The title of Altan's The Widening Gyre is borrowed from W.B. Yeats poem The Second Coming.
The band recorded The Widening Gyre in Nashville to collaborate with long time friends and guests to bring this album to the world.
“The music on this album examines the lifecycle of Altan by exploring the influence of Appalachian music on Irish music,” says lead vocalist, fiddler, and founding member Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh of Altan’s new studio album The Widening Gyre.
After nearly 35 years together—the longest running lineup of founding members in Irish music—the members of Altan were ready to flex their musical boundaries when they started talking to Compass co-founder Garry West about the direction for their latest project. With Garry in the producer’s chair and many good friends in the studio, Altan fused the traditional Irish music that they are known for, namely Donegal fiddling and Gaelic singing traditions, with American roots music, particularly that of the Appalachian bluegrass fiddle.
“Garry steered the band in the studio to open up musically while somehow managing to help us keep the integrity of Altan intact,” said Mairéad of Garry West’s production. Recording in Nashville for only the second time and the first time for a full album, the band was able to gather many of the roots musicians they’ve met over their thirty years together, including Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, and Compass co-founder Alison Brown. “We’ve made lifelong friends through music. The circle has expanded over the years, and our new album celebrates those relationships.”
The list of guests on The Widening Gyre is as diverse as it is impressive. Mary Chapin Carpenter, a friend of the band since the ‘90s, lent her vocals to the song “White Birds” to create a lush, meditative reimagining of the W.B. Yeats poem about being a bird on the sea, an appropriate metaphor for a band who has musically and physically crossed the Altantic in the making of the album.
Eddi Reader, “an amazing singer and very generous person,” says Mairead, offers her angelic backing vocals to “Far Beyond Carrickfinn.” Altan has played concerts with Reader before and they were delighted to finally have the Glasgow native join them in the studio.
Altan borrowed the mournful waltz “No Ash Will Burn” from the legendary Nashville songwriter Walt Aldridge. Mairead’s crystalline vocals unlock the Celtic undertones of the song while standing in stark contrast to the plaintive baritone of Bruce Molsky, a long time friend of the band and well-known old-time fiddler and singer.
The bluegrass presence shows itself most clearly on “Buffalo Gals” and “Thomasino (Thomas Tourish’s Tune),” a lively fiddle song written by Altan’s own Ciaran Tourish. Ciaran is joined by bluegrass greats Alison Brown, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Todd Phillips, Bryan Sutton, and Darol Anger.
Mairead gushes about Anger: “His unique approach gives a different color to the music which opens up amazing possibilities with Irish traditional music. He is a true artist with that fiddle!” She also declares Duncan to be, “a fiddler’s fiddler! He can create so many amazing variations on that instrument, it's unreal!”
O’Brien duets on “The House Carpenter (Gypsy Davy),” a track which spotlights the shared musical roots of Irish and Appalachian music with references to both of these historical songs. O’Brien is best known for his work with Hot Rize, but like many dedicated bluegrass musicians, has shown a deep interest in Celtic music.
The Widening Gyre straddles time as it manages to remind listeners of the ancient bond between Irish and Appalachian music while at the same time breaking new ground through collaborations between masters of American roots music and Celtic music.
“The title The Widening Gyre appeals to us and depicts the spiral of life, widening and embracing the new. It has an innate energy. We think that idea is reflected in the album’s music,” says Mairéad.
The Widening Gyre is a compelling development in Altan’s story proving that they are still growing as artists, even after so many years together.
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1. Maggie’s Pancakes/ Píobaire an Chéide/The Friel Deal (reels)
- Maggie’s Pancakes is a Scottish tune composed by fiddler Stuart Morison , once a member of the Tannahill Weavers. The Maggie in the title is Maggie Moore, who makes, apparently, really nice pancakes. This version was learned from the wonderful fiddling of Catriona Macdonald , Alasdair Fraser and all the students at the Valley of the Moon Fiddle School in California.
- Píobaire an Chéide is yet another setting of this fine Donegal reel which came from the playing of the great Donegal fiddle player, John Doherty.
- The Friel Deal is a reel composed by Mairéad for the musical Friel family: Clare, Anna, Síle, John and Sheila Friel of Doire na Mainseár and Fanad in Co Donegal and Glasgow.
2. No Ash Will Burn (song)
- A popular old timey song from the pen of Walt Aldridge. We heard it first from the beautiful singing of Carol Elizabeth Jones on the Renegades CD. This song came together in the studio during the recording session in Nashville and we got our friend Bruce Molsky to sing a verse and play his fiddle on it. Jenee Fleenor added some glorious backing vocals.
