Collaborations: Stories Told in Word and Melody

by Kerry Dexter /
Kerry Dexter's picture
Aug 17, 2015 / 0 comments

Music is a collaborative art and a solitary one -- solitary at times in creation and at practice and study, collaborative with listeners, other players and singers, and at times, with musicians who are also partners in life. From the landscapes and traditions of Cape Breton, Ontario, Texas, Ireland, and Boston, among other places, Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis, and Matt and Shannon Heaton draw their stories told in word and melody...

When Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy married, they knew that recording an album together would be in their future -- they just didn't know it would take them a dozen years to get there. Natalie, an award winning Cape Breton fiddler, and Donnell, an equally fiery fiddle player who with his brothers and sisters form the Ontario based band Leahy, had concerts, travels, and teaching in their individual careers booked long ahead, and the children (they now have six, whom they homeschool, or rather worldschool, as they travel along with their parents) began to come along. They kept the idea on their radar, though, and as they neared recording quite unexpectedly attracted interest from producer Bob Ezrin and his colleague, producer and engineer Justin Cortelyou, who are better known for working with artists such as Pink Floyd and Taylor Swift than fiddle players from Canadian folk traditions. They all hit it off, though, and headed to Cape Breton to record. The album One is the result -- high class, high quality, and thoroughly grounded in tradition all round. For the most part fast and fiery music with just enough slow airs and one very memorable lullabye to give room and breadth to the couple's musical ideas. There's a set in tribute to Natalie's uncle, Cape Breton music icon Buddy MacMaster, a medley set that draws in the varying strands of Donnell's Ontario fiddle heritage, tunes from Scotland and Ireland as well as Atlantic Canada, and tunes the couple wrote together, including Wedding Day Jig, which they composed as a gift to give the guests at their wedding, and Cagaran Gaoloch, that lullabye, in which Natalie takes on the unexpected role as singer.


Austin, Texas-based Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis each had musical careers before they met and married, too. Though they have turned up on each other's recordings, occasionally guested at each other's gigs, sometimes worked behind the scenes in producing projects, from the outset they decided to keep their musical careers and touring separate. "We really had no interest in being a band together," Willis says. They still do have those separate careers, but several years back when friend and fellow musician Amy Farris died unexpectedly, "I realized I would never get to sing with her again, and I realized what I had lost," Willis says. "When you have something that special, you can't turn your back on that. Bruce and I had that something special." With that bittersweet recognition as a spark, Bruce and Kelly decided to see how it would be to create an album and a series of concerts as a duo. It worked, and Our Year is the second album they've done in that format. "It's rejuvenated me as an artist after twenty years of a career," Robison says. For Our Year, they chose a mix of original songs, classic covers, and several songs from contemporary sources. One of those sources was Robison's sister, Robyn Ludwick, who wrote Departing Louisiana, which they chose to the first song on the disc. "Our family goes back in Louisiana," Robison says. "It's several generations ago, but it goes back, and you can hear it in the song." Robison, who is known for writing songs which have become top charting hits for such artists as George Strait and Tim McGraw, co- wrote the song Carousel with Darden Smith, infusing a classic country theme of ending a relationship with fresh image. Willis fused blues and honky tonk in her co-write with Paul Kennerly, Lonely for You, and brings those styles into her singing of it, as well. The duo takes on several classic country songs including (Just Enough to Keep Me) Hanging On and prove, though proof really isn't in question, that they can well hold their own with classic country duos of the past. Willis has fun with Harper Valley PTA, and to close the collection, they offer a song of clear-eyed hope and inspiration which they often include in their holiday concerts and from which came the title of this album called This Will Be Our Year. Outstanding lead and harmony singing, great guitar work and backing band support, songs which draw from the heart and the heartland of America: if you like country music, Americana, or just plain great singing and songwriting, you'll enjoy Our Year.


Matt and Shannon Heaton have been focusing on the music they make as a duo for some time now. Though they both work on side projects ranging from surf music to classical composition to songs for children, the heart of what they do is music that draws from Irish and Irish American tradition. For their album Tell You in Earnest, their fifth album as a duo, they decided to focus on that in a new way: they'd choose songs that were songs of conversation -- "Each song is like a mini play," Matt says. "Bands can be great, other sorts of musical collaborations can be great, but there's nothing quite like the intensity and connection you can get in a conversation between two people," Shannon points out. So they went looking for such songs, in the end coming up with ten pieces, some straight from traditional sources, some reworked a little or a lot, most with original instrumental arrangements (both are accomplished players, Matt on guitar, bouzouki, and bodhran, Shannon on whistles, flute, and accordion, and this is the first album they've done which is all song, no tunes). The opening song, Cruel Salt Sea, "is the one I'm most proud of when I put my ethnomusicologist hat on," Shannon says, remarking that she often changes archaic wording to make stories and emotions relevant to contemporary listeners. Threads of the story -- it's a murder ballad of sorts but not quite what you think when you hear those words -- run through several songs in Ireland and Scotland, and the Heatons' creation stands well with them and within the processes of how folk songs evolve. Speaking of evolving folk process, Matt's original Easy Come Easy Go turns a device often found in folk song stories on it head to effect which will make you laugh -- and listen for some fine harmonies from Shannon on the chorus too. There is a song in Thai, honoring Shannon's time with traditional musicians in Thailand which sparked her choice to follow her own Irish heritage in music. A motorcycle finds its way into the Richard Thompson song from which the title comes, while a spooky sailing ship, actually more than one, is part of the plot in Demon Lover. Another murder ballad, a song of a mother and son hurt by war, and a two love songs with happy endings round out the recording, all of it infused by the Heatons' style, grounded in in the music of Ireland and strong enough, and unique enough, to encompass a touch of Thailand, an electric guitar riff now and again, a dash of Americana at times, and always heartfelt and thoughtful singing and playing.



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Kerry Dexter is music editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach her at music at wandering educators dot com.
You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Symphony, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, and other places on line and in print, as well as at her own site Music Road.








Feature photo of the Heatons courtesy and copyright Kelly Lorenz