This week, I want to introduce you to one of the most accomplished Celtic/ Bluegrass players I've ever met. Traditionally, Ed Harris is a Celtic musician but the roots of Bluegrass run deep across the pond, blessing us here with a unique sound of heart, soul and a lifetime of tradition.
I first met Ed on line about two years ago. We were in a chat room following the Bluegrass Music Awards. I'd never been in the group before but Ed especially made me feel right at home. I picked him up on Twitter and have been following and sharing his talent with my followers ever since. So let's open the chute!
Thank you for joining me this week, Ed. This is a real treat.
As you know I primarily cover traditional country as well as bluegrass music. But as we’ve discussed, these genres are fingerlings from Irish and Celtic music going back generations. The strains were brought to the US by Irish and Scottish immigrants.
When you first fell in love with the genre, did you have that ‘ah ha moment’ or a sense of coming home? Actually, it did! It was definitely an “Ah Ha” moment! Music has always been a part of me since I first picked up the guitar at age 5. I studied classically, took up trumpet and piano as well and played in jazz ensembles, orchestra, did the rock thing for a very short time when I was about 12-16 years old, then it was acoustic. I absolutely loved James Taylor, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, John Denver.
As I got older, I dabbled in jazz again, then bluegrass, new-grass, and folk, but never really considered the Irish/Celtic/Breton genre until I volunteered as a sound engineer for the Fiddle and Bow Music Society around 1987. Fiddle and Bow is still an active music society which was founded on and always supported promoted Celtic Music, and I immediately connected with it. I can’t believe it’s been almost 30 years ago now since I first ran sound for the group, “The Woods Tea Company” with Andy Irvine. I was hooked after that, and the rest is history! Besides, it is my heritage, and may in part be reason as well…
What is it about the music that speaks to you, what do you hear? What speaks to me most is in how it connects us to the past. Whether it’s the melodic quality of an Aire or that of a Strathospy, or the fast tempo of a Reel or Jig, it is a music style which remains ageless and reminds us that we as humans have not really changed all that much over time. Also, the rhythms and ornamentations are so subtle yet complex that the unaccustomed listener often misses out what is actually happening within the music. It is a style rich in culture and welcomes many different instrumental voicings ranging from the ancient Celtic harp, fiddle, tin whistle, Uilleann Pipes, tenor banjo, flute, and the list goes on.
Unlike for example, bluegrass which I had found to be a bit more restrictive. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy and appreciate bluegrass very much. But a requirement is you need a Martin D-28 or D-18, a Gibson F-Style Mandolin, and so on. Don’t dare attend a bluegrass jam session with an A-Style (tear drop shape) mandolin or Taylor made guitar or you won’t be taken seriously! lol
Just a side note, the fiddle I play is over 100 years old, and it has worn areas on its soundboard from where fiddle-sticks had been played as a percussive accompaniment. There is a special connection every time I pick my old fiddle. First, I always wonder about it’s history and all the hands that had held it before me. Secondly, I acquired it in 1993 just after my dad had died. He always enjoyed the fiddle but had never heard me play. Celtic music is much more than what you hear…it is about what you feel and in how you convey that feeling to others. I hope to be able to capture some of that magic one day…
Aside from your mom, who has been the most influential in your music career? There are many professional artists who have influenced me musically. Music is perpetual. Musicians will always be students in that we are always wanting to learn and share new musical experiences. In my life journey I have had the pleasure and privilege in meeting many talented and wonderful people. Since I play several instruments, those that inspired me the most are seemingly from one end of the musical spectrum to the other! However, they include, Segovia, Chet Atkins, James Taylor, Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt, Liz Carroll, Kevin Burke, Martin Hayes, John Doyle, Tony Rice, Doc Watson, to name a few.
If you could step back in time and had the opportunity to learn something about the music at the knee of someone, who would you choose and why? For Irish Fiddle, It would be a toss between Kevin Burke and Martin Hayes. Kevin, has a very down to earth approach on the fiddle and exemplifies a master you would find standing out during an Irish Seisiún and Martin Hayes for his almost inhuman technical ability. I could list mentors I would like to have spent time with for guitar, bouzouki, citern, mandolin, mandola, etc. but would take more time than intended. Since I’ve played guitar all my life I will mention that I would love to have spent time with Segovia for classical, and Chet Atkins for his sheer genius and with John Doyle for Irish Guitar. He is a master of the genre.
