By Jim Schutze
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But after all, didn't traditional country music start out as little more than British folk songs with American themes and accents? "Without a doubt," agrees Conneff. "That was so evident when we were sitting down to decide on what material to do, and discovering they knew the same tunes, with just slight variations and called something else. It definitely came over on the boat with the fiddles and whatever from Ireland and Scotland."
Conneff believes there's a universality to Irish music that has certainly helped The Chieftains take it so far into the realms of popular music and world music. "The beautiful thing about Irish music is that every emotion in the book is in there," he notes. "You have incredibly happy, lively, wild dance music. You have very elegant, drawing-room type classical music. You have marches, and a political feel from some of the music. And then you have the slow airs, which tear the heartstrings out of you, they're so moving. And melodically, it's an amazingly rich tradition to inherit, because it's melodically so beautiful and so appealing."
And perhaps another reason why The Chieftains have risen beyond the narrow confines of the folk circuit might be the strange phenomenon of how people around the world somehow identify with the idea of being Irish. "I've noticed," Conneff says, after a hearty guffaw at the notion. "It seems to be certainly in the month of March, 90 percent of the American population wants to be Irish. I don't know what that is. But it would seem that in America, for instance, even with someone who is maybe Romanian or Lithuanian and Spanish or something, that somewhere, somewhere, somewhere in the background is a great-great-great-grand-uncle who was from Kerry. And they put more attention on that than all the other bloods going through their veins. I don't know what it is, really. It seems to be the popular culture to be involved in these days."
Perhaps because everyone loves a feisty underdog, as the Irish have been for centuries? "There's an element of that, without a doubt. And an underdog that's made it," Conneff adds. "There was a time when we were afraid to walk tall, but we can do it now." After all, Ireland is not only enjoying an economic boom, but also a cultural renaissance, thanks to "the success of things like Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, and Irish theater, which has taken Broadway by storm, and what Irish directors have achieved in the movie world too."
And to some degree, The Chieftains have contributed to not just the revival of Irish folk music, but also the blossoming of Irish culture at home and in the modern world. "Apparently U2 have cited us as an influence," says Conneff. "Now I wouldn't say that would be a musical influence. But I suppose the fact that it could be done is how we influenced them, that you could be from Ireland yet find success in the rest of the world."
But now, after all the high-profile collaborations, The Chieftains are letting their Irish traditional-music roots speak -- or maybe better, sing and play -- for themselves. "It will be really interesting to see what happens," concludes Conneff, "now that we've delivered the traditional album. Not that the earlier ones weren't. Not that there wasn't some great traditional music on even some of the more experimental ones, but this is wholly an album of music from home with only people from home. We're very very happy with the album. So it will be interesting to see how it will be received, with no big names, and just Irish music, if I can be so bold as to say, played very well."