The distance between the windswept northwest coast of Ireland and the mountains of Appalachia is shorter than you might think, musically at least.
When Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh—lead vocalist, fiddler, and founding member of Irish quintet Altan—began touring with the band in the U.S. in the late ’80s, she was amazed to hear songs and tunes almost identical to those she learned growing up in the Gaelic-speaking village of Gweedore in County Donegal.
As Ní Mhaonaigh and Altan continued to visit the U.S. regularly they developed friendships with a number of major artists. In 1994 country diva Dolly Parton invited her to Tennessee to sing on the album Heartsongs: Live From Home.
“It meant a lot of rehearsals with the likes of the Del McCoury Band, and Alison Krauss and Union Station,” Ní Mhaonaigh recalls, reached at a hotel in Annapolis, Maryland. “We got to know those people over that time, and realized we had so many tunes and songs in common.
“A few years later Dolly asked us to do her Little Sparrow album with her in L.A. Then we had her singing ‘The Pretty Young Girl’ on our own album Blue Idol [in 2002]. We were born and bred in Donegal, and we play these same tunes. When I sang Dolly’s version of ‘Barbara Allen’ to my father, he said ‘That’s exactly the same as your grandmother had.’ ”
On the recently released Widening Gyre, Altan is once more exploring the interface of Irish and Appalachian music. The band recorded the album in Nashville with a host of American friends and guests—including Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Alison Brown, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and progressive-bluegrass fiddler Darol Anger.
“Darol’s a chameleon—he can blend into anything he wants to,” says Ní Mhaonaigh. “He’s such a creative musician—he really coloured the tunes. And when Stuart Duncan arrived—the other great fiddler from Nashville on the album—he was saying ‘There are already two fiddlers, what am I going to do?’ Next thing, he came in and gave exactly what we wanted—colour and variety. We’ve made many lifelong friends like that through music, and that’s what Widening Gyre celebrates.”
The title is taken from “The Second Coming”, one of the best-known poems by Irish writer W.B. Yeats. It has a particular aptness and resonance for Ní Mhaonaigh.
“I’ve always been a huge fan. I love his romanticism, and he was such a part of the revival of our culture, and part of the 1916 Easter Rising. The poem was written after the [First] World War when he felt things were falling apart, life as he knew it. But then—‘the widening gyre’. That image of spiralling energy is so strong, and it just brought everything in. My image of the album is the widening circle of music and friends, and how our lives have evolved from that little beginning to this universal thing that’s happening.”
Altan performs at the Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver on Thursday (March 19).