Florida’s Disney Resort, a palm tree in Fiji and an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – ideas for songs and tunes often emerge from the strangest of circumstances as a packed weekend audience at the Millennium Forum in Derry learned during the final concert of the TransAtlantic Sessions tour.

A musical concept that began as a television series 25 years ago, the tour is billed as a blend of Irish, Scottish and American folk and an impressive 16 performers, including five singers, took to the stage from places as varied as West Virginia, the Shetland Islands and Nashville, Tennessee.

First up was Scotland’s guitarist-singer Paul McKenna performing one of his own compositions, Long Days, about what he described as a most unhappy experience as a musician at Florida’s Disney Resort, the writing of which, he says, helped cheer him up and ease his homesickness. He followed this with his version of the classic Irish ballad, The Banks of the Moy, a soft, lingering tribute to Michael Davitt, a 19th century agrarian campaigner and labor leader who founded the Irish National Land League.

 

A catchy tune about a palm tree in Fiji provided one of the most amusing introductions of the evening, with multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien from Wheeling, West Virginia explaining that he wrote Keith In A Palm Tree upon hearing (mistakenly) that Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Keith Richards had cracked his skull on the island after falling out of such a tree. One half expected lovely gyrating dancers in grass skirts to emerge stage left.

Tim also sang the lead track from his album Where the River Meets the Road which recounts the journey of an Irish emigrant to the ‘eastern bank of the Ohio.’

 

Molly Tuttle, in her mid-20s and the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year Award, in 2017, then again last year, introduced her set with a forlorn love-lost ballad, Million Miles. Then demonstrated her ample skills on the strings by playing claw-hammer style, a style normally associated with the banjo.

 

Warmest reception of the evening went to Derry-born Cara Dillon  who sang a  dirge entitled Sailor Boy, a woman’s lament for her lover lost at sea. A special treat for the home audience with loud encouraging cheers was her soft rendition of The Banks Of The Foyle about her native Derry.

 

Such is the lyric-writing success of New York born singer, Gretchen Peters, she was inducted to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame four years ago. Her talent for telling universal truths was reflected in her rendition of The Matador, a metaphor for life and love, which abounds in powerful, punchy lines such as ‘I bound his wounds, I heard his cries, I gave him truth, I told him lies.’

 

Displaying empathy for characters in her songs, she introduced Black Ribbons, which she wrote with Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss for her double AMA Award-winning album, Blackbirds, as emerging from stories she heard after the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico eight years ago, about people whose lives were destroyed, some later committing suicide.

Instrumental highlight of the evening for me was a moving tribute by accordionist Phil Cunningham to Liam O’Flynn, former uilleann pipe player with Planxty.

Credit goes to the fine backing musicians throughout the two-hour-plus concert, compère and dobro maestro, Ohio-born Jerry Douglas, who has recorded an impressive fourteen solo recordings, as well as a group of musicians from Scotland, including Donald Shaw, a founding member of Capercaillie. Their foot-stomping reels interspersed well with the soothing ballads.

Reflecting the homey, communal nature of the performance, aside from floor lamps, couch and coffee table at the rear of the stage, guest singers also contributed their vocal harmonies to great effect in support of each other.

A guaranteed best seller every time, Transatlantic Sessions starts its annual perambulation around the U.K. each year as a fixture in the Celtic Connections programme. The formula is simple enough; a, more or less, constant group of musicians, most from over here but a few from over there, joined by a handful of guests, different each year, with a slight bias towards acts from over there. This year’s impressive guest line-up was Tim O’Brien, Gretchen Peters, Molly Tuttle, Cara Dillon and Paul McKenna. This was the first night and, whilst not everything fell into place straight away, expectations were definitely met in the end.

The continued success of the show is impressive when you consider that the original TV series was made back in 1995 (it started as a TV only thing, although the last TV series was made in 2013). Co-musical director Aly Bain was quoted last year as saying: “the ‘special relationship’ across the Pond has come under scrutiny recently, but in the context of this music it remains as strong as ever.”

