guitar dynamic that has come to typify Cape Breton music.
However, Lamey points out, "the older tunes actually have a cello line in them, written intentionally. So having Natalie play on the album really falls under the category of traditional."
Historical accuracy aside, Haas's cello adds a different voice, and an often soulful one, to the tune sets on the CD, bringing extra thrust to the driving reels and strathspeys – including "Bill and Father John," a set originally recorded by Bill Lamey and Fr. John A. Rankin – or grace to the slower, dignified marches and airs, notably "Gloomy Winter's Now Away." "Natalie came up here and worked really hard," said Lamey. "She definitely wanted to be part of this, and it was a pleasure to have her involved."
What's more, Haas contributed an on-the-spot brainstorm that led to one of the album's high points, Lamey reveals. The moment came one afternoon in the recording studio as Lamey and Haas were faced with an unexpected hitch: The pianist Lamey had wanted to play with them that day couldn't make it because he was recovering from an injury. So Haas suggested they ask Dewar, who has toured frequently with fiddle great Natalie MacMaster, to sit in.
"Alan wasn't sure about the idea at first. Playing on an album that you're recording is a lot of multi-tasking; you really have to use different parts of your brain," said Lamey.
The set Lamey wanted to record, "Dear Jerry," began with a tune composed by the late Jerry Holland, one of Cape Breton's most celebrated musical personalities and a mentor and friend to Lamey and many other musicians, including Dewar.
"It's a very upbeat march, but when we sat down to run through it, and the first notes hit, the whole thing just transferred into this lament," recalled Lamey. "While we played, I had chills going up and down my spine, and by the end there were tears coming down my cheeks. When we were done, Alan said, 'I guess we'll give it a try.' It was an amazing afternoon. Having Alan on the album was a complete surprise, but he added so much."
As the album progressed, Lamey found himself thinking more and more about staying in Cape Breton. He had always thought of it as a second home, what with his family ties to the region and his many visits there. But now there were significant considerations keeping him here, namely a fiancé finishing up her studies and the abundance of opportunities to play with so many Cape Breton musicians who have been good friends and valued mentors. Since his father is a native of Nova Scotia, Lamey was able to obtain dual citizenship status, further cementing his ties to the island.
Don't get the idea that Boston has seen the last of Lamey, though: He hopes to visit whenever he can – his parents continue to reside in the area – and is planning a local CD release event for sometime in the spring. But his heart, like his music, is firmly in Cape Breton now.
"Being up here, in this old house, with Kaitlin and family and friends," he said, as the storm outside continued, "I feel I am living life to the fullest."