For seven glorious years, Cathie Ryan was a member of the popular women’s ensemble Cherish The Ladies.
That group, which celebrated traditional Irish songcraft with a flair all their own, helped catapult the Detroit-born soprano to international prominence, and in 1995 she struck out on a solo career.
Since then, this daughter of Irish immigrants has steadily released 4 full-length albums on the respected roots label Shanachie Records – each one to great critical acclaim. Named Female Vocalist of The Decade by Chicago’s Irish American News, and deemed “one of the leading voices in Celtic music” by The Los Angeles Times, her eagerly awaited appearances at this year’s Savannah Irish Festival (in support of her bewitching new CD The Farthest Wave) are expected to be highlights of the long-running, family-oriented event.
We caught up with the affable and gracious artist one recent afternoon.
Connect Savannah: Where do you think the new album fits into the grand scheme of your career, both as a solo artist and as a member of Cherish The Ladies?
Cathie Ryan: It comes right out of where I’ve been, my time with Cherish and all the years on my own with my band. My music’s grown up a lot, especially over these past few years. A lot has happened that has taken me deeper into song. So, what I’m singing now is more personal, more about where I am in my life. I think where lots of us are at this age.
Connect Savannah: Was there a lot of thought put into the overall feel, or were you more concerned with getting a great representation of the chosen songs?
Cathie Ryan: Once I’ve got all the songs chosen and written I do think about the overall feel and sound. I like a record to sound cohesive – like it’s telling a story. I’m lucky to have a great producer on this CD, John McCusker. His musical sensibility is very like mine. We love acoustic guitar and fiddles and whistles – Celtic instrumentation. And, thankfully, he doesn’t ever want anything gimmicky to get in the way of the song.
Connect Savannah: How is your role as bandleader and frontperson different than when you were merely a featured member of a well-known group? Does “the buck stop” with you these days?
Cathie Ryan: Yep! (Laughs) And that buck can stop pretty hard sometimes. It is great because I can sing what I want to, tell a story through the songs and connect to the audience in my own way. But taking care of all the details of touring is hard work. The whole band lives for our time onstage. That is the bit of magic that keeps you going!
Connect Savannah: Was it a difficult decision to strike out on your own, or did it seem to be a natural progression?
Cathie Ryan: It was the right time to leave. But it was very hard. I agonized about it for two years before I did it. I’m not so good with change. I’m getting better though. I’m trying to see that not knowing how things will turn out doesn’t mean they’ll turn out badly!
Connect Savannah: In the States at least, Celtic music seems to act as a “gateway genre” to other types of world music. As a well-known Irish-American artist, Does that responsibility weigh heavily on you?
Cathie Ryan: No, I love it. I just finished a workshop with a group of high school kids in Seattle, and it was great. I love talking about Irish music, it is so full of living energy, so full of beauty. And it’s fathomless. I’m still, after all these years, discovering traditional songs I’ve never learned and stories I never heard about songs I know. Irish music is a deep and nourishing well. And these kids at the workshop today got that immediately. The humanity of it, the gorgeous melodies, are accessible and speak to the heart. It’s great to see how an old song could make them laugh, and free them in that way.
Connect Savannah: Do you ever tire of playing Irish-based music?
Cathie Ryan: No. I do have my moments where I wished I had more of an outlet for the country songs I write. I love American music. I love singing it, and I don’t do it enough. But I’m doing a gig with (former U.S. Poet Laureate) Billy Collins. He’s a great harmony singer, and we’re gonna do Hank Williams and all those great low and lonesome country songs. I can’t wait!
Connect Savannah: People often assume the music someone performs must be the only type of music they enjoy, although that’s usually not the case at all. Who are some artists that are personal favorites of yours which might surprise your fans?
Cathie Ryan: I love Lyle Lovett, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Rickie Lee Jones, people who sing great songs. I also love Van Morrison. There’s so many. When I’m cooking, I like to put on The Gypsy Kings or “Satchmo” and Ella. And I really love watching Elvis concert videos. Wasn’t he great?
