Music is a powerful thing. It can make us laugh, dance, or even cry. It’s a poetry of harmony and melody that seems to pierce the very soul. That is why music is such a controversial subject among Christians (especially ministers) since some can push the music too far. This post does not deal with that subject though it is worthy of further study. This post is about a style of music or, more particularly, a single program of music that I really enjoy listening to. Although I love music, and that interest covers a multitude of different genres and styles, I’m not a musical person per se. I’ve tried, and failed, to play a variety of instruments that extend from piano to banjo to tin whistle. Perhaps this lack of musical talent stems from a lack of rhythm, having a deaf ear to tune (I can’t tune anything), or just an apathy for practicing. That being said, I really appreciate those who can play instruments and especially those who play them well.
My history with music has gone from growing up listening to 80’s and 90’s country music along with a variety of contemporary Christian praise songs to finally being able to listen and sing along to pop and rock n roll at university. Ever since high school I primarily listened to country music and classical music (especially soundtracks). It was also in that time I was introduced to Celtic music, the traditional music of my largely Irish and Scottish roots, through a friend at church. Perhaps the biggest change came when I worked for my pastor in university as an administrative assistant. He was also a great enjoyer of music and he was the one who got me into bluegrass music, a genre which he plays well. After borrowing some forty albums of his, I began to really love bluegrass, especially the high quality of musicianship, the jazz-like improvisation, and the roots it has in Southern culture as well as Scottish and Irish traditional music.
A Brief History
When the United States were still colonies of Great Britain, hundreds of thousands
of Scottish and Irish flooded into the country and most of them settled along the “Backcountry”—the hills and mountains of northern Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. With them, they brought their fiddles and the tunes they knew back in Ireland and Scotland. Their fiddling mingled with the African American banjo and various other instruments over time to form what became “old-time” mountain music. It became “bluegrass” when Bill Monroe began taking old Scottish and Irish fiddle tunes and playing them on the mandolin. He formed a band, “The Blue Grass Boys”, and brought virtuosity and improvisation to “old time music”. The tunes were often renamed and today much of bluegrass is built of the fiddling traditions of Ireland and Scotland. Bluegrass and Traditional Scottish and Irish music has a connected history that many don’t really know…until they hear it played together.
Transatlantic Sessions is the meeting ground for the great cultural heritage of Celtic and American traditional music. Transatlantic Sessions began back in 1995 as a TV program to bring together Bluegrass and American folk musicians to Scotland to have a sort of house jam session with Scottish and Irish folk musicians. It was initially hosted by Douglas Eadie, Mike Alexander, and Aly Bain and is usually filmed in a house, lodge, or hotel in the Scottish Highlands. There have been six television sessions (filmed by Pelicula Ltd.) and many live performances over the years. The television programs were filmed in 1995, 1998, 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2013 and since 1998 have been hosted by American dobro player Jerry Douglas and Shetland fiddler Aly Bain. They have a cracking house band who are virtuosos in their own right and provide much of the “meat” of the music. They invite a lot of American musicians such as Alison Krauss, Amos Lee, Sarah Jarosz, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris, Jay Ungar, Bruce Molsky, Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush, Darrell Scott, and many more to come and play American folk and bluegrass music with a Celtic twist. Other well-known Scottish and Irish musicians also perform such as Julie Fowlis, Phil Cunningham, Mary Black, Eddi Reader, Donal Lunny, Cara Dillon, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Karen Matheson, Fred Morrison, and many others. They bring their own musicianship to complement the American music and play their own traditional tunes. The TS has such an incredible amount of talent for such a little known show. Most people I met have never heard of it, yet it has some of the greatest musicians from the US, Scotland, and Ireland together in one place.
The reason I titled this post “Big Country” is because there is a song played on Transatlantic Sessions 5, originally written by banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, that encapsulates the very nature of this show. It begins with the sultry tones of the fiddle (played by Aly Bain and John McCusker), plaintive piano, and Michael McGoldrick’s flute to bring a gentle Scottish air to the scene, and you might imagine seeing rolling green hills under a receding rain. And then, when the gentle intro is done, Bela Fleck rolls into the song with his banjo sounding like rain finishing off the last few droplets before it stops completely. Then he sets the first theme which some might recognize. The first few notes of this song is actually the same beginning notes to the well-known Scottish folk song “Loch Lomond”. The tune is very beautiful but played in such a way that you can’t quite tell if it’s that song. Then the rest of the band, led most especially by the fiddles, the flute, and accordion with Jerry Douglas’ dobro and John Doyle’s guitar backing the melody, start in and play a medley version of “Loch Lomond”. As soon as the main melody finishes, each musician in typical bluegrass/jazz fashion plays small improvisations along with the various instruments. This music does almost have a jazz feel to it. There’s a high art quality to it that is very hard to describe and is found quite often in this type of music. The whole song is very elegant and has enthusiastic sections where the melody jumps back out at you in between dobro, flute, accordion, or even bass improvisations. The song reminds you of a drive through the country with your loved ones around you. The song finishes contrariwise to how it began with all the musicians playing the same melody together. Here is the song:
I would strongly encourage you, dear reader, to investigate the music of Transatlantic Sessions. There is a quality and depth to the music that is commonly found in jazz or even more contemporary bluegrass. It is a unique blend of similar musical cultures divided by the North Atlantic. The music has a deep cultural value to it that is not as prevalent in a majority of the modern music you hear today. What is also great about this show is the camaraderie of the musicians. Having seen them live in concert, they are all very down-to-earth and quite humble and fun. It’s like watching a huge group of really close friends laugh, tell stories, and play excellent music and they’ve invited you to be a part of it. Music, especially good music is a wonderful gift God has given us to enjoy. As Martin Luther once said: “Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.”
This music is not hard to find, much of it is available on Amazon or iTunes. They sell DVDs of the television performance and have CDs of the music produced from the shows. You can also find a lot of the performances on YouTube. You will not be disappointed if you check out the wonderful cultural heritage of Transatlantic Sessions.