Where the heart is

Maura O’Connell’s Wandering Home (Rounder Records, 1998) is a trip back to the music she grew up singing in County Clare, Ireland — traditionals like “Down by the Salley Gardens” (based on a poem by Yeats) and the impish “Down the Moor.”

But the CD really attests to an artist not contained by any kind of musical boundaries. “A good song is a good song,” she states with authority. “That’s why I sing songs from such diverse corners of the globe, and from such diverse corners of the poetic spectrum.” In the past, O’Connell has covered the works of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, John Hiatt, Janis Ian and Tom Waits — among others. “A good song doesn’t have to be a ‘country’ good song or a ‘blues’ good song,” she continues: “It can stand on its own. It can live in the time it’s written, in the time past, and in the time future. That’s what I aim for.”

Produced by master dobro artist Jerry Douglas, Wandering Home was recorded at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, then brought back to Nashville and mixed by the venerable Bill Vorndick (of Bela Fleck’s Bluegrass Sessions fame). The stellar musicians contributing to the recording include Arty McGlynn and Gerry O’Beirne (guitars), Donal Lunny (bouzouki), Ciarin Tourish (fiddle, violins), Liam Bradley (drums), Dave Francis (bass), John MacSherry (uillean pipes and whistles), Paul Brady (tin whistle), plus Douglas.

O’Connell first grabbed the spotlight as the lead singer of the traditional Irish band DeDanaan — whose debut album, Star-Spangled Molly, garnered two hit singles in Ireland. After leaving DeDanaan and recording a solo album, the singer became enthralled with what she calls America’s “new acoustic music” — a blend of bluegrass, jazz, country and rock brought to the forefront by such groups as New Grass Revival. In 1987, O’Connell left her homeland and moved to Nashville, where she quickly found herself sitting in with the city’s best pickers. She went on to become the vocalist of choice for the likes of Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck and others forging a jazz-inflected bluegrass style. “I’m a singer, a song interpreter,” she says about her special gift. “To me, being an interpreter is a tremendous art.”

O’Connell gorgeously displays her magical interpretive talents on the fragile Irish lullaby “Dun Do Shuil.” “This song is most special for me since giving birth to my son, Jesse,” she confides: “When he was born, I sang it several times a day, for months. Even now, when he hears me sing it, he just relaxes and takes five.” O’Connell is powerful on Richard Thompson’s “Down Where Drunkards Roll” — explaining: “In 1978, I was part of a duo called Tumbleweed, with Mike Hanrahan. This song was part of our repertoire. For me, it lends a fond dignity to what is a tragic circumstance … but it also eloquently conveys the pain of the situation alcoholics find themselves in.”

In the earthy “Irish Blues,” she sings, “Before I got married I wore a grey shawl/But now that I’m married, I’ve nothing at all/But still I love him, and I’ll not deny him/I’ll go with him wherever he goes.” She ends the song with a searing cry of pain: “I sung [this song] for years onstage, and whenever I was asked if I’d ever record it, I’d say ‘no’ … because the delivery of the lines was so ironic and theatrical that I felt it couldn’t possibly come across on a recording. Obviously, I changed my mind,” she notes with a laugh.

“I have a mandate, and that is to bring back honor to the art of singing,” O’Connell proclaims. “Not every singer can write, just as not every writer can sing. Historically, what I do has been proven as an art form on its own. Nobody says to an opera singer, ‘Why didn’t you write that [aria]?'”

O’Connell possesses a glorious voice that could fill a gargantuan concert hall on command — or sink to a whisper, as on Gerry O’Beirne’s “The Shades Of Gloria,” where she softly sings, “The wind is full of memories/That murmur and sigh/Hills lie in the foaming grass of Clare/Below the cold moon’s eye/But you should come and see them now/When they are on fire/And running with the shades of Gloria.”

“Gerry O’Beirne is from Ennis in County Clare and, like me, has a huge love for his home place,” O’Connell explains. “The words [to “The Shades of Gloria”] evoke memories and feelings that I can almost touch. They are strong.”

She calls herself “a singer who’s like an actor,” and you need only hear her light, childlike interpretation of “Down The Moor”; her plaintive vocals on the traditional “A Stor Mo Chroi”; or her poetic rendition of Seamus Heaney’s “The Singer’s House” to understand. “I found so much in [“The Singer’s House”] about my own family house and the ease of music and company that was part and parcel of life in Ireland years ago,” she reveals: “I believe I’m of a generation that was the last to see ‘old’ Ireland — unmechanized and unmodern, pious and unforgiving, but very magical and unencumbered by commercial values. I welcome the new world, but I’m glad I got to see the past.”

The singer’s lack of inhibition — her desire to engage an audience — makes for an unforgettable live show. “My one vanity is that I can pretty much win over any audience; just get me in front of them,” O’Connell boasts.

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