Connect Savannah: What did you glean from your father’s work as a vocalist and your grandmother’s fiddling and singing that’s featured in your own music?
Cathie Ryan: The love of the music, the joy in it. It is healing. I would watch my grandmother play and she would sit there with her silver hair braided into a bun, smiling. When she played, I knew what she looked like as a girl. It transformed her. Even in the end when she had Alzheimer’s, when she was no longer “there,” I once sang to her and she came back, fully back. She knew me, and she was like she always was – full of love and music. Singing allowed me to be with her again. My dad was in a lot of pain in his younger years and I know the music was an outlet for him. He could express emotion in his songs and his singing that he couldn’t share otherwise. It helped me to know him better and, maybe even, to forgive him some of his hardness. I think I understand now that when I sing, it isn’t about me or singing perfectly or correctly. It is about the song and what it says. It is about the sharing of the song, the way it connects us all. It is the one communication I know of that goes right to the spirit of the singer and the listener.
Connect Savannah: I assume you don’t smoke cigars and scream – but how do you keep yourself in fine vocal form, both physically and mentally? Are you on a strict diet? Do you whisper offstage?
Cathie Ryan: I wish I could observe a strict diet! I can’t most of the time, but before I sing I don’t eat dairy. It just clogs up the vocal chords. I also drink lots of water. And I do vocal exercises. The vocal chords are a muscle and need warming up to keep them supple and strong. If you don’t use it you lose it. I do need to do more aerobic type exercise. That helps with breath control and having full use of the body as an instrument.
Connect Savannah: What do you think of Savannah, and its Irish community?
Cathie Ryan: I love Savannah. The Irish there love their culture, they love the music, they have a joyous spirit about it. I usually go in a day early so I can really “be” there – meet up with friends, share some Southern food, walk the streets downtown. It is a charming and welcoming place.
Connect Savannah: What can festival goers expect from your sets at this year’s event?
Cathie Ryan: We’ll do the new songs and the old familiar ones too and then we’ll crank it up with some jigs and reels. We’re happy to be back so I know we’ll have a great time on stage – and hopefully everyone sharing the music will too.
Connect Savannah: Do you ever perform your own arrangements of any tunes popularized by Cherish The Ladies?
Cathie Ryan: Yes, we get requests for “The Back Door,” especially. So we do that. And if anyone wants any others, they just have to ask and then give me a day to remember them (laughs)! w
The Cathie Ryan Band plays The 2006 Savannah Irish Festival’s “Finnegan’s Wake Main Stage” 2:30 pm Saturday and 4:30 pm Sunday, as well as “Kevin Barry’s Pub Stage” 5 pm Saturday and 1:30 pm Sunday. Tickets are $11.50 per day or $20 for a 2-day pass, with free admission for those 15 and under. The Festival takes place inside the Savannah Civic Center. w
Music, food, drink and art -- Irish style
The 15th Annual Savannah Irish Fest
covers all the bases
Well, it’s that time of year again. No, not St. Patrick’s Day – but don’t worry, that’s coming.
Now in its 15th year, The Savannah Irish Festival is a jam-packed two-day showcase of Celtic music, storytelling and revelry that’s become one of the most highly anticipated festivals of the season.
Entertainment-wise, organizer and Festival Chairman Jimmy Buttimer is fond of referring to this as “the best deal in town,” and one would be hard-pressed to argue that point with him.
For a bit more than a standard-price movie ticket, adults can spend an entire day roaming from stage to stage and from booth to booth. They’ll get up close and personal with many of the top names in the American Celtic music community, and get to sample plenty of Irish delicacies made fresh by local Irish societies, such as The Friendly Sons,The Emerald Society, and The Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Many of the vendors – selling everything from handmade linen to crystal, as well as inexpensive souvenirs – travel to Savannah from their native Ireland specifically for this event, and Buttimer says it’s not uncommon for the same artisans to return year after year – many of them building repeat customers (and sometimes making friends) along the way.
