Celtic convergence

Growing up in Scotland, Fiona Ritchie never dreamed of the splash she would one day make, whose ripples would reach far across the Atlantic, courtesy of her weekly Celtic radio show The Thistle & Shamrock.

The show is now heard by hundreds of thousands of listeners in the United States, but few of her neighbors on Alva Street in Edinburgh’s West End realize there’s a radio star broadcasting from a second-floor flat.

Ritchie was born in Greenock in 1960 and entered the University of Stirling in 1977 as a psychology student. In 1980, she was offered the chance to study for a semester in an American university, and was soon winging her way to UNC-Charlotte. “I soaked up the whole American bit,” she recently told the Edinburgh Evening News. “You know, drive-in movies, ball games and so on. The lifestyle made so much of an [impact] on me as a student that, once I graduated, I went back the following year and stayed for 10.” She was working as director of development and promotion at WFAE-FM 90.7 in Charlotte when a co-worker suggested she do a program featuring music from her homeland.

“They’d heard some of the albums I’d brought with me from Scotland — Celtic stuff,” remembers Ritchie. “This was the big break — my chance to carve a wee niche for myself in public radio.”

She was an instant hit with Scottish, Irish, British and Welsh expatriates — not to mention garden-variety Americans. In 1990, Ritchie returned to Scotland, airing her broadcasts from an independent studio there. Three years ago, she built a broadcast studio in her flat. “Now, I do the 60-minute show as if I’m live on air,” she says. “Fifty minutes is music — still on a Celtic theme — and the rest is words. I send the tape off by Federal Express every Friday.”

“When we were growing up, we always listened to the radio more than we watched TV, and it was always very important to me,” she recently told the Glasgow Saturday Times. “So in 1981, when I was studying in North Carolina, one of the first things I did was look for a radio station I could listen to for a good range of American music, like jazz or blues. But I was disappointed that it was mostly rock and country stations.”

Ritchie recently released a compilation CD from her first 15 years on NPR — entitled The Best of The Thistle & Shamrock –which features artists Dick Gaughan, The Battlefield Band and others.

“Nobody needs to remind me I’m lucky to have this lifestyle,” she says. “With the program so well established now and with a huge spread of an audience for Celtic music, I’ve become well enough known to be invited to host musical events in far-flung places like Alaska, and a Cajun festival in Louisiana.”

Ritchie’s upcoming An Evening Of Celtic Music in Asheville will feature some of the genre’s bright stars. Tabache released their debut album (Are You Willing?, KRL/Festival) in 1996; the band includes Aidan O’Rourke on fiddle; Claire Mann on flute, tin whistle and vocals; and Ross Martin on guitars. Their new album, Waves Of Rush (KRL/Festival), features a contemporary rhythm section on some tracks. All the players are in their early 20s and are open to many musical styles. “There’s a lot of experimental stuff happening now, which has got nothing to do with technology,” O’Rourke contends. “There are a number of crossover groups, which would have been far less common in the ’70s and early ’80s. Young musicians now aren’t afraid to stretch out and play tunes from outside their own tradition.”

The Asheville-based Celtic trio Cucanandy recently released its first CD, the self-produced He Didn’t Dance — a mix of traditional songs and percussive dance rhythms from Ireland, Cape Breton, Brittany and the American South. Feet and voice are woven together on the band’s namesake tune, “Cucanandy” — containing traditional nonsense lyrics powered by steady step-dancing. Blending Southern traditions and Celtic stylings, the group also highlights the journey of Irish and Scottish immigrants who settled in North Carolina. Step dancer Malke Rosenfeld also plays flutes and percussion. Vocalist Stephanie Johnson accompanies herself on guitar and bodhran, and Mike Casey plays lap dulcimer, guitar and flutes.

Edinburgh-born Ed Miller is one of the finest ambassadors of traditional Scottish songs. He received his education from “source” singers as well as contemporary Scottish songwriters, mixing equal doses of populist politics and wry humor. An acclaimed lecturer as well as performer, he holds a doctorate in folklore from the University of Texas at Austin.

Robin Bullock is a founding member of the acoustic world-music trio Helicon and its spinoff, the Celtic trio Greenfire. He has also garnered critical acclaim for his three solo CDs. Bullock is a composer, arranger, instructor and journalist (he writes the “Celtic and More” column for Acoustic Magazine) who performs on six- and 12-string guitars, mandolin, cittern, fiddle, bass guitar and piano.

Stunning musical talents — plus Ritchie’s smooth-as-silk voice between sets. What more could a Celtic-music lover possibly desire?

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