By SEAN SMITH
Special to the BIR
If you look at the combined resumes of fiddle-guitar duo Nollaig Casey and Arty McGlynn, it’s nearly impossible not to be impressed.
Casey has played violin with the RTE Symphony Orchestra and fiddled for two of Ireland’s most groundbreaking traditional music bands, Planxty and Coolfin, also toured and/or recorded with people like Sinéad O’Connor, Nanci Griffith, Ricky Skaggs, Rod Stewart, Emmylou Harris, Mary Black, Moving Hearts, Elvis Costello, Christy Moore, Cherish the Ladies ,and Sharon Shannon.
McGlynn? Well, he has played and/or recorded with some of the same folks, while also serving as a member of the aforementioned Planxty, not to mention two other distinguished Irish bands, Patrick Street and De Danann. Oh, and he has also been the backing guitarist for a fellow named Van Morrison.
But perhaps most importantly, Casey and McGlynn both accompanied Makem and Clancy in the early 1980s. It was the start of a partnership that transcended music to include marriage and family, and which continues to this day.
Along the way, they’ve released two well-received albums as a duo, “Lead the Knave” (1989) and “Causeway” (1995), which display their considerable virtues: Casey’s All-Ireland caliber fiddling and singing, McGlynn’s prowess as both a rhythm and lead guitarist, and their abilities as tune composers as well as interpreters of traditional music. (Casey also recorded a 2004 solo album, “The Music of What Happens,” on which McGlynn appears.)
Recently, Casey and McGlynn passed through Boston – where they performed at The Burren’s Backroom series – during a somewhat rare stretch of time when they’ve actually been able to play together as a duo. On a very warm late-spring afternoon, the two savored some downtime to reflect on their individual and shared paths in music, marked by contrasts as well as commonalities.
Perhaps the first thing to know about this couple is they seem to complement one another temperamentally as well as musically. McGlynn possesses a deadpan, dry wit, and when prompted by Casey to answer the question of whether they were aware of “chemistry” between them during that early stint with Makem and Clancy, he replies quietly, “Well, she sort of kidnapped me; she really wanted a back-up guitarist…”
“That’s a joke, you do know that?” Casey says to the questioner in between laughs, nodding in McGlynn’s direction.
“It’s the truth,” McGlynn says, poker-faced, as Casey falls into laughing again, and gives him a playful swat.
“We got on well together, I suppose,” muses Casey after a few seconds.
“Oh, yeah,” says McGlynn, languidly. “She’s a good cook.”
Both Cork native Casey and Tyrone-born McGlynn came from families strongly invested in traditional music. Singing was the big thing with Casey’s parents, who taught her and her sisters not only an extensive repertoire but also how to sing in harmony. In fact, Casey’s sisters have cultivated highly successful careers themselves: Máire Ní Chathasaigh, regarded as one of Ireland’s best harp players of the past few decades, and Mairéad, an accomplished fiddler, tin whistle player, harpist and singer. The three sisters released an album together last year, “Sibling Revelry,” and Casey and McGlynn sometimes play with Máire and her guitarist husband Chris Newman as The Heartstrings Quartet. They’ve just put out their second album.
Casey was quite the budding uilleann piper as a young girl, and joined the pipers club in her native Cork. But when she was in her late teens, her set of pipes developed a leak in the bag, so she put them aside and focused on playing fiddle. “But I still play a lot of tunes from the pipe repertoire, more so than fiddle,” she says.
Graduating from University College Cork with a music degree at only 19, Casey joined up with the RTE Symphony Orchestra. But even during that period, she never completely left behind her traditional music leanings, and was able to experience the flowering of the Irish folk revival while making connections with some of its leading lights. In 1980 she caught on with Planxty, which had reunited the previous year; among its other activities, the band recorded a piece, written by keyboardist Bill Whelan, called “Timedance” for the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest, which was the genesis for Whelan’s groundbreaking “Riverdance” more than a decade later (Casey would make occasional appearances in the show). Her sojourn with Planxty, which ended when the band split in 1983, had brought her squarely into the Irish music scene.
“I just feel very fortunate to have known so many wonderful people, musicians and otherwise, at various stages of my musical development,” says Casey. “I’m grateful for all the opportunities that come my way.”
McGlynn’s family was as trad-rooted as Casey’s: His mother and two uncles played fiddle, his father the accordion – the latter instrument McGlynn took up around the time he entered school, although he credits his mother as a bigger influence – and his grandfather was a poet and traditional-style songwriter who had one of his compositions recorded by David Hammond. But as McGlynn entered his teens, by which time he had started playing guitar, he found himself wanting something more, and he began venturing into rock, skiffle, and jazz. This led to him joining a succession of Irish show bands and other ensembles – Dixieland, swing, rock ’n roll – and over time learning different styles and techniques for guitar.