The festival is also a treasure trove for Celtic music collectors, who can browse through hundreds of rare import CDs which are normally hard to come by in the States – if available at all.
Still, it’s not the recorded music that holds the crowd’s attention. It’s the live sets by a cross-section of both Irish and contemporary acoustic folk acts that are the main draw for young and old alike.
“We look for artists of Irish traditional music as well as American performers of Irish descent who are accomplished in their fields,” explains Buttimer.
This year’s lineup includes local names such as songwriter and guitarist Harry O’Donoghue, regional acts such as Na Fidlieri (a 27-piece traditional fiddling troupe from Charleston), and internationally-known talent like The Cathie Ryan Band and Brendan Nolan.
Musician John Dady, of Rochester, N.Y.’s Dady Brothers (who are happily returning to the festival’s stages after several years away) says that he and his brother Joe recently played on the same bill with Ryan, and was quite impressed.
“Let me tell you, she’s really something special,” he offers. “She’s a good egg and can sing like a bird. Everyone in Savannah’s in for a real treat.”
One artist that can’t wait to get in front of a Savannah crowd is singer/songwriter Roger Drawdy, who fronts the Northern Kentucky-based Celtic rock group The Firestarters. This will be the first time the native of County Cork has played this far South, but that doesn’t mean he’s unfamiliar with our own brand of Southern hospitality.
“I’ve heard nothing but good things about the Savannah Irish Festival,” Drawdy admits. “A few years back, a friend of mine talked me into going to your St. Patrick’s Day celebration, and it was absolutely mental! I didn’t realize there were so many Irish people down there, and I thought it would be a great place to play. I also just fell in love with the city. It’s really beautiful.”
Drawdy’s take on an increasingly popular crossover genre is less bombastic than many of the touring bands which play Savannah – but no less memorable.
“Lately there’s been loads of bands that kinda have that Pogues sound, ya know,” he says, referring to the seminal (and notoriously lit) Irish tossers.
“It’s fun, and we do quite a lot of rowdy drinking songs in a pub setting, but the gravelly, punk singing voice is not really my thing. County Cork breeds some of the finest tenors in the world and that’s more the tradition I came from.”
He feels the popularity of that type of pub-rock has left many with a mistaken impression of the Irish musical legacy.
“That stuff doesn’t have much to do with tradition.I want to show people you can have an Irish rock song that’s about more than just drinking and fighting. Irish music to me covers a wide range of emotions, whether it’s a song about love or war or your own connection to the earth and God The music should help you deal with all these things.”
As American-born artists of Irish heritage who now tour regularly in Ireland, The Dady Brothers have at times also had to work hard to “get their point across.”
“Well, it’s a funny thing,” says John Dady. “Initially, the looks on these Irish folks’ faces were priceless. One night we were in Dublin in the hotel pub and my brother got his pipes out, and these two punkers with mohawks said, ‘Now the bloody yankee’s gonna play the pipes!’ He couldn’t believe it.”
Dady says he appreciates Jimmy Buttimer’s commitment to including related genres of acoustic music in this festival. To he and his brother, it’s important to “demonstrate the similarities” between the different styles.
“Everything comes full circle,” he explains. “When the Irish first came to this country, their tunes got rolled up with gospel music and became bluegrass. That’s the bond between American folk and traditional Irish music.”
While the first 20 years of he and his brother’s musical career was centered around playing bars, John now says that they appreciate shifting gears and working the coffeehouse circuit.
“Neither one of us drinks, so we’re not big pubbers to begin with. We’re only in a bar if we’ve been asked to play there!”
However, it’s family-oriented shows like The Savannah Irish Festival that seem to hold the most resonance for the Dadys.
“In the end, what more could you ask for? You do honest work. It’s something you love. You put a smile on someone’s face, and take a check home. What on earth could be better than that?”
The Irish Festival is Saturday and Sunday in the Savannah Civic Center.Tickets are $11.50 per day or $20 for a 2-day pass. Free admission for those 15 and under. For more info, go to www.savannahirish.org.