The first couple of guests, Scotland’s Paul McKenna and U.S bluegrass starlet Molly Tuttle. Paul said that as a Glaswegian he had always wanted to play on the Royal Concert Hall stage. His material was strong though, including, Banks of the Moy about the imprisonment of Michael Davitt, founder of the Irish Land League which organized resistance to absentee landlordism, ‘far from the lovely sweet banks of the Moy’. Paul got into his stride in the second half with his own very fine song The Dreamer, which he wrote whilst living in the United States about the extent to which the 1960s civil rights dream was unfulfilled given persistent discrimination and police killings.

Molly Tuttle has won lots of awards although she’s only 25. Save This Heart (from her EP Rise) gave her a chance to show us her exceptional claw hammer guitar technique. She played two songs from her forthcoming debut album When You’re Ready due to be released in April – Take The Journey in her second half slot was her strongest contribution on the night but we were left with the sense that we hadn’t seen what she is really capable of.

The ‘house band’ features an extraordinary array of talent: Aly Bain, Jerry Douglas (also master of ceremonies), Russ Barenberg, Phil Cunningham, John Doyle, Mike McGoldrick, John McCusker, Donald Shaw, James Mackintosh and Daniel Kimbro – who was very ably subbing on double bass for Danny Thompson, who sadly isn’t well enough to join the band this year and, as fine a player as Daniel is, you can’t help but miss Danny’s towering presence.

The first half really got going when Doyle, McCusker and McGoldrick played a set of tunes from their Wishing Tree album from last year. Played with their trademark verve and passion, the set was enhanced by the rest of the house band all locking into gear behind the trio. The audience response to this, and to other instrumentals, was if anything more enthusiastic than for most of the guest singers – which does not say the singers were not appreciated, only that this is an audience that has a strong liking for Scottish and Irish traditional tunes when played as well as this. John Doyle also did a single guest slot, giving us a fine rendition of his own song Burke & Hare, also from The Wishing Tree, telling the tale of the infamous murderers’ activities in Edinburgh in 1828, and using a nursery rhyme about the murders for the chorus.

Tim O’Brien was making a welcome return to the house band as well doing a guest slot. He instantly had a warm, authoritative presence in front of the mike, singing and playing, mostly mandolin, with relaxed confidence. He sang two of his own compositions from his most recent album, the later the title track. Guardian Angel he introduced quite cheerily as the night’s first tearjerker and then told us it was about the death of his older sister when he was nearly two years old. Where The River Meets The Road (the album’s title track) he said was about his Irish great grandfather’s journey to his hometown of Wheeling in West Virginia once he arrived in the U.S. Tim’s songs are always top notch and he sings with an effortless conviction that completely draws you in. He also played one instrumental titled Keith In A Palm Tree which, he explained, he wrote after Keith Richards fell out of a palm tree in Fiji in 2006 sustaining a serious head injury. A cheerful, fun tune, it included, half-way through, a thud representing Keith’s head meeting the ground! More Tim O’Brien would have been great but the format limits guest’s contributions and in no time it’s time to move on.

The final guest from across the Atlantic was Gretchen Peters. Another superb songwriter and assured performer, she sang Wichita, a hard-hitting song about sexual abuse, co-written with British singer/song-writer Ben Glover, from her recent album Dancing With the Beast (read Glenn Kimpton’s review here). Black Ribbons imagines the devastating impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 on one family in Louisiana. On A Bus From St Cloud brilliantly describes the narrator’s experience of imagining seeing someone you are estranged from and miss, even when your feelings about them are ambivalent, in different, random places. A captivating performance from Gretchen.

Cara Dillon was in great form, she seemed relaxed and sang as resolutely as the big accompaniment required. Continuing a pattern established by others, she sang two songs from her recent album Wanderer  – Sailor Boy, a traditional song about death at sea, had Tim O’Brien subbing for the vocal that Kris Drever adds to the album track, and Banks of the Foyle which a reduced size band gave an appropriately uncluttered backing to. P For Paddy is a great sing-along song that Cara sang with real zest (she covered it on her great 2009 album Hill of Thieves).

