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Cathie Ryan’s time to look within

By Sean Smith, special to the BIR, November 2, 2012

It has been an eventful last few years for Cathie Ryan. Among other developments, she moved back to the US after living for nine years in Ireland, got inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame in her native state of Michigan, was named as Irish Female Vocalist of the Decade by liveireland.com, and recently released “Through Wind and Rain,” her first album since 2005 – all of this taking place in the 25th anniversary year of her debut as lead singer with Cherish The Ladies, which put her firmly in the spotlight as one of the Irish music scene’s most endearing and talented performers.

So it’s understandable for Ryan to be feeling a little reflective of late, given not only the succession of these and other events but perhaps also the time and circumstances in her life, with a child now well into adulthood and a new community to explore and make her own.

And because Ryan wears her heart not only on her sleeve but also in her music, “Through Wind and Rain” likewise has a certain introspectiveness to it, characterized by songs (most of them contemporary rather than traditional, and two written or co-written by Ryan) that are about taking stock, remembering loved ones, and traveling on in the metaphorical as well as literal sense. It’s also conveyed through the presence of many of Ryan’s friends, such as John Doyle, Seamus Egan, Niall Vallely, Michael McGoldrick, Joanie Madden, Jimmy Keane, and Aoife O’Donovan, as well as her longtime band members Patsy O’Brien and Matt Mancuso.

“I think there is a thematic connection among the songs,” says Ryan, who performed last month at The Burren in Somerville’s Davis Square. “They have to do with loss and other situations and happenings that force you to change. It was an amazing experience to have all these people involved in making the album, to have their love and support behind me.”

The whole reflection/introspection angle might sound like a Debbie Downer kind of listening experience, but it’s not the case. There is plenty of spark and spirit on “Through Wind and Rain,” starting with the first track, “In the Wishing Well,” a composition of Ryan and Noel Lenaghan that contrasts a story of the promise and pain of love with an upbeat, forward-looking mindset (“I love the dichotomy,” says Ryan) and infectious melody, buoyed by Vallely’s concertina, duel bouzoukis by Doyle and Egan, and a thoroughly affable chorus of Doyle, O’Brien, Fiona McBain and Leslie Ritter.

“Oro, Sheandunie Doite (Oro, Burnt Old Man)” and “The Johnny Be Fair Set” – combining the titular song, a comic tale of genealogy and romance, with “Brendan Tonra’s Jig” and two reels (with O’Brien, Mancuso, Keane, Madden, percussionist Brian Melick, and Ryan on bodhran) – also keep the album’s bounce and tempo lively.

Which is not to say that everything else is moribund by comparison. Ryan’s take on her friend Kate Rusby’s “Walk the Road,” once again aided by splendid harmonies from O’Brien, Ritter and McBain, evokes the persevere-against-the-odds sentiment of “Wishing Well,” but adds the virtues of fellowship.

“Walk the Road” segues very well into the next track, “Liberty’s Sweet Shore,” Doyle’s powerful song of Irish immigrants en route to Quebec. Doyle joins Ryan on vocals, Mancuso’s multi-tracked fiddles, and Scott Petito’s cello creating a somber yet graceful undercurrent.

“It’s unusual for me to record songs that are so recent,” says Ryan, “but these two are just so lovely, and they fit in with the direction the album was taking. I was very grateful to Kate and John for giving me the go-ahead.”

Doyle, incidentally, lends hand and voice to a rather chilling version of “Go From My Window,” a traditional song of night-visiting in which a married woman pleads, in very literary fashion, with her lover not to ruin her domestic tranquility. A motif played by Doyle and Egan, along with bassist Chico Huff and percussionist Steve Holloway, helps ratchet up the suspense.

“We decided to give the song a different feel,” notes Ryan. “Usually it’s sung slowly and sadly, but we wanted to play up the urgency in the lyrics: She keeps telling him ‘You can’t have a lodging here,’ and he’s obviously not listening to her, so you’re really left wondering what’s going to happen.”

Three other tracks serve to highlight the album’s raison d’etre: One is Cape Breton singer-songwriter Laura Smith’s “I’m a Beauty,” which is a gentle, confident broadside against the whole “ravages of time” view on growing older, aided here considerably by Michelle Mulcahy’s tender harp-playing.

