The Irish American All-Stars

Irish Chicago; Detroit; Boston; Bristol, Vermont; and Asheville, North Carolina
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Photo Credit: (Cathie Ryan); Eric Legret (Seamus Egan); Keith Wright (John Doyle); All others courtesy of artist

For the 80th National Folk Festival in Salisbury, guitarist and bandleader John Doyle has brought together a stellar quintet of some of the best Irish musicians in America. It would be accurate to call these exceptional artists a supergroup of Irish American music—but it would be just as truthful to describe them as five longtime friends thrilled to perform together again.

Three members of the Irish American All-Stars—John Doyle, Seamus Egan, and John Williams—were founding members of Solás, an ensemble whose role in popularizing traditional Irish music in America can hardly be overstated. Egan, a multi-instrumentalist born in Philadelphia, spent much of his childhood living in County Mayo, Ireland, where his musical studies began. Before he was 14, Seamus had already won four All-Ireland competitions, in flute, tin whistle, mandolin, and tenor banjo (he plays low whistle, guitar, bodhrán, and uilleann pipes as well). In 1994, he assembled a group of friends to play the Lowell Folk Festival in Massachusetts, a locally produced festival established after that city hosted the National from 1987-89; the band that resulted was Solás. As a bandleader, composer, and performer, Seamus Egan has helped define the sound of Irish American music today.

Chicago native John Williams is to this day the only American-born All-Ireland concertina champion. On childhood summer visits to Ireland, Williams spent many hours learning from his grandfather and other traditional musicians in Doolin, County Clare. He is today noted for his collection and preservation of traditional songs from Clare. In his work as a solo musician, Williams has played with artists as diverse as Mavis Staples and Nickel Creek. A virtuoso on concertina and button accordion, he plays a wide range of traditional instruments with brilliance and sensitivity.

Cathie Ryan first began singing as a child growing up in Detroit with the tutelage of her father Tim, a fine Irish tenor who had emigrated from Tipperary. Like bandmates Williams and Egan, Ryan took regular summer trips to Ireland where she found further inspiration in the singing of her paternal grandmother and from the storytelling of her maternal grandfather, a traditional seanachie (storyteller). Ryan was the original singer for Cherish the Ladies, an all-star ensemble of Irish American women musicians. Today she fronts the beloved Cathie Ryan Band, teaches traditional singing, leads cultural tours of Ireland, and is celebrated as one of the finest singers of Irish music in America.

Boston-based fiddler Oisín McAuley is one of the two Irish-born members of this musical gathering. Growing up in County Donegal, he recollects that his grandfather would “give bed and board to fiddlers, just to hear tunes in the house.” McAuley is a master of the five-string fiddle, as well as the more typical four-string instrument. With university training in classical and jazz branching off from his traditional roots, McAuley built an eclectic career as a touring musician before joining the award-winning traditional Irish ensemble Danú, with whom he has thrilled audiences around the globe for the past 20 years.

The vision for this stellar band is John Doyle’s, the most influential Irish American guitarist of his generation. Born in Dublin, John came up in a family where “everybody played something,” and his father, singer and song collector Sean Doyle, nurtured his interest in the deep wellspring of Irish song. Doyle is a remarkable guitarist, a devoted ballad collector, and a celebrated songwriter. His professional career began at age 16 with the Irish band the Chanting House. Following his move to the U.S. three decades ago, he gained acclaim with Solás; among current projects is the noted trio the Alt. Through his collaborations with nearly every noted Irish American musician playing today, Doyle was perfectly positioned to bring together this ensemble of brilliant friends for the 80th National Folk Festival.

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