Bluegrass: An Irish Perspective

This piece is a contribution from Niall Toner, a songwriter, mandolinist, and bandleader who lives in the Blackstairs Mountains in County Carlow. Niall will be recording a new album for Pinecastle Records in Nashville in May and touring the US.

I believe it’s an accident of Fate with regard to how we acquire and frame our indivual tastes in food, art, sports or music, and I have always thought of my own introduction to the music of Bill Monroe, when I was about twelve years of age, to be pure good fortune. After all, it was in the early 60s, and I was growing up in Dublin in Ireland, and we were being bombarded from all sides with the pop and rock music from Radio Luxemborg and BBC Radio, as well as the ever-present Irish traditional music and song, the latter being very-much a part of the School Curriculum. Into this mix came a young friend of mine, Fran O’Donnell, and he was the proud owner of a substantial collection of classic country music, including folks like Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and when he played Bill Monroe for me, I was hooked.

I spent many years trying to learn guitar and mandolin, all the while working to emulate the styles of these maestros. After much struggling, I realised that I would never be able to pick guitar like Doc Watson, or mandolin like Bill, but I believed I could probably make a contribution to the greater body of bluegrass and traditional country music by writing songs. Again, this was a long, and sometimes painful learning process, and it wasn’t until the early 90s that I began to get some small success and recognition as a writer, when I won a song contest with a tune called the Fallen Angel. I felt sure at the time that this was going to be the beginning of the making of a small, or large, fortune in the song-writing business, but yes, you’ve guessed it, nothing else happened with my songs for quite some time after that.

In the mid-nineties, Bill Wyman, he of Rolling Stones fame, picked up on a song I had written with Keith Sewell and Wendy Buckner, called Mood Swing, and things began to flow a little better as a result of that recording. Soon after, I got a cut with the Nashville Bluegrass Band with There’s A Better Way, then Working On Love with Albert Lee, and then Josie’s Reel with the Special Consensus, and so on ……To wheel back just a little. I had the distinct honour of spending a couple of days with Bill Monroe when he visited Cork in the mid-80s for a show at the Carling Country Music Festival.     

Bill taught me a tune he had composed for the people of Ireland (his words) called The Chilly Winds Of Shannon. I did not realise it at the time, but in an odd way Bill was making me one of ‘the keepers of the flame,’ in the sense that he was convinced that much of the high lonesome sound of his bluegrass had come from this part of the world, (especially the mournful wailing sound of the Uileann Pipes) and he wanted me to preserve his tune, and to absorb it into my own repertoire.

It’s probably true the world over, but I would have to say that there are many, many musics that get labelled as BLUEGRASS, which in the strict, or even true definition of the word, are anything but. That said, here in Ireland there are a dedicated bunch of pickers and singers who follow and support the real deal, and this is evidenced by the fact that we have about a dozen or so bluegrass festivals on the island each year. My friend and colleague, and fellow Bluegrass Nut and Banjo Picker, Richard Hawkins, who also runs the Bluegrass Ireland Blog is probably the man best placed to provide a full listing, but among my own favourites are the Athy Bluegrass Festival, The Ulster American Folk Park Festival in Omagh, and the Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival in Tullamore.

I am lucky to live on the Western side of Mount Leinster, which is part of the Blackstairs Mountains range. It’s a very rural spot, visually, not unlike parts of Tennessee or North Carolina. We are surrounded by sheep farms, and the local people are warm and supportive and neighbourly and hard-working. They are also storytellers and musicians, dancers and craftsmen, and the general atmosphere is very conducive to the songwriting/composing craft.

For my part, I see no contradiction in the fact that I write (principally, though not exclusively) songs and tunes in the bluegrass style, and I firmly believe that my Irish roots, combined with my bluegrass sensibilities are an advantage, and give me an ‘edge’ that I might not have had I been born elsewhere.

I am also delighted and honoured to have been invited to join the Roster at Pinecastle Records (home to many of my heroes!), and I will be recording my first album for them in Nashville in May, produced by my good friend, Keith Sewell.  The new album will be called Onwards and Upwards, and I couldn’t have put it better myself!

Niall Toner Band – Niall Toner Band Video Clip on MUZU.TV

I am also pleased to say that my two part radio show, The Roots, The Whole Roots, and Nothing But The Roots, is now available worldwide for Radio Station download through the Airplay Direct digital platform.