“This is the song that made me want to record again. A guy came up to me after a show once and asked me about ‘that woman’s song you did – you know, about beauty.’ I told him that I didn’t think of it as a ‘woman’s song,’ but as a human song, about all of us. And it’s a perfect song for life’s ‘middle passage.’”

Probably the most intensely personal song on the album is “Daddy,” which Ryan wrote about the debilitating effects of alcoholism on a family, as seen from a child’s perspective. In just about anyone else’s hands, “Daddy” might well have been uncomfortably maudlin, even exploitative, but Ryan sings with such honesty and a lack of histrionics that it doesn’t become an issue. And if the subject matter isn’t exactly uplifting, the song’s inclusion on the album was for Ryan a positive outcome in and of itself.

“I wrote the song some years ago,” she explains, “but I just never felt up to recording it. It’s a tough song in many ways, and so I’m glad now that I was able to put it on the album. It was time.”

The album’s final song (“The Johnny Be Fair Set” is technically a bonus track) is, quite literally, a benediction: “May the Road Rise to Meet You,” by Roger and Camilla McGuinn (yes, that’s the same Roger McGuinn from The Byrds). While the refrain will be very familiar to anyone who has spent time among the Irish (or set foot in an Irish gift shop), the McGuinns’ verses seek to locate it more in the realm of human experience, and Ryan – again with an assist from Mulcahy – elevates the song beyond kitsch.

“Nobody had ever covered the song before,” she says. “I loved the idea of ending the album with a blessing, and this was perfect.”

“Through Wind and Rain” shows that whatever contemporary influences there may be in Ryan’s music, she is solidly versed in Irish tradition and history, thanks in no small part to her immigrant parents, Tim and Mary, of Tipperary and Kerry, respectively. Tim in particular stands out in Ryan’s memory for the way he not only taught her what songs to sing and how to sing them, but also the importance of “honoring” them, as she puts it.

“One of the first songs my father taught me was ‘The Old Bog Road,’ by Teresa Brayton. He made me read the lyrics, so I could understand the Great Hunger, what it meant and how it affected Ireland. It was very important to him that I understand the background of why that song came to be, why it meant so much to the Irish. And he would teach me the phrasing, because that was important, too: ‘This is where you put the pause.’”

Ryan acknowledges that her father was a great teacher, but a tough critic: “As a girl, I would sing in the basement because I didn’t want him to hear me. He didn’t compliment my singing until I was over 30 --’You did a good job.’ Even when I was singing professionally, he’d tell me something like ‘You’re oversinging.’ ‘Dad,’ I’d say, ‘there were no monitors on the stage.’ ‘Doesn’t matter. You need to find a way to sing quietly.’”

Spending time in Ireland with her grandparents, Ryan learned more about the song tradition and singing, but also about the art of storytelling, and the great store of folklore and mythology in Ireland. Joining The Gaelic League and Irish American Club in her native Detroit deepened her immersion in Irish tradition, but Ryan also notes the other influences she picked up in her youth and young adulthood, notably Appalachia, country, even Motown.

Moving to New York to attend Fordham, she met, performed with, and married Sligo singer Dermot Henry, who added more layers to her knowledge of Irish song and the tradition from which it arose. The marriage didn’t last, but their connection has – Ryan regularly performed and recorded songs she learned from Henry and makes a point of acknowledging his contribution to her work.

By 1987, Ryan had made enough of an impact on the New York Irish music scene to attract the attention of one Joanie Madden of the groundbreaking all-female Irish band Cherish The Ladies, who asked Ryan if she’d like to join them. This was no small consideration for Ryan, by then a single mother of a young child. Still, the offer was too good to pass up, so for practices and gigs she would hire a sitter or, if worse came to worse, simply bring him along.

“I remember after the first gig with them, we were all jumping up and down in the ladies’ room, saying ‘Yes, it works!’ I will always value the years I spent with them. I honestly think the band did pioneer change, especially for women, in Irish music. It wasn’t a bunch of girls in ball gowns looking all dainty, but a group of women up there who were playing the songs and the tunes. This definitely had an impact on how Irish music was perceived; it wasn’t just a man’s show any more.”

