John Doyle - alone but not lonely on the road

John Doyle is relishing the loneliness of the long-distance troubadour. After twenty or more years of playing in groups, developing into the guitarist-accompanist of choice for A-list folk personalities including Joan Baez and creating sibling-close relationships with stellar musicians including Tim O’Brien, Dirk Powell and fiddler Liz Carroll, Doyle is taking his own show on the road.

“I love playing with other musicians,” says the Dublin-born Doyle down the line from his home in Ashville, North Carolina. “I’d never want to lose the camaraderie or the buzz you get from bouncing ideas off each other. Once you get to a certain level where the phone rings with another interesting offer, it’s very easy – and very tempting – to go along, working well paid gigs. But we’re only here for a short time and you have to make a choice between making money and doing something that you really want to do, so that you don’t look back and say, I wish I’d done that. So I’m doing it now.”

Taking advantage of a gap in his busy diary which also includes tours with fiddler John McCusker and flautist/uilleann piper Michael McGoldrick, Doyle has embarked on a UK solo tour, with six gigs in Scotland, that’s allowing him to present the songs that have been simmering away on the back burner and to follow his interests in fishing and history without having, as he says, to drag colleagues off in handcuffs to share his enthusiasm for a ruined castle.

Folk music, in its broadest sense, is all Doyle has ever really been interested in, although he and his brothers were the ones being dragged along as four and five year olds to hear his grandfather and uncle playing accordion in local folk sessions.

“My dad sang and collected songs, so traditional music was all around us,” he says. “My brothers and I didn’t, let’s say, love it immediately but by the time I got my first guitar, at about the age of twelve, I was listening to what was going on in those sessions and what my dad was singing and I got to hear guitarists like Arty McGlynn and Paul Brady and I’d try to play the way they were playing to accompany songs and tunes.”

With an older brother who was always bringing new albums home, Doyle came to appreciate Scottish and English influences  - Dick Gaughan’s guitar eccentricity, Martin Carthy’s tunings, Richard Thompson’s sheer brilliance – as well as McGlynn’s rhythmical assurance and Brady’s intensity. When the albums his brother played branched out into world music, he could hear the similarities between blues and African music and how different traditions shared common song narratives.

Applying all this listening to his own guitar playing, he left school and started busking on the streets of Dublin aged sixteen. Three years later he got the money together to visit a friend in New York and found the music world opening up to him.

“An Irish accent tends to open doors here in America, people respect the Irish. I was accepted and lucked out, to be honest,” he says. “I met Eileen Ivers and Séamus Egan fairly quickly and that led me into Solas, which became a hugely influential band in the States and a real calling card for me. They took me under their wing, as did Joanie Madden from Cherish the Ladies, and although I outstayed my visa, I eventually got another one.”

After four or five years with Solas, Doyle moved to North Carolina, where his wife is from, and entered the world of Americana, working with Tim O’Brien and Dirk Powell, while maintaining Irish music connections with Chicagoan Liz Carroll. By now his reputation as a guitarist of drive and invention and empathy with lyrics and melody had spread. When the call came asking him to consider becoming Joan Baez’s musical director, he didn’t have to think about his response.

“I learned her whole repertoire – and that’s quite a catalogue of songs – and I made a few suggestions about songs she might want to bring back into her set-list,” he says. “I think she went with about 30% of my ideas but it was a fantastic experience. I’d find myself standing onstage thinking, My god, I’m playing Joe Hill with Joan Baez. Then we’d get backstage afterwards and there would be Pete Seeger, who’d dropped in to say hello and politicians who wanted to hear what Joan had to say about this and that. She’s incredibly influential, politically as well as musically, and hearing her stories about singing to Martin Luther King before civil rights marches, it all made you realise that you were playing guitar for an icon.”

There are not a few who would consider Doyle himself an icon, certainly as a guitar player, and although he’s not so well known for his songwriting, it’s something he’s been working on all along, learning the craft and trying to find a natural way of linking original songs with traditional songs.

“I’ve never wanted the songs to be about me,” he says. “I’d much rather tell a story and find historical events to write about that chime with the subject matter in traditional songs. My ideal is that a set of songs should be seamless, like one long story, and being able to introduce it without worrying about having other people onstage waiting for me to stop talking really appeals to me.”


From The Herald, May 28, 2014.

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