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Ladies still cherishing the music

AS part of their eight-gig nationwide tour, Cherish The Ladies, the US-based trad dynamo fronted by the inimitable Joanie Madden, will perform at Glór on September 20.

Joanie Madden and her mother, Nelly, taking a stroll on White Strand beach. Photograph by Declan MonaghanFollowing their highly successful Culture Night offering at the same venue last year, the group are looking forward to “a good night’s craic”, says Joanie. On the night, they will be joined by Ennis’ own Maura O’Connell, top dobro man Rob Ickes, local singer Eimear Arkins as well as a troupe of dancers. In the meantime, Joanie – band leader, manager, self-described “chief cook and bottlewasher” and the wind in the sails of the Ladies (she is the whistle and flute player in the band) – is enjoying a working holiday in Miltown.

“It’s great to come back home here. For me, every time I get off the plane and get into the car and head out of Shannon, something comes over me and I just feel like ok, I’m home.”

Her mother, Nelly, is a Meade from Miltown Malbay and that’s the farmer Meades, not the shop Meades, Joanie is quick to make the distinction. Her dad, Joe, an All-Ireland-winning box player who passed away in 2008, was from Portumna, County Galway, so her ties with Ireland are and always have been strong.

“My music has come from both sides, I guess, especially from two great musical counties – Clare and Galway. East Galway and West Clare – hard to beat,” she says.

Growing up in Woodlawn, in the Bronx, Joanie was enveloped in Irish culture – traditional music, set dancing and Gaelic football – perhaps not much different to West Clare, just a bit more American.

“There were hundreds of kids in my school and so many of them played music. All my brothers played Irish football. It was just everybody was Irish – you were either Irish or Italian and everybody did Irish music and Irish dancing and played Irish sports and it’s still happening today. They’re actually trying to change the area into Little Ireland.”

Despite the family’s immersion in all things Irish, as well as the many house sessions and parties that went on in the Madden household, Joanie is the only one of her siblings, six of them, who plays traditional music.

“My father was a great box player and he would have had one of the top bands in New York but he always felt with Irish music you could never push it. They’re going to send you the sign if they’re going to do it and I guess he noticed I had music or an affinity.”

Joanie got to meet many great musicians who moved from Ireland. Mike Rafferty, Mike Preston and the Coen brothers, Jack and Fr Charlie, were among the regulars at Maddens’ house. Indeed, Mike Preston, who was flute player with the Tulla Céilí Band, left Joanie his flute when he passed away a few years back. “He was the one who really taught me about tone,” she remembers.

The young Joanie didn’t settle on the whistle straight away. She was sent for fiddle lessons by her dad, who figured it would go well with the accordion but, to his dismay, it wasn’t for her.
“I hated that and I quit,” says Joanie. “My mother’s cousin or my grandmother’s first cousin would be Joe Ryan, the very famous fiddle player.”

She tried piano and again, it wasn’t for her but at the tender age of 13, which she says is “quite old”, she fell for the whistle.

“I just fell in love with it immediately and I said to my father, ‘Dad I love this thing and I wanna play this thing’ and he said ‘you can go scratch your arse, I’m not wasting any more money on music lessons for you’.”

But she did anyway, calling up legendary flute player, Jack Coen, originally from Woodford but who lived a few doors away from the Maddens in the Bronx. “He said to me the whistle is a toy – you just get on the whistle and as soon as you’re old enough to play the flute, you don’t touch the whistle again. But I never could, I mean, I love the flute and I love the flute in sessions but my heart of hearts is in the whistle. I love to play it.”

Since becoming the first American to win the coveted senior All-Ireland whistle title in 1984, Joanie’s litany of accomplishments has extended beyond impressive. She has worked on 168 recordings – 14 with Cherish The Ladies, solo albums and a list as long as your arm of session work. Then there are awards, which include Musical Group of the Year by BBC Radio, Top North American Celtic Group at the Irish Music Awards, Entertainment Group of the Year among many more.

Her TV work includes Copper, which started recently on BBC which, she says, “has the highest ratings and the most watched programme in the history of the BBC”. There’s a US public broadcasting service series with Maura O’Connell and a 12-piece string section, which is due for premium screening all across America. She has performed on and arranged Grammy-award winning albums – Pete, with folk legend Pete Seeger, Celtic Solstice with Paul Winter and Friends and the soundtrack to the PBS documentary, The Long Journey Home – The Irish in America. She has also toured with the Eagles’ Don Henley and was a featured soloist on the final Lord of the Rings soundtrack. In addition, she has circumnavigated the globe a few times with Cherish The Ladies and in 2010, ‘Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies’ became a permanent street sign on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

Of all the accolades and recordings, which are all important to Joanie, there is one album that really stands out. “I’m lucky to get this one,” she says of A Galway Afternoon, the recording she made with her dad not long before he passed away.

“I couldn’t even tell him cos he’d freak out. I just booked Charlie Lennon and said we’ll be coming up for an hour. We got 14 tracks. I only expected to get the one or two. So at least he was recorded and, you know, he felt like he could go happy knowing that. I thank God I done it.”
Joanie claims she’s now “becoming the old guard” and with the title, she’s ever conscious of passing on the music, something she learned naturally from her father’s musical peers in New York.

“The fact is that they were such great role models of how you share it and how you pass it on and you help out. I can’t teach officially because I’m touring too much but I help the kids when they’re going to Ireland.”

New York whistle player Brian Gallery, whose dad is from Miltown, won the U-12 whistle slow airs at the All-Ireland Fleadh a few weeks ago and is just one of the kids she helped. “It’s all about passing it on,” she explains.

While at the fleadh in Cavan, where she has taught at Scoil Éigse, she was called on, for her first time, to help adjudicate the lilting and the flute. “I did give the senior second place to Mick Manus whose brother plays with the Kilfenora [Céilí Band]. So then I did flutes the next day and again, I gave Marian Curtin first place. After I gave her the trophy, she said to me, ‘Your uncle Jimmy says hello’ – she lives two doors away from my mother’s home place out in Miltown but I did not know it when I gave her the first place!”

Another Clare woman who did well at this year’s fleadh was Eimear Arkins, from Ruan, who Joanie cites as “an amazing singer”. She will join Cherish The Ladies at Glór for a song or two. Maura O’Connell, with whom Joanie and the Cherish ladies have been gigging for a number of years, will also perform.

“She’s thrilled to be coming back. She’s been doing a lot of work with us in America and to me, she’s just incredible. Her song choice is always incredible. She just doesn’t sing a song for the sake of a song – every song means something to her. I dragged her into a concert or two and the next thing you know she’s back singing all her old Irish songs with us and the audience loves that – they love to hear her new stuff. She has two Grammy-nominated albums and her latest one, Naked with Friends, was nominated for another Grammy but I love to hear her doing her Thady O’Neill and Maggie.”

Also taking to the stage at Glór will be Rob Ickes, who Joanie describes as “one of the top dobro players”. “He’s been bluegrass dobro player of the year for, I don’t know, nine or 10 years, from Nashville.”

So with this strong Nashville flavour, as well as Cherish’s recent Country Crossroads album, recorded in Nashville featuring Maura O’Connell, Nanci Griffith, Rob Ickes and Vince Gill, are the band veering in a bluegrass direction? Joanie answers an emphatic no. “We play Irish music and we let the Nashville guys back us up.”

Cherish The Ladies will be together as a band 28 years next January and for Joanie, an original member along with guitarist Mary Coogan, “It’s been a hell of a ride”.

Cherish The Ladies and Maura O’Connell will play Glór, Ennis, on September 20. For more information, contact Glór box office.

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