Joining Cherish The Ladies brought her many new friendships, and one of the most durable and meaningful was with Bridget Fitzgerald, the band’s original singer, who now lives in the Boston area.

“I love Bridget. She gave me all kinds of encouragement, and in particular she inspired me to sing in Irish. She is one of the big reasons I enjoy going to Boston, which is such a great place – full of singers and musicians I love to be with, because they’re so generous and open.”

As much as she loved playing with the band, after eight years, Ryan decided it was time to strike out on her own. “I just felt like I wanted to have control over my schedule, and to work on things I was really looking to try. There was certainly no ill will involved – I still get together with Joanie and the band every so often. And, of course, Joanie is on the new album.”

Catching on as a solo artist took some time, though. Ryan, however, found yet another friend and mentor in the legendary Tommy Makem, who invited her to sing on his 1995 PBS Christmas special.

“Tommy was so wise about this business,” she recalls. “He told me it was going to be hard, but he was very supportive in many ways, whether it was sending me songs or having me on the Christmas show.

“Tommy, along with the Clancys, were so important to all of us, really. They brought an awareness, and a respectability, to ethnic music – really carved that road for us to follow. They made it possible for other artists of Irish music to be able to stand up and perform at a place like Carnegie Hall.”

The following year saw Ryan make her first solo CD and go on her first tour, and she was well on her way to becoming one of the most popular and acclaimed Irish American singers of her generation.

As rewarding as her singing career has been, there is another aspect of her professional life that may be overlooked, but which she feels is equally important: her vocation as a teacher. Ryan did, after all, graduate summa cum laude in English literature and secondary education from City University of New York, and then taught composition and literature at Lehman College in the Bronx until she began touring. But she never lost the love of teaching, and in fact she has had quite a few opportunities to indulge her pedagogical side through festival workshops or in other contexts, such as the study tours she co-led to Ireland. In addition to Irish singing, she’ll discuss Irish mythology and folklore, or about the value of arts in education.

“I love being able to talk about the myths and the folklore, and how it’s all linked into the songs. Even in the 21st century, you can appreciate the connections to this ancient landscape. It’s like Frank Harte said: The songs are ‘old ghosts in search of a voice.’”

Working with children is a special treat, says Ryan, who has taken part in the Lincoln Center Arts in Education repertory.

“The kids have the music in them, they have the voices, and you have to give them a chance to get to know this part of themselves. The teachers at Lincoln Center have had the kids take one of my songs and rewrite it to reflect the experiences of their own lives and families. I think it’s wonderful, because it inspires the kids to think, ‘OK, what’s our music?’”

Ryan thinks, constantly, about what her music is, where it’s going, and how she’s going to get it there. Nine years ago, she decided these kinds of deliberations would work best in Ireland, and she moved to the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth; but in May, she returned to the US, settling a little north of New York City.

“It’s been a huge adjustment,” she says. “I went from a two-bedroom cottage by the shore, with sheep on one side, to a place where the window looks out onto a brick wall. I miss the community I had in Louth, very close-knit – everybody was there for each other, and people would think nothing of popping in. But ultimately, it seemed like this was a change I needed to make.”

The economic landscape, particularly for folk music performers, is noticeably different than when she last lived in the US, yet Ryan is not about to give way to negativity.

“When all is said and done, I play music, with my good friends Matt and Patsy, and I get to share it with so many other people, some of whom I’ve known for years. How can I not like that?”

A column of news and updates of the Boston Celtic Music Fest (BCMFest), which celebrates the Boston area’s rich heritage of Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton music and dance with a grassroots, musician-run winter music festival and other events during the year.

BCMFest set to mark first decade – Boston’s grassroots celebration of local Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, and other Celtic music will mark its 10th year when BCMFest (Boston’s Celtic Music Fest) takes place on January 11 and 12, 2013.
The festival will showcase several dozen musicians, singers and dancers, all with ties to the Boston music scene, during the two-day event, which is held in the heart of Harvard Square. BCMFest gets underway on Jan. 11 with its traditional kick-off concert in Club Passim and the Boston Urban Ceilidh – BCMFest’s Celtic dance party – at The Atrium, 50 Church St. Saturday’s “Dayfest” will feature children’s and family entertainment at Passim in the morning, followed by an afternoon of concerts and other events on four different stages in Passim and the nearby First Parish Church, Cambridge, at 3 Church St.

