Traditional Tennessee music comes to northwest Ireland

Dressed in checked shirts, caps and denim dungarees with big colorful handkerchiefs sticking out of back pockets, American musicians at Letterkenny’s Regional Cultural Center (RCC) this week looked as ready for harvesting corn (or producing moonshine from it) as hosting a concert.

Fortunately, it was the latter and what a knee-slapping hoedown the evening turned out to be courtesy of the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, combining a mix of musical talent and fine stagemanship with good humor, including some zany ‘instruments.’

With an impressive number of CDs behind them, the five-member group are so at ease on stage, they often decide at the last minute which song they’ll play next, which lends their concerts a delightful sense of spontaneity, such as when they ended this week’s show with a lively rendering of that all-time Irish classic, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.’

As evidenced Wednesday evening at the RCC, their inventory of songs and tunes is diverse, ranging from romantic ballads to spine-chilling ghost stories to comical tales of ‘tooth picking time in false-tooth valley’ and revengeful chickens as in ‘Ghost Chickens In The Sky.’

Add to the mix, the well-honed skills of Dan Kelly on fiddle; smiling Ernie Sykes on bass and voice; bald-pated, nimble-fingered John Tomlin on mandolin and voice; versatile band leader Troy Boswell, known professionally as Leroy Troy, playing claw hammer-style banjo, harmonica and washboard and voice, as well as Mike Armistead on guitar and voice.

Concert-goers were also treated to the amusing sight of Troy teasing a tune out of a plastic milk jug and a water bottle and Sykes producing the same from closed hands on the song, ‘Sick, Sober and Sorry,’ and then later hilariously miming a chicken.

Among the song highlights of the evening were a touching ballad entitled ‘These Hands’ and the carefree ‘Chug-a-Lug,’ about aforesaid moonshine, written and recorded by American country artist Roger Miller, both sung by Sykes; the ghostly tale and bluegrass classic, ‘Bringing Mary Home’ written by Chaw Mank, Joe Kingston and John Duffey and sung by Tomlin; as well as ‘Miller’s Cave,’ a Don Williams melody and the hilarious and probably most confusing song yet written, for which a family diagram is required, ‘I’m My Own Grandpa,’ both sung by Troy. Instrumentally, Troy’s prowess on the scrub board on ‘They Cut Down The Old Pine Tree’ was a delight, as was the group’s interpretation of the Hank Williams song ‘A Mansion On The Hill.’

The evening’s concert was ably opened by singer-guitarist Nashville-born George Harper, who sang a variety of songs from his ‘I’ll Be Back’ and ‘No Smokin In Here’ albums including the lively ‘Overland Express’ and a traditional folk song with the amusing kick-line ‘sugar tit a mile wide and six feet long.’ Northwest Ireland wasn’t left out of his repertoire either, with ‘Why Do I Go To Sligo,’ a song about the pretty girls of that particular town, written after a previous gig there. His voice and Tomlin’s mandolin playing on the love ballad, ‘A Stone’s Throw Away’ made for a perfect combination.

Considering Letterkenny lies in the peripheral end of Ireland, about three-hours away from Dublin where music groups often congregate, great credit goes to RCC director, Shaun Hannigan and his colleagues there, as well as Donegal County Council Arts Officer, Traolach O’Fionnain, for bringing so many diverse bands to play. Last week I enjoyed a marvelous performance by ‘Hot Club of Cowtown’ and the series of US country concerts ends next Friday (Nov. 11) with singer-songwriter-musician, Maine-born Jude Johnston performing alongside Linley Hamilton and Dave Keary. After that it’s something different – a Swiss jazz trio, Vein, with New York saxophonist, Greg Osby, on Thursday Nov. 17, and acoustic guitarist Pierre Bensusan from France, the very next day, Fri. 18.

The concerts are presented in association with Earagail Arts Festival, Donegal Music Education Partnership and Music Network.

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