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The Chieftains are one folk group who truly get the point. Their musical weapons are indeed old school -- fiddles, harp, flute, pipes, and Irish bodhran drum -- yet they can boast of winning gold records and Grammys and Oscars. Among the many guest stars who have appeared on their albums is bound to be somebody whom just about anybody would find cool. Take your pick: The Rolling Stones, Tom Jones, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Chet Atkins, Elvis Costello, James Galway, Sarah McLachlan, Willie Nelson, even Burgess Meredith, to name but a few. They've recorded with Sinead O'Connor and shared a stage with the Pope, were the first musical group to perform in concert at the United States Capitol and on the Great Wall of China, and recorded what Time magazine called 1996's album of the year (The Long Black Veil). When The Chieftains make music for the people, they are anything but exclusionary about it.
So how did six musicians who started out playing for the sheer enjoyment of it end up as Ireland's official musical ambassadors to the world? Sure, in part, it's their amazing individual musical abilities, and the considerable charm of Irish music. But The Chieftains have become undoubtedly the most successful traditional music group in the world mainly thanks to the leprechaun-like fellow who plays Uilleann pipes and tin whistle in the band, Paddy Maloney.
"That's just down to Paddy's vision," says Chieftains singer and drummer Kevin Conneff when asked to explain how the group has achieved such popularity and pulled off numerous conceptual and artistic triumphs. "He has amazing vision. He's a great bandleader, and he has these ideas about how to bring the music to a wider and wider audience, and I think he's achieved that very well. Some of these experiments, when they were first mooted, didn't appeal to us all very much, but when they were done, we realized how effective they were."
Thanks to albums such as The Long Black Veil (with Sting, Marianne Faithfull, Ry Cooder, and Mark Knopfler, in addition to a number of the superstars mentioned above), Tears of Stone (with female singers such as Bonnie Raitt, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Diana Krall, Joan Osborne, and others), Another Country (a Nashville outing with Nelson, Atkins, Ricky Skaggs, and Emmylou Harris), and their Irish Heartbeat collaboration with Van Morrison, The Chieftains have reached countless people who have no idea that the drum Conneff plays is called a bodhran (pronounced boe-ron).
"I know for a fact that a lot of people came to us via The Long Black Veil album and had never been to a concert of Irish music," Conneff says. "When we toured when The Long Black Veil was at its peak, there were people coming because they had heard it. And of course, our concert didn't have Sting or anybody else on it; it was just ourselves, for the most part. Suffice to say they didn't leave at the interim, and they were still there at the end giving us a good ovation."
But in a way, the entire career of The Chieftains has been imbued with that element of surprise. A collective of some of the best Irish traditional musicians of their day who joined together in 1962, the group spent their first decade or so playing folk gatherings as a strictly amateur affair. They had little idea that they would find an audience beyond the Irish-music devotees in their homeland. Then, in the early 1970s, a folk-music promoter invited the group to play a concert in London. "He put The Chieftains on at the Royal Albert Hall, and they thought he was mad -- the Albert Hall? Do you know the capacity of that?" says Conneff, who had yet to join the group. Nonetheless, the show filled the venerable concert hall. "I think they were all nearly in tears, because they just played what they played, and the whole Albert Hall went apeshit."
That show launched a professional career that has taken Irish folk music around the world, and brought countless other performers and fans into the group's rather broad fold. Similarly, Conneff was also seduced by his native country's traditional music into becoming an acolyte, if not a proselytizer. As a youngster, he recalls, "I was interested in Elvis Presley and Little Richard and so on. And when I was a teenager, some of my workmates -- I started work when I was 15 -- had an interest in Irish music. So I went along with them for fun one weekend to a music festival, and I came face-to-face with Ireland's own music, and it just absolutely knocked me out, just had an immediate effect on me. So I just started following it and learning some of the old ballads."