BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
Dublin native Tom Courtney regards his debut CD as a tribute album of sorts: an expression of gratitude to songwriters and singers who have inspired him the most since he started performing seriously more than two decades ago. “I’ve played these songs for quite a while,” says Courtney, a Boston resident since 1991, who released the 10-track “Guysborough Train” this past year. “I wanted to record them with the sense that I’m giving something back, and saying ‘Thank you for writing these great songs.’”
It’s a distinguished roster of songs and authors, to be sure: the title track, as well as “Bluenose” and “Mary Ellen Carter” by the late Stan Rogers, one of Canada’s finest folksingers; “No Man’s Land (Green Fields of France)” by Australian Eric Bogle, also known for “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”; “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” by Darrell Scott; “Sonny’s Dream” by another esteemed Canadian songwriter, Ron Hynes; “Desperados Waiting for a Train” by Texan Guy Clark; and “John O’Dreams” by Bill Caddick, with an assist from some guy named Tchaikovsky.
There are also two traditional Irish songs that have become classics in their own right, “Cliffs of Dooneen” and “Rose of Allendale.”
If you’re a habitué of Irish pubs and the like, chances are you’ve heard most, if not all, of these songs – and not necessarily in the best possible way – but on “Guysborough Train,” Courtney gives them new luster. Aided by his co-producers and arrangers Dave Mattacks and Mike Barry, Courtney fashions a crisp folk-rock sound centered around his acoustic and electric guitars. Mattacks – a stalwart for many years in the legendary Fairport Convention – makes another key contribution on drums, percussion and keyboards, heading up a tight rhythm section along with bassist Richard Gates and pianist Dave Limina. The Irish/folk flourishes are supplied by Boston-area fiddler Larry Young and whistle player Pat Broaders, a childhood friend of Courtney who has played with bohola and now Open the Door for Three.
Most of all, Courtney sings the songs with a straightforwardness and restraint that is refreshing. He doesn’t try to oversell them, or go all out to tug the heartstrings or quicken the pulse; he lets the songs do the work. And the dominant qualities in each one comes forth: the tender, sheltering nature of “John O’Dreams”; against-all-odds resilience in “Mary Ellen Carter” (and yes, Courtney trots out its well-known guitar lick halfway through); muted outrage in the elegiac “No Man’s Land”; the emotional toll of the familial obligation vs. personal ambition tug-of-war in “Sonny’s Dream”; and the bittersweet tumbleweed nostalgia of “Desperados Waiting for a Train.”
“I didn’t want to do them like they’ve always been done,” says Courtney. “I went back and listened to different versions before I committed myself to a particular arrangement. Really, though, I wanted to evoke the songs’ original sounds – the way I do ‘Sonny’s Dream,’ for example, is closer to Ron Hynes’ version than most anything else I heard.
“Dave and Mike were great to work with, and a big help in putting it all together. My feeling was, these are all strong enough songs to stand on their own, and they supported that idea.”
“Guysborough Train” also serves as a kind of anthology of the influence that North American blue-collar country/roots music has had on Irish singers like Courtney, who came of age in the 1970s listening to the likes of Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy but also was drawn to trad-oriented acts like Planxty – in fact, Andy Irvine was a neighbor of his.
“Dublin was a thriving place for music when I was growing up,” Courtney recalls. “But it wasn’t so much the traditional stuff – the old tunes and songs – that was the big deal, although it was certainly around. You’d go into a pub and people would be playing Woody Guthrie, or Johnny Cash, or Stan Rogers or especially Guy Clark. I learned ‘Desperados’ when I was 16, and have been playing it ever since.
“There’s a connection, obviously, for Ireland with America and Canada, what with all the emigration over the years. But I also think those songs by writers like Stan Rogers and Guy Clark – about ordinary folks trying to make a living and triumph over hardship – really struck a chord with Irish people, and just became a part of the culture.”
Although Courtney has extensive performance experience that includes not only Dublin but also London and other parts of the world, nowadays he is a “part-time” musician, playing nights at Boston-area venues like Mr. Dooley’s, the Kinsale Pub, Waxy O’Connor’s in Lexington, or O’Neill’s in Salem after a day’s toiling as a real estate broker. While he jokes how “it took forever – like two decades – to make the album,” he is more serious about the role music plays in his life, and the relationships it has enabled him to cultivate.
“I can’t say enough what a pleasure it was to work with Dave and Mike, and all the other musicians, on the CD. It’s great to have the opportunity to get to know people like them, and fortunately, through playing music I’ve been able to do that for most of my life.”