Folk that

The Chieftains prove folk music can be popular -- as long as you record with Elvis Costello and The Rolling Stones

Conneff later started a Dublin folk club called The Tradition, where Chieftains Sean Keane and Paddy Maloney would play solo shows. Then, in 1976, "I was working at my nine-to-five job, which was design for printing and lithographic plates. I was working in the darkroom, and the phone rang, and it was Paddy Maloney, wanting to know if I'd go and record with them in London on one or two tracks of an album they were doing.

"So I squared it with my boss to take my spring week's holiday and go over, and Paddy used me on pretty much all of the album. And then, towards the end of the week, on adjoining bar stools in a pub on Portobello Road in London, he asked me if I'd consider making it permanent, because he'd like me to join. So I gave it some thought, and here I am. I thought I'd do this for couple of years and go back to a real job."

Even now, almost a quarter century later, Conneff himself has those moments when he has to pinch himself to see whether all that The Chieftains have achieved is true. "It still happens," he says with a chuckle. "Obviously, when you are standing on the stage of Carnegie Hall or Symphony Hall in Boston, and you realize who has stood on these boards, from Caruso to you name it...If you think about it too much, of course, if I do, my knees start trembling. So it's not too good to dwell on it for too long, because I feel then like, what am I doing here?"

The Chieftains are the world's most successful folk band. Make that, the world's only successful folk band.
Caroline Greyshock
The Chieftains are the world's most successful folk band. Make that, the world's only successful folk band.

After all, the music The Chieftains play was indeed an indigenous style, enjoyed by regular folks in their far-flung small villages, performed in the pubs and at parties and family gatherings. Like other traditional sounds, it began to be revived during the folk-music boom of the 1950s and '60s. These days, one can walk into pubs all over Ireland and come across impressively talented musicians, just playing for the fun of it.

"There's a very high standard," notes Conneff. "Paddy will admit to being frightened when he hears some of the pipers, and I could say the same about bodhran players and singers too."

"There's an incredible swing of interest towards Irish music, which wasn't really there in the '60s. It was people like The Chieftains long before I joined them and The Clancy Brothers who kind of started playing the music, promoted it if you will, when it wasn't particularly popular in Ireland. There were always places, like where [Chieftains flute player] Matt Molloy comes from in the West of Ireland, where there was never any decline in the popularity of the music. So he sometimes scoffs when people talk about the revival of folk music. He says, 'Well, it didn't need a revival where I come from.' That was one of the few pockets around the country."

And after ranging far afield with their pop collaborations, The Chieftains are now bringing it all back home on the aptly titled Water From the Well, a celebration of the regional strength and diversity of Irish traditional music. But even with something as basic as this, The Chieftains still managed a canny conceptual approach, recording the basic tracks of the 17 songs in the studio, and then taking them around the country to add to and enhance the arrangements by playing with some of the nation's best folk musicians.

"We wanted to tap into the different pockets, like County Clare, the next stop from America, really, which is very rich in traditional music and always has been," Conneff explains. "With communication and travel so easy, parochial styles are all merging to some degree. But one can still listen to a fiddle player and say, 'That's Donegal,' or 'That's Kerry.'"

To achieve that spirit of locality, the recordings were done in Malloy's famed pub in Westport -- "Nobody complained about that," Conneff notes -- a small 14th-century church in County Wicklow, the Glens of Antrim, and the seaside town of Dingle. "It was all about going back and getting in touch with where the whole thing comes from," says Conneff. "It's an album we thoroughly enjoyed making, more than any in a long time, speaking personally."

As proud of and pleased with Water From the Well as Conneff is, he is hardly your typically hidebound folkie. When asked what his favorite moments with The Chieftains have been, he immediately answers, "I love working with Van Morrison, and would like to do it again, I think. I've always been a Van Morrison fan. The fact that I became involved in traditional music didn't quell my taste for other musics. I was always a big rock-and-roll and jazz person. It was a joy to work with Van."

Another high point was their Nashville excursion in 1993 on Another Country. "To work with Ricky Skaggs and Chet Atkins and people like that was just amazing," Conneff says. "There was a terribly natural feel to the whole thing. We just sat down and played. That was a real privilege and an honor, and another album we were very pleased with."

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