Nollaig Casey, The Music of What Happens (Old Bridge Music 2004)
Moira Nelligan, I Give You Music (self-released, undated)

Here are two singers who also happen to be fine fiddle players. They are from different places geographically -- West Cork, Ireland and Savannah, Georgia. One is known nationally, while the other is a firmly homebrewed phenomenon. What they have in common is a deep love for Irish music, and this shows in their respective recordings.

Nollaig Casey has achieved a commendable reputation as one of the leading lights in Celtic music through her associations with Planxty and Artie McGlynn. A singer, fiddler and composer, her music spans both traditional and classical approaches. Her debut album The Music of What Happens has been, as they say, a long time coming. But when it did arrive on the U.K.-based Old Bridge Music, (home of her sister harpist Mair Ni Cathasaigh and her partner Chris Newman), the album was highly acclaimed.

It is a remarkable piece of work, accomplished and well rounded, blending her upbringing in Beara in West Cork and her classical training. The latter shows up mainly in her poise; her interpretations of traditional music never sound forced or wooden as is sometimes the case with trained artistes. Nollaig manages to capture the sweetness in tone of both traditions and meld them together in a unique fashion. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the air 'The Last Lord of Beara', which has both classical and tradition motifs welded seamlessly in such a natural form that it becomes the player. Likewise when playing reels and other dance music she incorporates the traditional elements in fine fashion, as found in 'The Sister's Set' where traditional and self-penned tunes find safe homes. Another example of this work is 'The Beehive' an original hornpipe dedicated to her late father Sean who was a beekeeper; this tune sounds straight out of the tradition rather than an original composition. The vocal tracks also have a mix of the traditional and classical -- like a classical singer she has the necessary poise to deliver a song as an entity while being richly involved in its essence.

Nollaig grew up in a Gaelic-speaking family and the Irish songs are the main vocal tracks. She gives the classic 'Spailpin a Run' a quietly resigned reading and the more up-tempo songs like 'A Bhurcaigh Bhui o'n gCeim' and 'Citi Na gCumann' are given more sprightly treatments. The one English song, 'My Bonny Blue Eyed Lassie', from the Northern tradition, is given a relaxed and spacious reading and becomes a regular feature in the memory bank after prolonged exposure. The guitar accompaniment from Artie McGluyn is both sensitive and stirring by turn. His uncanny knowledge of when to hold back or drive Nollaig to further creative heights is a highlight of his musical approach. There are some serious duet performances here kicking out joyously in 'Jota de Maia', and their anthem 'Music for a Found Harmonium' shows the unity and tightness of their performances. In summary, The Music of What Happens welcomes a major player center stage at last and is a triumphant achievement.

Moira Nelligan comes from Savannah, Georgia, in the American Deep South. Growing up of Irish parents, she studied violin and piano in childhood but discovered traditional music through a visit to the West of Ireland, and the rest is history. Returning home, she sought out players, tunes, and mixed with luminaries like Kevin Burke, Liz Carroll and Eileen Ivers, as well as learning Cajun tunes from Dewey Balfa and Quebecois tunes from Lisa Ornstein. Playing in the Georgia club, festival and bar scene, she has made a name for herself. Now she finally releases her debut album, I Give You Music.

The similarities between her and Nollaig Casey are obvious: both singers and fiddlers, receiving early classical training before going for traditional music and making their marks there. However, Moira Nelligan has taken other stuff with her too, including a very American roots style of singing in the bluegrass "high lonesome" mode similar to Alison Krauss and Dolly Parton with a little Emmylou Harris for good measure. This comes over very effectively on American material such as the hymn-like title track and Parton's 'Jolene', but she can also handle English songs like 'The Gypsy Wedding Day' and Irish songs like 'Johnny Shoemaker' with equal weight and measure. The main thing is that her singing does not sound forced or unnatural. It is a steady, flowing voice full of sweetness and emotional depth.

Her fiddle playing is spirited and lively, again without the stiffness of many classical players who try to handle traditional music. The instrumental tracks are rendered solo with a string accompaniment whether guitar or bouzouki or in a full session style with uilleann pipes, mandolin and bodhrn. The most important thing is that they sound natural. It is clear that Moira Nelligan loves her music. She loves playing it and has no qualms about that either. That love and passion for music and her respectful attitude for songs and their narrative strength makes this album so special.

So, there are two singing fiddlers from different places, and each making personal statements of their love for traditional music. As long as statements like these two albums get onto CD, the future of music is certain.

[John O'Regan]