Aly Bain led off another great set of tunes, including a tune from his native Shetland and a John McCusker tune. An outstanding moment in the evening came with an air written by Phil Cunningham for the mighty uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn who died last year. Phil explained in introducing it that he wrote the song for Liam some time before he died, so Liam had heard it, and Phil told Liam that his playing with Planxty had been the inspiration for Phil to play traditional music. The tune didn’t have a title until the set list was being put together in rehearsals for the show when it became So Long Liam – a beautiful, dignified tune featuring exquisite accordion from Phil and lovely, respectful pipes from Mike McGoldrick.

At the heart of the Transatlantic Sessions is an utterly reliable engine room that is on top of everything – tunes, key and time signature changes – always keeping things on track. All in all a hugely entertaining evening from the large cast of characters that have assembled for this year’s Transatlantic Sessions.

Visit the Folk Radio UK website to read this article in its entirety.

Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
Figures from the US and UK folk traditions pooled their talents into a 16-strong jam band, and alternated between the spine-tingling and the rollicking

by

4 out of 5 stars.

Towards the end of this epic gig, US dobro guitar-slinger and laid-back master of ceremonies Jerry Douglas addresses the fired-up Celtic Connections crowd in Glasgow’s preeminent concert hall. “We know you all could be at home watching Game of Thrones,” he says, “so thank you for coming out.” But squint and there are a few similarities between HBO’s bingeable fantasy hit and the Transatlantic Sessions project that has long been shepherded by Douglas and Shetland fiddler Aly Bain: both have sprawling cast lists, weave together stories from two continents and take great delight in surprising their audiences.

Part melting pot, part jam band, Transatlantic Sessions was originally conceived as a TV showcase in the mid-90s, mixing together folk musicians and traditions from the US, UK and Ireland. It debuted as a freewheeling live show at Glasgow’s roots music festival in 2004 and has been an annual fixture ever since (the current incarnation is also heading out on tour to England and Ireland).

With Douglas and Bain leading a crackerjack 11-piece house band, including foot-stomping fiddler John McCusker, uilleann pipes virtuoso Michael McGoldrick and former Celtic Connections artistic director Donald Shaw on piano, the 2019 edition is further bolstered by five guest artists. That means 16 bodies mingling on a busy stage already dotted with homely floor lamps, low-slung couches and a coffee table stacked with what looks like a hefty rider.

Part of the fun of Transatlantic Sessions is witnessing how the guests are willing to pitch in. As well as playing their own expertly crafted songs, young Scottish folk guitarist Paul McKenna and US mandolin master Tim O’Brien merge into the ensemble to add extra texture as required. Rising Californian bluegrass talent Molly Tuttle and empathetic Irish singer Cara Dillon – who could likely sell out this venue herself – step up to provide haunting backing vocals for Nashville Hall of Famer Gretchen Peters on the brooding Black Ribbons, which was inspired by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill encroaching on Louisiana.

The rotating spotlight on artists – interspersed with the occasional rollicking suite of foot-stomping reels – adds light and shade to a show that, with a halftime breather, runs long at almost three hours. Outlier highlights include Douglas swashbuckling his way through a bluegrass cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe that transcends its jokey premise, and accordionist Phil Cunningham paying tribute to the late Irish folk pioneer Liam O’Flynn with a moving instrumental newly named So Long Liam.

O’Brien, a road veteran with a wickedly dry sense of humour, is a particular joy, capable of switching from tearjerking tales in tribute to the sister he lost as a child to an almost tropical track commemorating the time Keith Richards fell out of a tree in Fiji. He also tags in to duet with Dillon on the plaintive Sailor Boy, from her 2017 album Wanderer, which is a spine-tingling delight.