I’ve read that bluegrass seems to have a rigid instrumental blueprint, whereas Celtic does not. Are there instruments that lend themselves to both very well? To flip, are there instruments that are more in line with bluegrass, and ones more prominent with Celtic? Yes, this is true as I had mentioned earlier. However, there are a couple of instruments I can think of that do lend themselves to both genres with basic differences in design only. Guitar, Mandolin, and Fiddle. Typically, a bluegrass ensemble consists of a 5-string Banjo, F-Style Mandolin, Guitar, and Upright Bass. Occasionally, you will see a Fiddle (violin) but not as often as the others mentioned.
Unlike it’s cousin, Celtic music utilizes a plectrum or tenor banjo which picks the melody note for note. The 5-string is not conducive to Celtic music. I have seen accomplished claw-hammer banjoist perform Irish music and I’m certain an accomplished 5-string bluegrass musician would be capable in expressing Celtic tunes as well. However, it is not common to say the least. The mandolin difference only lies in the body style. The F-Style mandolin is discernible from the A-style by its rather ornate and curled asymmetrical extension near the fingerboard. The A-Style mandolin is best described as having a symmetrical tear-shaped or pear-shaped bout. No difference in their tuning but their projected sound is different due to their shape.
Martin guitars are coveted and the staple for the bluegrass genre. The D-18 and D-28s have strong sound projections which “cut” through the competing volume of the banjo and mandolin which is the main reason they are common. Celtic guitar is customarily softer in tone and really isn’t used as a lead instrument much. This is why you see many Celtic guitars with cedar tops as opposed to the brighter and louder spruce tops of the bluegrass guitars. Celtic guitar players often use alternative tuning as opposed to the standard tuning which is common in other genres. The most prominent tuning for Celtic guitar is DADGAD. Of course there are other tunings used such as open C, dropped D, etc. as well and the purpose of these tunings is to attain a “modal” or “drone” sound.
Other than guitar, what other instruments do you play? I had mentioned a few earlier, but it all started with guitar. In addition, I dabbled on piano and played the trumpet (still pick it up now and then) during my school years and into college. If you’re looking for list, I guess it would include, acoustic and electric bass, mandolin, mandola, violin, viola, cello, harmonica, recorder, bodhran, keyboards, tenor banjo, bouzouki or octave mandolin, and cittern. Recently, I’ve been dabbling with claw-hammer style banjo which I would like to try and incorporate into some of my music sometime.
What is your favorite tune to play and why? Oh my, I don’t know if I really have a favorite tune to play. My all time favorite song is Shenandoah which I have loved since early childhood. I have been asked on several occasions if I have any score or tap on how I perform “Si Bheag, Si Mhor”
Actually, I had an Irish TV station contact me asking for permission to use my video for one of their episodes on Canals in Ireland. They assumed I was a member of one of their licensing agencies there in Ireland. I informed I was not but licensing release could be worked out via BMI of which I am registered. Due to tight timelines it was not feasible however. Other tunes that are among my favorites are: “Two Rivers” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVVrVgDrSIQ) and “Jock O’Hazeldean” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpkQU3mykoo). An original instrumental I hold dearest is “A Brother’s Lament”(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o068-_pyv2o). It’s a tune I composed to commemorate the death of my youngest brother to lost his battle with cancer. There is a story behind how it came to be after numerous failed attempts…but that is another story.
Bluegrass seems to be making a resurgence. Thanks to groups such as Celtic Woman and Celtic Thunder, an appreciation for Celtic music also seems to be gaining in appreciation here in the states. What do you want listeners to take away from hearing you, or any Celtic performance? From me, I’m not sure really! I just enjoy learning, creating, and recording music because it is a passion of mine. I’m not trying to save the world or become a household word or be discovered and signed by a record label. For me, it’s none of that. I have complete artistic freedom, in that I have absolutely no pressure to perform or wonder where my next gig is going to be, or if my audience or fans love me or not. I just do it for the sheer passion of doing it and if something connects at some level and brings some joy or reflection into someone’s life somewhere, then it’s all worthwhile. For me, it’s about connecting.
Music is universal on do many levels. Now, for others, it is my sincere hope that exposure to not only this genre, but to other musical genres, will help broaden and deepen appreciation, respect, and tolerance among peoples of many cultures. Too often, I find music listeners have a narrow view musically when there is so much beautiful music out there.
Thanks for joining me today, Ed. I look forward to continuing to share your music with my readers.
Please check out the YouTube links Ed provided and subscribe to his channel. If you'd like to learn more about Ed, you can check out his website and social media via the links below.
PINTEREST INSTAGRAM (EdHarrisMusic)