The soundtrack album for the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" gave many music lovers their first exposure to the sounds of bluegrass. Now, The Chieftains, "Ireland's most famous musical export" have teamed up with some of America's best country and bluegrass performers to try and do the same for the traditional songs of Ireland on "Down The Old Plank Road."
It's one thing to refer to Americana, bluegrass or folk as "roots music," but it's another to create an album that showcases the roots of this roots music. But that's just what The Chieftains, along with friends Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett and others have done. Legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs jams with The Chieftains on an explosive version of the classic fiddle tune "Sally Goodin."
Paddy Moloney, who plays pipes and tin whistle with the group, founded The Chieftains in 1962. He says his goal with this CD was to establish a trans-Atlantic connection from Ireland to America, and then back again. You can clearly hear that connection on the title song "Down the Old Plank Road." The song was originally recorded by "Uncle" Dave Macon in the 1920s. This version finds The Chieftains' Kevin Conneff trading verses with Jeff White, John Hiatt and Tim O'Brien, who takes the first verse here.
Another song on "Down The Old Plank Road" features Lyle Lovett. Earlier this year, the singer was hosptialized after a being gored by a bull on his Texas ranch. Although The Chieftains wanted his vocals so badly they offered to set up a recording unit around his hospital bed, that extreme measure wasn't necessary. By the time the band got to Austin, Lyle was up and about, and able to make it into the studio. His contribution is on "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," a tune that has a connection to an old Irish song called "The Battle Of Munster."
In listening to the 14 songs on "Down The Old Plank Road," it becomes clear that the distance between Dublin and America's rural folk heritage is remarkably short.
The Chieftains' Paddy Moloney says there are enough unreleased tracks from the "Down The Old Plank Road" sessions for a second album. We can expect to hear that collaboration, featuring more from John Hiatt, along With John Prine, Jerry Douglas and others sometime in 2003.
One of the purely instrumental tracks on "Down The Old Plank Road" features a medley of Irish reels played on the banjo by Bela Fleck. It has the simple title "Bela's Reels."
The Chieftains' harpist Derek Bell, died unexpectedly in October in Phoenix. He was 66. The Chieftains have announced they will continue to record and tour.