A Saturday night finale concert in First Church, with Cape Breton fiddler Kimberley Fraser, Highland Dance Boston, and other special guests – including “A Celtic Sojourn” host Brian O’Donovan, who will emcee – will cap the commemoration of BCMFest’s first decade.

Performers for 2013 include: The Deadstring Ensemble, George Keith & Sean Gannon, Hanneke Cassel & Mike Block, The Coyne Family, Katie McNally & Eric McDonald, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, Joey Abarta, Core 4, Liz Hanley, Mairin Ui Cheide, Skylark, Belclare, Corvus, Kira & Cliff McGann, Armand Aromin & Dan Accardi, Diane Taraz, Michael O’Leary, Ivonne Hernandez & Adrianna Ciccone, Bob Bradshaw, Laura Cortese, Emerald Rae, Carraroe, Matt Heaton & The Electric Heaters, The Whiskey Boys & Shinbone Alley, Molly Pinto Madigan, The Boston Scottish Fiddle Club, The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society of Boston, The Bell Family, and Kyte MacKillop & Friends.

A look at some of the highlights of BCMFest 2013:

• Friday night’s kick-off concert at Club Passim, “New Tunes from Boston: Boston’s Celtic Composers,” spotlights some of the area’s young, innovative musical talent.

• The Boston Urban Ceilidh, the Friday evening dance party that is always one of BCMFest’s most popular events, will feature live music by Core 4; Kimberley Fraser, Emerald Rae & Rachel Reeds; and Laura Cortese & The Boston Urban Ceilidh Band. No experience necessary – all dances will be taught.

• BCMFest’s Saturday “Dayfest” begins in the morning at Club Passim with songs, storytelling and other entertainment geared toward children and families.

• “Dayfest” also includes participatory dance and jam sessions in The Attic of First Church.

• Among the special events for BCMFest 2013 will be “The Stars of Munster,” a tribute to legendary Irish musicians Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford; “Surf Sligo,” a mash-up of traditional Irish music and 1960s “surf rock”; and “Move the Rolling Sky,” which recalls the influential folk-rock bands Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, and Pentangle.

BCMFest began in January 2004, the creation of Irish flutist Shannon Heaton and Scottish-style fiddler Laura Cortese, who believed Boston should celebrate the richness and diversity of its Celtic music with a festival that would be largely run by musicians and volunteers. For the first two years, BCMFest was held at locations in Somerville’s Davis Square and Club Passim, and since 2006 has taken place largely in Harvard Square. BCMFest also has held events throughout the rest of the year, including a monthly series at Club Passim, a music cruise in Gloucester Harbor, and an annual concert at the Westford Museum.

In 2011, BCMFest officially became a program of Passim, which has been a venue for, and a supporter of, the festival from the beginning.

“It’s hard to believe 10 years have passed,” says Heaton. “Laura and I are delighted that BCMFest has struck a chord among such a wide variety of traditional musicians, and it has been humbling and inspiring to see how the community has gotten behind the project for a decade. So many musicians, parents and friends have contributed time, energy and creative ideas – and all of this support has helped the festival evolve and grow. And, at the end of the day, it is one hot display of music and dance talent.”
Adds Cortese, “We continue to be impressed by the quality and creativity we see among the musicians, singers, dancers and others who perform at BCMFest each year. It’s a true representation of the music community: full-time touring professionals; musicians who work ‘day jobs’ and go off to play sessions or concerts on evenings and weekends; people with strong personal and familial roots in these music traditions; and enthusiastic high school and college students who help ensure these traditions will go on.”

Heaton and Cortese also credit Passim for its role in BCMFest’s development: “Passim has been an invaluable resource for folk and acoustic music for decades, not only as a concert venue but for its music school and community outreach. We’re honored to be part of this organization.”

All information about BCMFest 2013, including ticket prices, festival schedule and performer updates, will be available at passim.org.

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