Among Chuck Brodsky’s diehard fans is the Catholic bishop in Northern Ireland who attends shows there dressed, literally, for church. Afterward, he and Brodsky have sometimes raised a pint or two at the local pub.
The widely acclaimed Asheville folkie has toured the Emerald Isle 10 times now. But when we “talked” via e-mail recently, Brodksy was way up in the far reaches of neighboring Scotland.
“Greetings from the fabulously gorgeous Shetland Islands!” he began his note. “I’m here for the Shetland Drinking (I mean Folk) Festival.
“I haven’t been to bed before 6 a.m. yet since I got here. Neither has anyone else.”
Brodsky was writing on the festival’s final day, and then on the plane trip home. His answers to my questions were expectedly thoughtful, and often extensive (see his rewarding interview in its entirety appended to the online version of this story).
Musicians at what Brodsky dubs this “one-of-a-kind festival” hailed from all over (he was the only American, and the sole singer/songwriter). Impromptu jam sessions sprang up constantly — on buses and ferries, in pubs and in people’s homes.
Brodsky’s recent travels have increasingly immersed him in Celtic-music circles, a development that vastly informs his brand-new, self-released Color Came One Day. For starters, it’s produced by fiddle master J.P. Cormier.
In Cormier’s youth, he was a staple bluegrass player at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. But since returning to his native Cape Breton, Novia Scotia, the multi-instrumentalist has become a beacon of Canada’s Celtic-influenced maritime fiddle tradition.
Brodsky and Cormier had crossed paths several times before they struck up a literal chord at Denmark’s prestigious Tonder Festival last August; there, the Canadian prodigy invited the Asheville transplant to Cape Breton to record. Brodsky could look out the upstairs window of Cormier’s home studio and see the frozen ocean.
Cormier is, in every sense, a utility player; on Color, he handles fiddle, bass, banjo, background vocals and more, helping to fashion Brodsky’s earthiest, and warmest, record to date.
“The more I’ve come to know J.P., the more of a soul brother he’s become,” Brodsky reveals. “He’s first and foremost a solid human being, with a huge heart. He’s all about touching people with music.”
A perfect match, then.
Brodksy’s new album has plenty of his own finger-picked guitar prowess, and all the plain-speak Guthrie/pre-symbolist-Dylan narrative style that fans have come to count on.
His writer’s eye, typically unsentimental and often richly humorous, remains generous to a fault; he continues to spin tales of characters who’ve willingly wandered outside the margins, redefining humanity through simple acts of courage and grace: the young lovers shattered by mental illness (“Claire & Johnny”); the wandering “Goat Man,” who couldn’t work because of injury, but who wouldn’t go on the dole; the old-time mountain doctor who made home visits on horseback (“Miracle in the Hills”).
But this time out, there are no baseball sagas (at which Brodsky, a sports nut, also excels), while several cuts bristle with pointed moral outrage.
Since “the events and manipulations of 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror,'” Brodsky writes, he has felt “a renewed sense of mission.
“I realized that the time had come to take the stands that I needed to take,” he adds, “and to acknowledge the responsibilities I feel I have as a writer to speak the truth as I know it.”
The album likewise boasts one of Brodsky’s most beautiful compositions, “G-ddamned Blessed Road.” The song contains the album’s title line — which, for Brodsky, represents “the day of awakening in each of us, the day we see for ourselves.”
He’s referring to both spiritual and social awareness, of viewing the world — including our political landscape — without blinders.
Yet, Brodsky stresses, he’s hardly an angry person.
“I still have a healthy sense of humor,” the author of 1995’s riotous “Blow ‘Em Away” declares.
And an untarnished sense of joy.
“Asheville’s got a new hockey team,” Brodsky concludes, “and the Phillies have a good ball club.
“Life is good.”
The e-mail interview for the preceding article was conducted with Chuck Brodsky during the final day of the 24th-Annual Shetland Folk Festival (held April 29-May 2 throughout Scotland’s Shetland Isles), and during Brodsky’s return flight home to Asheville.
The full transcript appears below, in the original e-mail form, to keep the feel intact (a minimal amount of personal information was excised, however, to protect privacy).
Chuck Brodsky: “Greetings from the fabulously gorgeous Shetland Islands! I’m here for the Shetland Drinking (I mean Folk) Festival. No words have been invented yet to describe this one. These folks are as fine a people as the world knows. Today is the Monday after the last night of the festival, a night dedicated to the musicians & all-volunteer staff. At the end of the night, when they boot us from the building at 5 am, everyone goes to various people’s houses for more music, then to breakfast at 6, and on to the pub at 7 for one last sip. I haven’t been to bed before 6 am yet since I got here. Neither has anyone else.”
Mountain Xpress: “First of all, where are you right now, specifically?”
CB: “I’m sitting in the living room of a lovely family I was placed with here in Lerwick, on the mainland of the Shetland Islands. All of the festival performers are housed with host families, and I really lucked out with mine. They are absolutely beautiful people, and extremely knowledgeable about old-time & bluegrass. I looked over the cd collection at the house & it’s got people from the NC mountains I never even heard of. I’m staying 5 doors down from the festival’s central building…a community center which serves as home base…the place we gather for shuttle bus rides to our performances, instrument lock-up, and the after hours pub & music sessions. The musicians are from all over the world…Slovakia, Denmark, Ireland, Canada, Scotland, England, Spain, Russia, and of course many Shetlanders. I’m the only representative of the USA, and the only singer-songwriter. Quite an honor. This is a real one of a kind festival, staring with the fact that all of the musicians meet in Aberdeen, Scotland, and travel to Shetland via a 12 hour over-night ferry boat trip where we all had cabins. Jams & sessions sparked up in the 2 bars on board, and by the time we arrived at the town of Lerwick at 7 in the morning it felt like everybody knew everyone else.