About the Crossing:
Multi Grammy award winner Tim O’Brien re-releases this collection from 1999. Calling on his many Irish and American musical friends as collaborators, he surveys the Irish American experience in song and shows how influences flow in both directions across the Atlantic.
Guests: Darol Anger, Paul Brady, Ronan Brown, Dermot Byrne, Ciaran Curran, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Seamus Egan, Frankie Gavin, David Grier, Viktor Krauss, Kenny Malone, Mike Marshall, Kathy Mattea, Del McCoury, Edgar Meyer, John Mock, Maeraid Ni Mhaonaigh, Maura O’Connell, Kelly Joe Phelps, Todd Phillips, Dirk Powell, Darrell Scott, Earl Scruggs, Mark Schatz, Daithi Sproule, Ciaran Tourish, and Jeff White.
Songwriters: Guy Clark, Craig Fuller, Tim O’Brien, Danny O’Keefe, Piece Pettis, Robin and Linda Williams,
Other sources: The Hammons Family, Buell Kazee, The Osborne Brothers, French Carpenter, and Bill Monroe
The Crossing is a project near and dear to my heart. It came about in an unusual way, and I’m really glad it happened. After twelve years in Hot Rize, I launched my solo career with various touring ensembles and record recordings. When my contract with Sugar Hill records ended after five releases in 1998, I looked around for something new. A long time friend whose musical sensibility I admired, Akira Satake, had started a world music label called Alula. I asked him if he could see a way for my music to fit with Alula, and we came up with an idea.
The project would draw the connecting lines between American Appalachian music and traditional Irish music. As a bluegrass and old time music player, and as a songwriter, I had long enjoyed the influence of acoustic players in the Irish and overall Celtic tradition. I played jigs and reels for fun at home, and always looked for ways to play more and learn more, including producing recordings of a Colorado trad band, Colcannon, as well as renowned fiddler Kevin Burke’s Open House band. Over the years, many of my favorite players and singers on both sides of the Atlantic had become friends, so I made a list of potential collaborators. Though I initially thought the material would mostly consist of songs and tunes that are played in both America and Ireland, I soon began writing some original songs that broadened the scope. This was an opportunity to dig deeper into not only my own Irish ancestry, but also my West Virginia roots.
One of the last songs I found - Ireland’s Green Shore – fit the original concept perfectly and opens the recording. I learned it from an a capella version sung by Maggie Hammons from Webster County WV. It’s a prime example of the Irish “aisling” or “dream” song, and speaks longingly of a homeland that’s no longer within reach. I built my own version from a guitar tuning learned from Kelly Joe Phelps, adding Stuart Duncan’s fiddle, Edgar Meyer’s bass, and Kenny Malone’s percussion, before crowning it with Del McCoury’s harmony vocal.
The second track – A Mountaineer Is Always Free – was co-written with Alabama singer songwriter Pierce Pettis, and it speaks of the immigrant’s pride in making a home and family in the new world. Pierce’s brain was firing away, and as he riffed ideas and I wrote them down and changed a few to make them rhyme. He remembered that the seal of the state of West Virginia contains the Latin – Montani Semper Liberi – and said excitedly, “There’s your song title.” This track is one of several featuring the bass of Viktor Krauss and the guitar of Darrell Scott, who at that point was my regular touring partner. Seamus Egan added low whistles
The Crossing was written early one morning after a stormy overnight ferry trip from Fishguard (Wales) to Rosslare (Ireland). After landing, we drove to a B&B in Roscrae where we were to perform that evening. I took out my fiddle, which was tuned into open A (low strings to high – AEAE), and this tune just kind of emerged.
The great Danny O’Keefe wrote Into the West. In many cultures including the Irish, the notion of going to the west, like the setting sun, signifies death. In the case of the famine era Irish, those that remained home would hold a “wake” for those about to emigrate. It was an extreme formal goodbye, as most would not return in their lifetime, and they were symbolically dying to their home community with their departure. Danny’s beautiful lyric and wistful music really grab the emotions.
The melodies and lyrics of traditional songs have long been traded, adapted, and reshaped by musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. My fellow West Virginian Kathy Mattea represents the female role in the prototypical American frontier ballad Wagoner’s Lad, while Paul Brady leads the vocal into some serious Irish ornamentation on the murder ballad Down In the Willow Garden. I studied his part, singing along in the car, for a couple months before trying to add my harmony part.
I learned Kid On the Mountain from my old friend Duck Baker in the mid 1970’s, This slip jig (9/8 time signature) was probably first recorded in New York by Sligo fiddler Michael Coleman, and often played at imformal jam sessions. I met both Darol Anger and Mike Marshall when they were part of the David Grisman Quintet, and this version of the tune is appropriately arranged by Darol for multiple mandolins, with members of Altan (Ciaran Tourish, Maeraid Ni Mhaonaigh, and Dermot Byrne) joining in on fiddles and accordion.
