The Cheiftains: Across Waters and Generations

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I’ve interviewed a lot of musicians in my life, but only one of them has been able to talk faster and longer than Steve Earle. That’s Paddy Moloney, and when the founder of Ireland’s premier folk band The Chieftains comes on the phone, I ask one question and he’s off and running like a wild horse, spinning stories and making impromptu digressions in his accented, giddy high tenor. It’s only by forcibly interrupting that I’m able to get any subsequent questions in edgewise.

Moloney is 73, and The Chieftains are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Moloney is the only original member still in the group; in 2002 he lost his original fiddler Martin Fay to ill health and longtime harper Derek Bell to death. And yet Moloney is so short, pointy-featured and invariably grinning that the adjective “elvish” seems inevitable. He is so irrepressibly boyish and bubbly that he seems to defy the usual laws of time.

To reinforce that impression of implausible youthfulness, The Chieftains have devoted their new album, Voice of Ages, to a series of collaborations with some of the best, young, folk-influenced musicians in North America and Europe, including Bon Iver, The Decemberists, Pistol Annies, The Punch Brothers, The Low Anthem and The Civil Wars. Forming a bridge between the four veterans still in The Chieftains and these youthful artists was Moloney’s co-producer, T-Bone Burnett.

“I was not aware of these groups or this whole part of the musical world beforehand,” Moloney confesses. “They were all T-Bone’s ideas. He’d send me names and I’d start to listen to them and try to think of something that would blend with their style. The more I listened, the more I warmed up to the whole thing. The Civil Wars were lovely kids; they wrote a song especially for the album, and I put some of my own riffs into it. Bon Iver wanted to do ‘Down in the Willow Garden,’ which has the same tune as ‘The Men of the West,’ a 300-year-old Irish ballad, so that made sense.

“When I first heard The Decemberists, I loved Colin’s voice, and I recognized them as great musicians. They reminded me of Dire Straits; they were a rock band, but you could tell they started with folk music before moving on. When they sent me a list of all the instruments they all played, I went to town on the arrangement; they were very happy with the riff I put into the middle of it. Lisa Hannigan came to light from back home in Ireland; she has an angel’s voice, one that will be around for a long time.”

Moloney is used to working with younger musicians. In fact, when the four remaining Chieftains (Moloney, Sean Keane on fiddle, Matt Molloy on flute and Kevin Conneff on vocals and bodhrán, the Irish hand drum) tour these days, they are joined by the young Scottish singer Alyth McCormack and the young harper Triona Marshall. “They enhance the sound of us four old guys,” Moloney says. “They spruce us up with young blood, that’s always a good idea.”

Nor is Moloney unaccustomed to working with Americans. Past Chieftains albums have featured guest spots by Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Nanci Griffith, Natalie Merchant and Linda Ronstadt. The Chieftains’ two Nashville albums, 2002’s Down the Old Plank Road and 2003’s Further Down the Old Plank Road, featured Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Rosanne Cash, John Prine, John Hiatt, Joe Ely, Del McCoury and Buddy & Julie Miller. But that Ireland/U.S. connection gets a special twist on the new album with The Decemberists’ version of “When the Ship Comes In.”

“Bob Dylan, who was a good friend of Tommy Makem in Greenwich Village, wrote ‘When the Ship Comes In’ for Tommy,” Moloney claims, “and it’s so Irish you can’t go wrong with it. Tommy was a great Irish ballad singer, and the song sounds like an Irish air. It’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to Dylan. He almost recorded with us on The Long Journey Home, but we could never make our schedules work. But you never know, maybe one of these days.”

The fact that Makem and his partners, The Clancy Brothers, could emigrate from Ireland and become big stars on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ’60s by singing traditional Irish rebel songs had a great impact on Irish musicians back home such as Moloney. Here was proof that the island’s own folk music, so often dismissed at home, could be taken seriously in a cultural capital like New York. If it could happen there, why not in Dublin?

“In the late ’50s,” Moloney recalls, “Irish folk music wasn’t the hip thing as far as your mates were concerned. You heard it in the homes, but it wasn’t on television and just a little bit on the radio. But I was fortunate that all my uncles played melodeons and accordions and everyone sang and danced. They’d gather at my grandfather’s house, where my uncle Stephen Conroy taught me to play the pipes. I grew up in northern Dublin, but I spent several months every year at my grandparents’ in County Laois up in the mountains with no running water or electricity but very beautiful with plenty of homemade music.”

In these loose, impromptu “sessions,” there was no attempt to develop rehearsed arrangements or to learn new compositions. The emphasis was on everyone playing familiar tunes and allowing room for a fiddler, flutist, piper or vocalist to shine as a soloist. The few professional folk musicians were soloists or in ceili bands that focused on folk dances. There were no examples of well-rehearsed instrumental groups playing Irish folk music for listening as a jazz combo or classical chamber group might. That was the void that Moloney set out to fill.

“I wanted to create a folk chamber group,” he says. “I wanted to push this folk art a little further along. I brought together all the instruments associated with traditional Irish folk music and I did arrangements for different combinations of all these instruments. By taking tunes and adding these new combinations and new riffs, we did something that no one had done before.”

It was an uphill battle at first. Traditional folk music was being pushed out of the public arena by jazz, skiffle and rock ’n’ roll; even Moloney himself had flirtations with all three. In 1959, though, Dublin composer Sean O’Riada created the soundtrack music for the Irish film Mise Eire, by weaving folk melodies and folk instruments into a symphonic score. It was a big success and led to him forming Ceoltóirí Chualann, a classical chamber group that did the same thing. Moloney, Keane and tin whistler Sean Potts were members of that group, but they decided they’d be better off if they chucked the classical trimmings altogether and devoted themselves to folk music full on.

As they were recording their first album in 1962, the Dublin poet John Montague dubbed this new group The Chieftains. It was tough going, though, for the unknown twentysomethings pushing an unprecedented concept. The radio and newspapers in Ireland didn’t want to know. In fact, it wasn’t until The Chieftains played Royal Albert Hall in London and all the British papers made a big fuss over them that the Irish papers decided to give them a look-see. That same year, director Stanley Kubrick decided to use The Chieftains’ music as the soundtrack for his movie Barry Lyndon. Suddenly the group was world-famous and there was no turning back—not when Moloney was chatting them up with his motormouth charm.

Now Moloney and his bandmates are the old guys helping out the young guys—including the cream of America’s neo-gazebo-rock movement: The Decemberists, Bon Iver and The Low Anthem. But Moloney takes these newcomers like he takes all his collaborators; he is impressed by none of them and delights in all of them. Back in 1984, for example, I asked him about recording with The Rolling Stones.

“Oh, the Rolling Stones have always been fans of the band,” he said breezily. “Charlie Watts was really anxious to get a bodhrán, so Kevin gave him one. Very nice fellow, that Charlie Watts.”