At 25, Tuttle is at the younger end of the ensemble, but her energetic claw-hammer guitar technique makes a lasting impression. Her propulsive, mob-handed Take the Journey is one of the evening’s later highlights and further proof that the Transatlantic Sessions honours the special UK-US musical relationship at a time when the political one seems more than a little frayed. “See? We can all get along,” says Douglas, before adding, with just a hint of glib Trumpian emphasis: “We have the greatest songs.”

This year’s edition of the Celtic and American traditional music roadshow generated as much collective energy as ever

-by Clive Davis

★★★★☆
Another evening, another party. No concert series I know of is as downright joyous as these long-running celebrations of Celtic and American traditional music. Year in, year out, the fiddler Aly Bain and Dobro guitarist Jerry Douglas preside over performances that evoke the informality of a sing-song in a pub.

If Rhiannon Giddens’s guest appearance in 2016 set a benchmark that will be hard to beat, this year’s edition of the roadshow generated as much collective energy as ever. It’s always intriguing to see how Bain and Douglas calibrate the line-up throughout the night, creating endless permutations of the dozen or so musicians on the stage.

The humour was irresistible too, whether in the form of the accordionist Phil Cunningham’s muttered asides between numbers or a calypso-like mandolin duet by Tim O’Brien and Russ Barenberg that asked us to imagine that indestructible ne’er-do-well Keith Richards having a mishap on a tropical island. Douglas was also on mischievous form, turning Hey Joe into a scampering bluegrass anthem.

Gretchen Peters offered a more introspective glimpse of material from her new album, Dancing with the Beast. Even some of the old hands in the band seemed to be paying close attention to the clawhammer guitar technique of the much-acclaimed newcomer Molly Tuttle — who, like Peters, will be back here on tour soon. Cara Dillon supplied wistful Irish balladry, while the Scottish singer-guitarist Paul McKenna included a song inspired by memories of playing seven shows a day, five days a week at Disney World in Florida. Inspiration strikes in the most unpromising places.

This was a night, though, when the men stoking the engines came to the fore. It seemed strange not to see the token Englishman, Danny Thompson, at his usual post on double bass, yet Daniel Kimbro was an accomplished replacement. John McCusker’s fiddle playing was ecstatic and James Mackintosh’s brush-based drumming offered a masterclass in soft power. As ever, the guest artists stayed on stage on sofas when they weren’t performing. It’s an inspired touch. By the end, I didn’t want to leave either.

As part of the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, Scotland, we performed a live set for BBC Two Scotland at the beautiful Cottier’s Theatre, originally Dowanhill Parish Church. It was a stunning backdrop for music, particularly appropriate for “Say Grace”.

You can watch our performance of “Say Grace” here, and watch “Arguing With Ghosts” here.

The whole program, which also includes Loudon Wainwright III and Scottish band Imar, can be seen here.

…usually Gretchen Peters, Mary Gauthier, and Eliza Gilkyson, last night’s show took place sans the third, who was sick. Instead, newcomer and former student of the other two Jaimee Harris stepped in. Always accompanied by pianist Barry Walsh, the songwriters switched off in a roundtable format, perhaps accompanied by the other two on guitar or vocal harmonies. As such, you really got to intimately and individually know each one–Peters’ emotive coo, Gauthier’s matter-of-fact storytelling, and Harris’s bear-all soul…

To read this review in its entirety, visit SiLy.

Many thanks to The Bitter Southerner for publishing “Concealer”. The idea for this essay had been percolating in me for some time, and more than a few of the songs from Dancing With The Beast touch on the ideas in this piece – perhaps most directly, “The Boy From Rye”:

…that moment when adolescent girls realize they are not the central characters in their own lives anymore, but prizes to be won by the alpha boy. The unspoken but understood idea we must compete with each other sexually is devastating to women. It taints some of the strongest and most important relationships in our lives; at worst, it destroys them, or prevents them from ever happening. It divides us; and divided, we never know the power we would have had together.

In addition to “Concealer”, the lyric video for “The Boy From Rye” has been released today.

