Chieftains Celebrate 50 Years Of Irish Music

When Paddy Moloney started considering possible collaborators for The Chieftains’ 50th anniversary album, he knew the kind of artists he didn’t want: Mick Jagger, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison.

He’d worked with all of those stars in the past: “I didn’t want to go in that generation,” he explained.

“I wanted a newer generation; new kids on the block, you might say. Great indie contemporary stars of music.”

Photo: AP Photo
Holding up a tin whistle at his home in Naples, Fla.

Still, the 72-year-old Irish music titan admits to being a bit nervous about bringing young musicians into the Chieftains fold.

“I was 50-50 about doing it,” he said. “Because I haven’t been happy about what I’ve been hearing over the last 20 years, the music that’s been coming out. I just wonder, is it music at all, you know? It’s all commercial.”

Here’s who Moloney ended up with on Voice of Ages: Best new artist Grammy winner Bon Iver, Pistol Annies, The Civil Wars, The Secret Sisters, Carolina Chocolate Drops and The Decemberists – to name a few. It was the band’s first real collaboration with indie rockers, and Moloney couldn’t be happier with the results.

“These younger bands, I could hear what I would call the revival of the bands of the ‘50s and ‘60s,” said Moloney. “The music and the great songs and the lyrics.”

Laura Rogers of the Secret Sisters said they were initially asked to collaborate with Moloney by mutual friend and record producer T Bone Burnett.

“A lot of the American music we love has a strong Irish influence,” she said. “We grew up with folky Appalachian bluegrass music. Those styles of music have a lot in common.”

Working in the studio with Moloney on the Irish folk song “Peggy Gordon” was exciting and comfortable, said Rogers. She also called him “sweet and encouraging.”

Moloney and The Chieftains recently finished a month-long U.S. tour that ended on St. Patrick’s Day at Carnegie Hall. He spends his down time, about four months of the year, resting up in Naples, Fla., at his sun-filled home with his wife, children and grandchildren. There’s a grand piano in the living room and about a dozen tin flutes and other assorted instruments.

On most evenings, he walks from his home to the beach with a flute, and plays as an orange sun dips into the vibrant blue Gulf of Mexico. It’s a long way from where Moloney began his career.

Born in 1938 outside of Dublin, Ireland, Moloney began playing a tin whistle as a boy and at 8, he learned the uilleann pipes. In 1962, he formed The Chieftains with Martin Fay, Sean Potts and Michael Tubridy and cut a record of traditional Irish songs. It would be six years before the band made another record and several members kept their day jobs for a decade – some worked for the post office and Moloney was an accountant for a building firm. Yet they kept playing and in 1975, the popular British music magazine Melody Maker named them band of the year.

“I was very determined to spread the gospel of this great folk art,” Moloney said.

The scope of the band’s success and lasting legacy is enormous: six Grammys and more than 50 albums. Their fans include everyone from Anjelica Huston to Irish-American astronaut Cady Coleman (who played a solo on Moloney’s pennywhistle in space; the band included it on the new album).

Moloney, whose conversations are filled with entertaining anecdotes of his life and travels, talks casually of “turning up” at the house of the late Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones in 1966 and chatting with actor Peter Sellers as The Chieftains records played in the background.

He also recalls being 5 and listening to his grandfather playing flute in a “small little country cottage” in Ireland, while the neighbors accompanied on various instruments.

“They would knock on the door, unannounced. No telephone, no electricity for God’s sake,” Moloney said, laughing. “They’d start dancing and the dust would go up and that would go on all night.”

For “Voice of Ages,” Moloney has recreated that impromptu jam session in the little country cottage. He wanted all surviving band members from days past and present – he’s dubbed the newer members “baby Chiefs” – to play one long song. “The Chieftains Reunion” is an 11-minute tune that brings everyone together.

It was Burnett who suggested working with the indie music scene on the other tracks. In the fall of 2011, Moloney traveled back and forth from Dublin to Los Angeles to make the 15-track record.

Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate drops said she was in awe the first time she had a conversation with Moloney: “I couldn’t believe who I was talking to.”

Giddens, who plays banjo, fiddle, and kazoo, said she has long been fascinated by the intersection of Irish music and black string music. The result on “Voice of Ages” is “Pretty Little Girl with the Blue Dress On,” an upbeat and soaring tune.

A Chieftains European tour begins at the end of May and runs into June. The band will then play festivals in San Francisco, Vancouver and Nova Scotia. There’s a winter tour scheduled in Japan and China, and after that, Moloney will return to Florida and the beach, with his family and flute.

Retirement? Not likely.

“My wife was asked about 10 years ago, ‘Is he ever going to stop?’ “ said Moloney, grinning. “She said, ‘Well, I think he’s in rehearsal for retirement.’“