It's never been lonely at the top for the Chieftains--not with the impressive company they keep. The world's most popular Irish traditional band has had no trouble over the years in attracting some high-powered talent to its recording projects: Sting, Van Morrison, James Galway, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Rickie Lee Jones, Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler, Linda Ronstadt and the enduring bad boys of British rock, the Rolling Stones.
''I've known Mick Jagger since he came to one of our shows in Dublin in 1966," said Paddy Moloney, the 59-year-old leader of the Chieftains, at a hotel in Manhattan the day after the Grammy Awards ceremony, where the group had been nominated for a 15th time. "In 1983, we opened for the Stones in Ireland. Imagine a traditional band playing in front of 80,000 screaming rock fans and getting a good reception. Twelve years later, I asked Mick and Keith Richards what song they'd like to do on our album 'The Long Black Veil,' and they didn't say 'We want to do one of our big rock songs.' They did 'The Rocky Road to Dublin,' a traditional Irish song, with us."
Moloney, who plays both uilleann ("elbow") pipes and tin whistle with the Chieftains, brims with laughter in recalling the circumstances of that Dublin recording session back in 1995. "The Stones were due at the studio at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and we had sent a coach bus to collect them, just in case. By 5 o'clock, they hadn't shown, and by 6:30, I was really getting nervous. Then at 7 they came in with their entourage. By midnight, the music was flying, but nothing had been recorded yet. So I said, 'Lads, do you mind if we put this on tape?' I thought I was in control, telling them when to start, which was no problem, and telling them when to stop, which was a big problem. That's why I faded the song out at the end. Believe me, it went on a lot longer. You might say we laid down 'The Rocky Road to Dublin'"--here he laughs out loud--"Stone by Stone that day."
Over two million copies of "The Long Black Veil" have been sold since its release in 1995, making it the most successful Chieftains' album ever. But this success has also left the band open to criticism about importing nontraditional performers to add commercial clout to its albums of traditional Irish music. Moloney dismisses such sniping. "We could have jazzed up the Chieftains back in the '70s when it was all the rage," he said, "but we didn't, and that was intentional. We're not a rock or pop band, nor do we want to be. We are still very much a traditional Irish band who happen to have some friends outside the tradition whom we enjoy working with from time to time. What's wrong with that?"
Nothing, judging from such spirited, chance-taking albums as "An Irish Evening," recorded live in concert at Belfast's Grand Opera House with Nanci Griffith and The Who's Roger Daltrey, and "Another Country," the Chieftains' homage to the Irish music/country music connection in America that featured Ricky Skaggs, Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck, Kris Kristofferson and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Both those recordings in 1992 earned Grammys in folk categories, as did the band's rigorously traditional "The Celtic Harp" album in 1993. Overall, the Chieftains have won five Grammys--an unprecedented feat for an Irish traditional group.
Founded in November 1962 by Paddy Moloney at his home in northern Dublin, the Chieftains, who were then juggling jobs and music, quickly grew into a standard-bearer for the jigs, reels, hornpipes, marches, slides and slow airs of their homeland. "I wanted to spread the gospel about this great musical art form we had in Ireland," explained Moloney. "I saw what the Clancy Brothers had done for Irish ballad singing in the 1950s and early '60s, and I thought something similar should be done for the traditional instrumental music of Ireland."
And that the Chieftains did, tirelessly, tastefully. Their big break came in 1975--not on stage or on record, but on screen. The soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" established an important beachhead for Irish traditional music in major commercial movies. Ironically, this beautiful-to-look-at but ponderous, inert film came to life for most people through its music, particularly the tunes performed by the Chieftains. What began as a Kubrick request for just three and a half minutes of Chieftains' music, the haunting Irish slow air "Mná na hÉireann" ("Women of Ireland"), eventually expanded into 25 minutes of the group's acoustic music for the movie. Leonard Rosenman's adaptation of period music, bolstered by the Chieftains' contribution, won an Academy Award. It put the band on the world musical map and allowed them to go from part-time to full-time performers.
Since 1978, the lineup of Moloney, flutist Matt Molloy, fiddler Seán Keane, singer and bodhrán (handheld Irish drum) player Kevin Conneff, fiddler Martin Fay, and harpist and keyboardist Derek Bell has not changed. While many other Irish traditional bands have come and gone, the Chieftains have not only survived but thrived. They have performed in many of the world's most prestigious venues (tonight they're here at Lincoln Center) and have recorded over 30 albums in their 36-year history, helping both to forge and fuel the current Celtic music boom world-wide. The native music of such Celtic lands as Scotland, Brittany in northwest France and Galicia in northwest Spain has found its way onto various Chieftains' albums, though Moloney bristles at the rather cavalier way the word "Celtic" is now slapped on so many recordings, especially those earmarked for the green selling season of St. Patrick's Day. "I feel a bit guilty about all this 'Celtic' business going on," he said, "because in 1987 I put the word on our 'Celtic Wedding' album, which was devoted to Breton music. I've gone away from this 'Celtic' thing as much as possible now."
What Moloney and the Chieftains have not gone away from is intriguing collaborations with musicians both inside and outside the Irish tradition. Just such a mix of musicians--Vince Gill, Sinéad O'Connor, Sissel, Mary Black, Séamus Egan, John Whelan, Jerry O'Sullivan--can be heard on "Long Journey Home," the soundtrack to the six-hour PBS-TV documentary series, "The Irish in America: Long Journey Home," for which Moloney was executive music producer. "Tears of Stone," an album the Chieftains hope to finish soon after their winter concert tour of North America, will feature Joan Osborne, Loreena McKennitt, Chinese singer Dadawa, Japanese jazz singer Akiko Yano and a track that will have four fiddlers playing together: America's Eileen Ivers, Cape Breton's Natalie MacMaster, Ireland's Máire Breatnach and Sweden's Annbjørg Lien.
"There's a huge amount of work ahead"' said Moloney, who described a host of other albums he has in mind for the band: a second country recording, a Chieftains' release featuring just themselves and a Canadian project he's now organizing for a new world-music label called Unisphere. "To be honest, I can't see any end at all."
Lucky for us.