I’m honored to be included on these year-end “best of 2018” lists:

Americana Highways Editor’s Pick: The Dirty Dozen Top Albums Of 2018 -“The Stories, oh dear god, The Stories. Peters know how to draw out real cathartic release for the saddest parts of our collective unconsciouses, all set to a full band sound. These songs cover all manner of personal experiences from aging and Alzheimer’s, to love, loss, prostitution, and abuse. Get out the tissues while you’re letting this album wash over you.”

Folk Alley’s Best of 2018: Elena See’s Favorite Folk and Americana Albums of the Year – Peters says she was feeling quite low when she was working on this album. It was right after the 2016 presidential election and she wasn’t quite sure what to do next. She ended up doing what she does very well – she started telling stories, working through what she – and others – were feeling. It’s the kind of record that will somehow always speak to you, no matter what you’re going through.

B-Sides and Badlands 30 Best Albums of 2018 – Amidst a flurry of grim solitude, which serves as a shattering reflection of real life, Gretchen Peter’s new album is gilded with softness, almost hopeful in its savory nuances. “Wichita,” named one of our Best Songs of 2018, is entrenched in southern gothic folklore, a story song about a young girl’s murderous revenge, and signals the comprehensive tone of the record. “Disappearing Act” sketches a woman who’s lost too much to care about appearances, a grisly but gorgeous moment; “Lowlands” is a reaction to the ghastly 2016 presidential reaction, a harsh reality we can’t escape; and “Truckstop Angel” sees her choking on regret. Seven albums deep now, Peters continues sacrificing bits of herself to write such stunning and profound portraits of mankind in exhaustive, radical detail.

No Depression 50 Favorite Roots Music Albums of 2018 (reader poll)

Folk & Tumble The Best of 2018

Bernard Zuel – Top 20 Albums of 2018

Folk Alley Best Albums of 2018 – Listener Poll

WMOT Listener’s Choice 2018 – Top 10

 

The Black Friday sale at gretchenpeters.com starts November 23rd! Save 20% storewide starting 23 November through 27 November (Cyber Monday) – just use the discount code blackfriday at checkout.

In addition, the Blackbirds and Hello Cruel World CDs are on sale for just $5 apiece!

Visit the web store starting Friday, November 23rd to shop.

*20% discount is storewide and includes handwritten lyrics.

I will be facilitating a three day intensive songwriting workshop in conjunction with Performing Songwriter in 2019. Each of these workshops is limited to a small number of registrants to ensure a personal and unmatched experience with one-on-one access to the teachers. We will dig deep into the art and the craft of songwriting. You’ll leave tired and inspired! This workshop will take place in Nashville from February 21-23 and will include the following:

  • Building the backstory for your song
  • Finding the melody of a character
  • How to arrange a song
  • Surprise Guest Speakers & Musical events
  • Song Critiques & sharpening skills with Gretchen and her guest teacher
  • A One-on-One session with Gretchen

In addition to the intensive days of songwriting, you’ll enjoy a surprise once-in-a-lifetime private concert, a closing night group dinner and song circle, buffet breakfasts on Thursday and Friday mornings, surprise guest songwriting friends of Gretchen’s who will join us and inspire you, and an opening night dinner on Wednesday evening Feb. 20 at a Nashville home with Gretchen!

This is my only scheduled Nashville songwriting workshop for 2019, and it will sell out, so be sure to register soon! You can find all the details and register at Performing Songwriter.

I’m thrilled to announce the Strings Attached Tour, coming to the UK for eight very special shows in April 2019. Along with my band, Barry Walsh, Conor McCreanor and Colm McClean, we’ll be joined by the Southern Fried String quartet at each of these shows. Reprising our set at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth, Scotland last summer, with beautiful string arrangements by Scottish violinist Patsy Reid, come join us and hear these songs like you’ve never heard them before. Ticket links below:

13 April – Gala, Durham

14 April – Whitby Pavilion, Whitby

16 April – RNMC, Manchester

17 April – Sheffield City Hall, Sheffield

19 April – St George’s, Bristol

20 April – Cadogan Hall, London

22 April – De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill On Sea

23 April – The Apex, Bury St Edmunds