“But I always had Irish music in my head,” says McGlynn, who in the 1960s and early ’70s saw a transition from what he felt were the more rigid, conservative aspects of traditional music to a period of innovation and creativity, with performers like Sean O’Riada, Planxty, and Paul Brady, among others, catching his fancy. Brady, in particular, was “a big influence early on. I started playing on electric guitar – I didn’t have an acoustic guitar at the time – all the tunes I used to do on accordion.”
Concurrently, McGlynn felt he had come about as far as he could on the show band circuit, and began to apply his guitar-playing more and more to Irish music – Brady eventually invited him to be part of his band in the late 1970s – culminating in his 1979 solo album, “McGlynn’s Fancy.” The album is widely regarded as a watershed in the guitar’s sometimes uneasy role in Irish music, establishing the instrument’s melodic as well as rhythmic qualities – Flatpicking Guitar Magazine compared McGlynn’s impact on Irish music to Doc Watson’s on American fiddle tunes. It put McGlynn in the spotlight, and got him invitations to play with the likes of not only Makem and Clancy, but also Van Morrison, in whose band McGlynn stayed for several years.
“Van is just great,” he says. “I’ve never had a cross word with him. I would classify him as one of my best friends. He’s a very wise bandleader and a great musician. Van doesn’t tell you what to play, he just tells you what not to play, and he’s absolutely right – he makes you think for yourself.
“I never planned for any of this to happen – it all kind of came about by accident. I guess you could say it was a case of meeting the right people at the right time,” he says of his musical odyssey, adding a characteristic zinger. “Or maybe the wrong people at the right time.”
Nollaig and McGlynn’s “Causeway” album represents a distillation of some of those major influences and directions that informed their experiences up until that time. On the title track (a joint composition), for instance, McGlynn flatpicks an establishing riff on electric guitar against his pulsating acoustic guitar rhythm (as well as a rich backing on Hammond organ by Rod McVey) until Casey takes up the melody – with occasional punctuations from McGlynn – and throws in some jazz and R&B variations; then the two duet for a while, entwined at one point by additionally tracked fiddles and viola from Casey. In that three minutes and 33 seconds, you can glean a multitude of presences, from O’Riada and The Chieftains to Planxty and The Bothy Band to Moving Hearts and Sharon Shannon, and points in-between.
“We decided that the album wouldn’t be totally traditional, and that it would incorporate a lot of the things we had listened to and taken an interest in,” says Casey. “And we wanted to play a lot of our own material as well as traditional.”
“Causeway” also is notable as the first recording on which Casey sings – three songs in Gaelic, including the sorrowful “A Stór Mo Chroí (Darling of my Heart),” which she learned from her mother, who had gotten it from her mother – and as the beneficiary of another of McGlynn’s happy accidents: a chance encounter with talented harmonica player Brendan Power, whom he recruited practically on the spot to appear on several tracks.
“I’d been playing with Van Morrison, and with some other people as well, in the years leading up to when we recorded it,” says McGlynn. “These were some good, swinging, cooking bands, and I was just very impressed with what they were doing, so I tried to put that feeling onto the album.”
Yes, they’re talking about doing another album sometime, but the challenge for Casey and McGlynn is getting into a studio to do their own project. There was the Casey sisters “Sibling Revelry” CD and then the recent Heartstrings Quartet CD, and McGlynn – in addition to recording a live album with Matt Molloy and John Carty – has been working on “Botera” (named for his birthplace in Tyrone), a collection of jazz numbers mainly from the 1940s and ’50s, as well as some of his own compositions and a few traditional tracks; Casey and McGlynn’s son Jerome are among those appearing on the album.
More than three decades after teaming up through Makem and Clancy, Casey and McGlynn have by now played with a ton of luminaries. But there’s no question of whose qualities they admire most.
“I’ve always appreciated Arty’s amazing sense of rhythm,” says Casey. “He’s not rigid in his playing – he’ll go with what you do, and he’ll really lift the music. I also liked his attitude toward harmony and chords; he has very good taste in the way he uses them in Irish music.”
Casey turns to McGlynn and smiles: “Is your head bigger now?”
“Nollaig can read very well, and she’s very versatile,” says McGlynn. “She’s invaluable to have in the studio – you show her what you have in mind, and she’ll scribble it down and just pick up the fiddle and play.”
“I can make up my own stuff, too, you know,” Casey points out.
“You can,” McGlynn nods. “Sometimes.”