Cherish the Ladies - Playing in a band to cherish
“Things just happen in this band,” says Kathleen Boyle of Cherish the Ladies, the hugely popular Irish-American group that has been keeping this Glasgow-born pianist and accordionist busy these past five years.
She’s not kidding. The group’s new album, Country Crossroads - The Nashville Sessions, could quite easily be mistaken for a project along similar lines to the collaborations that have pitched Irish music champions The Chieftains alongside a cast that includes The Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne.
Except, whereas the Chieftains’ star-studded sessions tend to have been plotted and masterminded by the indefatiguable Paddy Moloney, The Nashville Sessions, which sees “Cherish”, as they’ve come to be known, working with top singers such as Vince Gill and Nanci Griffith and some of Music City, Tennessee’s top pickers, was an entirely spontaneous idea.
“We were down in Nashville to play with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and had three days off either side of that gig,” says Boyle. “And as Nashville’s such a fun place to hang out and we know people there, like Maura O’Connell, who also sings on the album, we decided just to stay over. On the first day, a Monday, Maura said, ‘You must come down to the Station Inn tonight. It’ll be great.’ So we went down and there was Vince Gill singing with a band called the Time Jumpers.”
The next thing Boyle knew she was exchanging accordion chat with the band’s box player, Jeff Taylor, and discovering that his two favourite musicians are Phil Cunningham and button box virtuoso Mairtin O Connor and that the whole band loved Irish music. Cherish the Ladies founder, the eminently persuasive Joannie Madden soon picked up on this and asked if the guys might be available over the next few days. And so, Country Crossroads, which saw Maura O’Connell supplying home cooking and generally mothering the band as well as singing and Nanci Griffith turning up, much to the now pretty much undauntable Boyle’s discomfiture, was born.
“We’ve played with a lot of great musicians since I joined the band in 2006 and Joannie and Mary Coogan have built up a fantastic reputation for Cherish among musicians from all sorts of genres over the past twenty-five or twenty-six years,” says Boyle. “But even then, when Nanci Griffith appeared and I realised she was there to sing with us, I couldn’t believe it.”
Music and musicians with significant pedigrees are in Boyle’s DNA. Her late grandfather Neilidh Boyle was a hugely respected fiddler from Donegal who became the first traditional musician to make a commercial recording in Ireland and who numbered uilleann pipes master Seamus Ennis and revered fiddler John Doherty among the regular visitors to his farm just outside Dungloe. He actually makes a posthumous appearance, playing his most famous composition, The Moving Clouds, with Boyle and her father on Kathleen’s splendid An Cailin Rua CD.
Growing up in Glasgow, and on regular family visits to Donegal, she was surrounded by traditional music. Her father, pianist and accordionist Hughie, and his brother played in the family ceili band and having taken up accordion herself at the age of ten, Kathleen spent her early teens playing at dances, parties and other functions.
“Music was never formal for us,” she says. “In fact, I never had what you’d call a proper lesson on the accordion until I went on the RSAMD’s traditional music course when I was seventeen. We’d just sit down and have a tune at home and I’d learn on those sessions. Then we’d go out and play for St Patrick’s Day dances and all the other events that were going on in Glasgow’s Irish community.”
By her late teens, as well as studying at the RSAMD, where she was the first student to graduate with a degree in traditional music, she was helping out at Glasgow’s great Irish music nursery, St Roch’s, where the super-enthusiast Frank McArdle has devoted so much time to rearing young musicians. Then, with fellow students from the academy and Strathclyde University’s Applied Music Course, including Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis and Shetland fiddler Jenna Reid, Boyle formed Dochas, which was to be her main group until Cherish the Ladies came calling.
“That came out of the blue, really, and at really short notice,” she says. “They were short of a piano player for a tour of England and I think Joannie had seen Dochas, where I played piano and guitar as well as accordion, at Celtic Connections. So she Googled the band, liked what she heard and asked various people for references, including Michael McGoldrick whose band Dochas had toured with not long before, and then got in touch through Dochas’s website. It was fortunate because I had the next two or three weeks free and was able to step in.”
The rest is geography. Cherish begin the year with either the whole band or some of their members playing at Celtic Connections and then go off on a Caribbean tour, entertaining the passengers on a liner during February. They then tour the US through March and into April, take June off, hit the road for July and August, tour “foreign” parts – last year it was China; this year it’s Ireland and Scotland – during September, have another break and then prepare for their Christmas tour that takes them from Thanksgiving right up to the end of December.
“It’s pretty full-on and I don’t get to spend much time in my flat in Glasgow these days,” says Boyle. “But I love playing with the band and there’s a good variety of work – including playing with symphony orchestras, which we do a lot and I really enjoy – and we get to mix with all sorts of phenomenal musicians. It’s also pretty special as a Glasgow girl to be playing with the band because they’ve been Glasgow’s favourite Irish-American band since they first played Celtic Connections in 1994 - and the feeling’s mutual: the band absolutely love playing in Glasgow and the different dancers who join us all over America are always desperate to do that gig especially because of the response we get.”
There’s no Glasgow gig scheduled on their imminent trip to Scotland for the annual Blas Festival’s celebration of traditional music in the Highlands. But they are bringing a now perhaps not-so-secret weapon with them this time who may join them when next they play Celtic Connections.
“We’ve been playing in Ireland with a wonderful singer, Don Stiffe, who’s going to join us in Scotland, too,” says Boyle. “I’m not sure if he’s appeared in Scotland before but the response he’s been getting on our Irish dates has been amazing and I’m sure the Blas audiences are going to love him.”
From The Herald, September 8, 2011.