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Memory Lane: When Altan teamed up with the Queen of Country

Mairéad and Altan performing with Dolly Parton at Dollywood. Photo: Mark Burgess

Mairéad and Altan performing with Dolly Parton at Dollywood. Photo: Mark Burgess

BY SEÁN P. FEENY
AS Altan prepare to launch their latest album recorded in Nashville, we decided to take a trip down memory lane to when the beloved Donegal group teamed up with one of Tennessee’s most famous daughters.

In 1994 Dolly Parton recorded a live album entitled Heartsongs: Live From Home using the finest bluegrass and acoustic musicians from the United States and combined them with one of the greatest traditional Irish groups, Altan.

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The Queen of Country said: “It was a match made in heaven as the fiddles, guitars and dobro interacted with the Irish ‘squeezebox’, uileann pipes, whistles and bouzouki.

“We often found that a song by the Irish musicians under one title would be familiar to the bluegrass musicians under another title.

“One of the songs we recorded was the ancient ballad Barbara Allen. While I sang the lyrics in English, Mairéad (Ní Mhaonaigh) sang the Gaelic translation. The combination was unbelievable.”

This quote was taken from a foreword written by Dolly for the award-winning book and CD, Wayfaring Strangers – The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, by Fiona Richie and Doug Orr.

Altan’s new album The Widening Gyre was recorded in Nashville and features a ‘who’s who’ of bluegrass including Jerry Douglas who won a Grammy Award with the Earls of Leicester earlier this week.

On The Widening Gyre (release date: February 23), the world famous band, fronted by Gaoth Dobhair’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, explores the musical relationship between American roots music and Irish traditional music.

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The final result, released by Compass Records, is completely engaging, simultaneously breaking new ground and reminding listeners of the ancient bond between Irish and Appalachian music.

“The music on this album examines the life cycle of Altan by exploring the influence of Appalachian music on Irish music,” said Mairéad.

Mairéad is now hoping that she can find a fiddle-maker on Shetland who can repair her instrument.

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