3. Buffalo Gals/Leather Britches(Lord McDonald’s Reel)/ Leslie’s Reel
- Darol Anger, Todd Phillips, Alison Brown and ourselves were casually playing tunes in the studio when we came up with this selection. This track embodies the idea of this album: how the tunes travelled across the Atlantic to the Appalachian Mountains and how we can still find tunes which we have in common.
4. Má Théann Tú ‘un Aonaigh (amhrán/song)
- A song of sound advice for a young man heading off into the world. It advises him to put his best foot forward in whatever his endeavours may be: whether going to the fair with his sheep or taking his loved one out, to concentrate fully on his actions and manners! This melody is from a field recording of Róise na nAmhrán (Nic Grianna) of Arranmore Island of the Northwest coast of Donegal, recorded in the 1950’s.
5. Tune For Mairéad and Anna Ní Mhaonaigh (slow tune)
- Dáithí composed this back in the eighties for a birthday celebration in honour of Mairéad and her sister, Anna Ní Mhaonaigh. He recorded it first on a CD with Liz Carroll – great to hear it here played by the whole band with lovely parts from Stuart Duncan and Natalie Haas.
6. The White Birds
- This evocative poem was written by the renowned Irish poet W.B. Yeats early in his career. He wrote it the day after the great love of his life, Maud Gonne, rejected his first marriage proposal, after expressing that she would rather be a seagull than any other bird. Yeats, feeling rejected, imagines in the poem that as gulls they could both flee and escape reality, and live together forever. Here, we have asked Mary Chapin Carpenter to share the beautiful lyrics, for which our friend, Fiona Black, has composed the music.
7. The Tin Key/Sam Kelly’s Jig/The Gravediggers
- Three jigs composed by Mark, inspired by the Donegal fiddling tradition.
8. Cúirt Robin Finley /Moladh Shliabh Maoineach (amhrán/song)
- A love song in praise of a mountain in Co.Donegal. It is here you will find happiness, health, love and gold. In other words, a Utopia. We are still trying to find this mountain! Mairéad collected this song in the 1980’s from a lovely singer, Máire Rua Ní Mhaigh, who lived in an area near Ballybofey called the Croaghs, a mountainous Gaelic-speaking region.
9. The House Carpenter/Gypsy Davy (song)
- Another great version of the well documented The House Carpenter, which has travelled the Atlantic and can be found both in America and in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. This particular version also echoes The Raggle Taggle Gypsy and Cuach Mo Lon Dubh Buí, where the exotic traveller entices a young wife away from her husband to her dismay. Julee Glaub Weems is the source for this unusual version, and she kindly joins us here on backing vocals along with the great Tim O’Brien exchanging a verse and playing his mandolin.
10. Samhradh/Aniar Aduaidh Jig/The Donegal Jig (slow reel/jigs)
- Mairéad composed the first slow reel Samhradh (Summer ) as she waited for the band to arrive at her house on the first day of rehearsals for this new album -- a beautiful sunny day on June 5th 2014.
- The title of the jig , Aniar Aduaidh, can mean two things: ‘northwest’ or it can also mean to startle or to surprise someone.
- The Donegal Jig composed by Martin reminiscing the excitement of New Year's Eve in Co Donegal.
11. The Lurgy Stream (song)
- The Lurgy Stream takes its name from a river in Donegal and mentions several places in the eastern part of the county. It is quite a popular song, sung to different melodies. Although Dáithí already had two airs to it, one from his father, Robert Sproule, and the other from the great Derry singer, Kevin Mitchell, he decided to put a melody of his own to the words, and that is the version Mairéad sings here.
12. The Triple T (Thomas Tourish’s Tune)
- Written by Ciaran for his son, Thomas. His older brother, Richie, came up with the title. As the record was recorded in Nashville, the tune was written with a bluegrass feel in mind. Guest soloists are Alison Brown( bAanjo), Jerry Douglas(dobro), Brian Sutton ( guitar), Darol Anger(fiddle), Sam Bush(mandolin) and Stuart Duncan(fiddle).
13. Far beyond Carrickfinn (song)
- This song was composed by Mairéad’s friends, Ian Smith and Enda Cullen, giving her perspective on the loss of her father, Francie. On the night of his death, a shooting star overhead felt like a signal of hope, leading to the line “Stars lead the way, as your journey begins.” The wonderfully talented Eddi Reader joins us on this song. The male chorus of Altan sing Gaelic lines which Francie wrote…
“Áit shéimh gan smál---slán slán go fóill---macalla do ghlór ar feochan na gaoithe”
“A glentle unblemished place---goodbye for now---the echo of your voice on the breath of the breeze.”
14. The Road Home (slow house)
- Inspired by Ireland's rugged West coast, Martin composed this piece in the Summer of 2003 on the road from Milltown Malbay to Donegal following the annual Willie Clancy Summer School.