That piece and two more were recorded at Mike Marshall’s home studio in Oakland CA. Mike not only engineered some of the tracks, he also cooked some wonderful food that kept us going throughout that day and evening. The entire Altan band, plus bass hero Todd Phillips, and my sister Mollie O’Brien accompanied me on Lost Little Children. That song was co-written with old friends and fine musicians Robin and Linda Williams about unaccompanied children arriving on American shores. Todd Phillips and Kelly Joe Phelps join me on John Riley, written with Texas songwriting icon Guy Clark about a little known chapter in American history.
Dirk Powell is one of my favorite roots musicians and I’m proud to have collaborated with him on several projects over the years. I had already recorded the vocal version of Ireland’s Green Shore when Dirk arrived for some Nashville sessions, but we still recorded this mandolin and banjo version just because it felt right. We also recorded a medley of West Virginia tune Yew Piney Mountain and Bill Monroe’s Dusty Miller with the venerable Seamus Egan on wooden flute and David Grier on guitar.
Playing the musical circuit like I have for many years, you meet a lot of different people. Some folks seem larger than life and one such character was Rod McNeil, who promoted bluegrass shows at the Moose Lodge in Elizabeth PA. Rod brought folks together, providing a venue, building an audience, and treating the musicians with great care and respect. His concert series lost steam and ended a year of so after his passing, suggesting that he himself was the real attraction. Music and music people were Rod’s joy, and the melody of this song is borrowed from The Joy Of My Life, one of the first jigs I ever learned.
When I made a wish list of collaborators for this project, Earl Scruggs’s name came up. I had met Earl and his wife Louise a few times and felt bold enough to ask him. I called the Scrugg’s home phone, and Louise answered the phone. If you know Louise, you know she’s nearly all business. She asked what I wanted and I told her I hoped Earl might play on a track. She then asked, “What song?” I told her Soldiers Joy or Leather Britches (two tunes Earl had recorded with the Foggy Mountain Boys. She said, “Just a minute” and left me on hold, coming back a minute or so later. “Earl says he can’t play a solo on Leather Britches.” We scheduled a session and I was nervous to play not only with Scruggs but also with one of the very finest of Irish fiddlers, Frankie Gavin. Akira suggested we make it a medley of Lord McDonald (called Leather Britches in America) with Cumberland Gap, one of Earl’s classics.
While much of the lyrical subject matter of the songs concerns emigration, and immigrants lives in the new world, there was room in The Crossing for something from my own personal experience. Taking a cue from prototypical folk singer Woody Guthrie and his “talking blues”, I wrote a little ditty about my early trips to Ireland. While the events in Talkin Cavan didn’t all occur on my first visit, they are generally true! About a year after the release of The Crossing, I was in a rental car shuttle in Albany NY, making conversation with the driver who had a Cork / Kerry accent. I told him I was a musician, he told me he’d only just arrived in the US. A few sentences later, he’d figured me out and said, “Oh you’re the guy from Cavan.”
The Ribbon In Your Hair started as a story that flute player Joanie Madden told me, and morphed into a love song when I met Craig Fuller to co-write a song for this project. Craig was new to Nashville at the time, known to me as the singer with Pure Prairie League, and later with Little Feat. It became another vocal duet, this one with the powerful Maura O’Connell from Ennis, County Clare.
Some of the most vital traditional Irish music comes from Irish Travelers, with the Doran, Fury, and Keenan families well represented. This subset of Irish culture is known for the buying and selling of horses, for their expertise in mending pots (hence their being called “tinkers”), and for continuing the oral traditions of old Ireland. I wrote Wandering one early morning at Ron Kavana’s house in London in their honor.
Produced by Tim O’Brien and Akira Satake
Recorded by Bradley Hartman / Trace Sound, Franklin TN; additional recording by Dave Luke and Mike Marshall / Gatorland, Oakland CA, and Charles Sawtelle / DeVille, Boulder CO.
Mixed by Scott Noll / River View Studio, Montclair NJ
Mastered by Rick Rowe / Mediaforce, New York NY
Design by Sue Meyer Design
Cover image: “Emigrants Leave Ireland” engraving by Henry Doyle, from mary Frances Cusack’s Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868, Public Domain
Back cover photo by Michael Wilson
Photograph of Mass rock near Lough Gill, County Sligo by Jan Fabricius
Management: Brad Hunt, WNS / firstname.lastname@example.org / 585-765-2083
Bookings: Mongrel Music / www.mongrelm.com / 415-485-5100
This recording, originally released in 1999, is dedicated to the memories of Eileen Carson Schatz and Arty McGlynn, and to the spirit of immigrants everywhere.