"Tradition is always malleable”

An immigrant’s story: Borrowing from the Irish songbook, John Doyle writes of battles, struggles and voyages. He taps into his family history for inspiration, but the Irish-born musician says he’s also “trying to explain myself.”

Traditional Irish songs often revolve around a few well-explored themes: family, drinking, love (lost and found, and of drinking), war and immigration. All of these can be found on Shadow and Light, the sophomore solo album by guitarist/producer John Doyle.

But here's where Doyle's album parts with tradition: Instead of recording a collection of jigs, reel and ballads culled from generations past, Doyle wrote 10 of the 11 tracks specifically for Shadow. "I think there's always going to be some people who are very much traditionalists, and there are going to be some people who accept change," says Doyle.  "I think we need all of us: People who keep the tradition alive in the pure sense, and innovators to bring it forward. Otherwise it's a dead culture."

Still, the songs aren't immediately recognizable as new work. Doyle points out that his writing reflects his many years of work within Irish traditional sounds. "I've immersed myself so much in folk music these days that I dream it," he says. In recent years, he's been the music director for Joan Baez and has performed regularly with the likes of singer/songwriter Andy Irvine, multi-instrumentalist John Williams, and fiddlers Karan Casey and Liz Carroll. With Carroll, he performed at the White House on Saint Patrick's Day of 2009. With Casey, he recorded the 2010 collaborative album, Exiles Return. It was also with Casey, Williams and others that Doyle formed influential American-Irish band Solas in the '90s.

Doyle says that from all of these collaborators, he's picked up many influences. In fact, the Irish-born musician writes rock and pop songs, but, "I have a hard time doing those songs in a concert setting because they don't blend," he says. Doyle's introduction to Irish guitar (an instrument and style of which he's now considered a master) was, surprisingly, not traditional music. "I started guitar as a bet with a friend, who would pick up this song the first," he says. "It was a Grateful Dead song."

Outside influences are part of the convention of traditional music, says Doyle. Even in the late 1700s, Vivaldi was leaving a mark on the Irish sound. "Some people think that Turlough O'Carolan, who was a famous harp player, got too many influences from Italy," Doyle laughs. "Tradition is always malleable. As far as my writing is concerned, it comes from everywhere."

For Shadow, his writing draws from a personal history. "Selkie" is based on a dream, informed by the Irish legend of the mythical seal people. "Clear The Way" is about the Royal Irish Volunteers who fought in the American Civil War. "The Arabic" takes its name from the ship on which Doyle's great-grandfather sailed to New York in 1916.

"These are mainly songs about the American Irish," says Doyle. One of his reasons for writing the album was "to get people thinking about their family. Everyone has a story. Every time I finish a gig, someone comes up to me about their family story."

Immigration is, indeed, the story of generations of Irish-Americans. But it's also Doyle's story: 20 years ago, he, like his ancestors before him, immigrated to New York. "I'm between two worlds," he says. "That's why the immigrant story is an important part for me: I'm trying to explain myself. You're a part of both worlds, and a part of neither."

Doyle says that by leaving his native home, something was lost, but something was also gained. "When I go back home there's a weight of history and a weight of ancestors," he says. "It's hard to break free of that." Starting over in a new country might be why he was able to take a chance on a career in music. James Joyce had to leave Ireland to make it as a writer, Doyle points out, as did Beckett.

"But I didn't think of anything in that way," says Doyle. "I just came over for a holiday. I had $300. And 20 years later I'm still here."

It's been two decades well-spent. Now based in WNC with his wife and daughter, Doyle continues to innovate Irish music as both a solo and collaborative artist. His Grey Eagle concert — an all-too-rare Asheville performance — will showcase just that, including guests like double-bassist Todd Phillips (a founding member of the original David Grisman Quintet and, with Doyle, a Joan Baez band member) and fiddler/recent Asheville transplant Casey Driessen.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: John Doyle (with Casey Driessen and Todd Phillips)
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, Dec. 4 (8 p.m., $15 advance or $17 day or show. http://www.thegreyeagle.com)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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