When most people get Celtic musician John Doyle on the phone, they invariably start talking about guitars. He’s a left-handed player and uses a dropped D tuning, instead of the classic DADGAD.
But I don’t know much about guitars — left-handed or otherwise. I tell Doyle this right off.
“Fine,” he says. “I’m sick of talking about that anyway.”
I do know a nice Irish accent when I hear one, though — and even after a dozen years in the U.S., the guitarist’s speech still displays a lovely lilt.
He also maintains ties to his homeland, through both music and family — but Doyle is seriously considering becoming a full-time American, and he makes his home in Western North Carolina.
“Asheville is the first place where, when I go away to tour, I feel homesick,” he admits. “One of the major reasons [for moving here] was my wife-then-to-be was a resident here. I met her while touring with Solas.”
By the time Doyle joined that groundbreaking band, he’d already put in a few years in New York’s Irish-music scene, gigging with Susan McKeown (Chanting House) and Eileen Ivers (The Eileen Ivers Band). For five years, the guitarist traveled with Solas, one of traditional music’s biggest acts, before giving it up to go solo — and leaving hectic New York for easier Asheville.
“There are only a few places [in the U.S.] that have indigenous music — here and Louisiana,” he points out. “Here, it’s a lot like Ireland — the fiddle and banjo. Well, we don’t have banjo in Ireland, but there are similarities in the music.”
Once, in a pub in Killarney, Ireland, I heard two musicians perform “Dueling Banjos” on accordion and fiddle. But that’s not what Doyle’s talking about.
“I grew up listening to my father [a singer] and my grandfather [who played accordion] perform Child ballads,” he says. (These songs were collected during the 1800s by the American scholar Francis J. Child, whose manuscript The English and Scottish Popular Ballads is considered the canon of traditional folk music.)
“They’re mostly Scottish songs, kept alive in Ireland,” Doyle explains. And when the guitarist settled in Asheville, he found that the area’s traditional musicians, thanks to the mountains’ once-isolated Scotch-Irish population, were still singing the same ballads.
It was, he says, “quite bizarre.”
On his solo debut, Evening Comes Early (Shanachie, 2001), Doyle sings the well-known mountain ballad “Pretty Saro.” Popular Americana singer Iris DeMent offered her version on the soundtrack to the movie Songcatcher.
But in the album’s liner notes, Doyle thanks “real” songcatcher Dorothy Scarborough for reviving the tune.
“[She] collected this song in 1930 in Western North Carolina and suggests an appropriate date of origin in America might be 1749, as this was a time of significant emigration from Scotland and Ireland,” Doyle writes.
In our interview, he reveals, “My father sings a song called “Bunclody” on his album [which the younger Doyle just helped create] — it’s the same song.”
During his time with Solas, the celebrated guitarist was considered just that — a skilled player who occasionally lent his voice to a song or two. In his solo work, however, Doyle has revealed a warm, soulful vocal style, and he actually credits his love of singing with driving him to play an instrument at all.
“I gravitated to the guitar because I could sing with it,” he remembers. “I was inspired by English and Irish folk tunes.”
But just how common is it to grow up favoring centuries-old ballads over, say, rock and pop? After all, Doyle, now only in his early 30s, could hardly have missed the onslaught of American and British commercial music during the ’70s and ’80s.
“The majority of people in Ireland are into pop,” he concedes. “But it really depends. If you come from a family that’s involved in traditional music, you’re more likely to be interested [in that]. That’s why there are a lot of family bands.
“I know a lot of young people [playing traditional music],” he continues, though they are, he admits, in the minority.
“Riverdance helped with that, of course, but more with dance.”
And then there’s the whole Celt-rock phenomenon, whose bands blend rock, pop and even punk with traditional instruments such as fiddle, accordion and bagpipes. “That comes from a long-standing tradition,” says Doyle. “In the ’70s, all these Irish and English bands went folk-rock. I think there’s a lot of worth in some of that. You can weed out the music that’s just there to make money.
“It brings young people in,” he points out. “They hear what the fiddle can do and then they start to listen to solo fiddle [to learn more]. Then you’re in a place of searching tradition — the history of people, of human life.”
Doyle himself is a die-hard traditionalist, but he’s happy to have adopted a new homeland. “There are less gigs in Ireland,” he points out. “You can basically tour the country in a week.”
Of course, a bigger country means more competition: “The climate [in the U.S.] is so much harder for Irish bands,” he admits.
Luckily — for Doyle and fans of his pure Celtic strains — he’s got much more than a foot in the door. The musician is a regular at Jack of the Wood’s Sunday Celtic sessions whenever he’s in town (and he plans to be throughout the month of March). He’s signed up to teach this summer at the Swannanoa Gathering’s Celtic Week, where his father, Sean Doyle, will also be offering workshops.