Arty McGlynn

Irish Music Magazine - Jan / Feb 2004

Arty McGlynn is one of the most respected musicians in Irish Music today and could even lay claim to being the most influential Irish guitarist in traditional music. Versatile and adaptable, his performing and recording credits read like a musical history of Ireland. Irish Music magazine's Ita Kelly sum's up Arty's attitude to traditional music in one simple motto: "If you're going to do it, do it well".

A chance meeting with the writer Brian Friel changed the course of Arty McGlynn's musical life, which at that point amounted to 18 years of playing with showbands, that meant constant travelling throughout the length and breath of the country; it wasn't hard to leave it all behind. Arty had already begun to do studio and session work in order to change his lifestyle and had recorded some of his own music. Brian Friel put him in touch with David Hammond, the Belfast singer and broadcaster and he convinced Arty to finish the album he had begun to record. In turn Davy sung two songs on the album which became a classic in traditional music. The first guitar album of traditional tunes, it established Arty in a new sphere and ironically brought him full circle back to the music of his home and roots. 'McGlynn's Fancy' came out in 1979 and "it changed everything for me" says Arty.

"When you work in the showbands for 18 years, you become institutionalised and you turn off a lot of things" Arty had never really turned off. He was always playing an acoustic guitar on the bus travelling to the gigs, and picking out tunes. He and Paul Brady had a mutual admiration going, one seeking the other out, and Paul invited Arty to join him when recording 'Hard Station' in the late 70's. "Paul was very influential in making me decide eventually to get out of the showbands, he shook me awake. He was the forerunner of that open G tuning and that style of accompaniment that he does to songs, Paul Brady pioneered that whole style He's a very good pianist and what he was doing was putting piano styles onto guitar."

Born into a musical family in the small townland of Botera just outside Omagh in Co. Tyrone, Arty started his musical escapades on the Melodeon. His family were into traditional music; in fact his maternal grandfather was the well-known local poet and songwriter Felix Kearney. "They all sang and played fiddles and accordions" says Arty, "so there was always music around." Both his father and mother played too, "it was a card playing, musical society in the 40's and 50's" Arty remembers. When rock and roll became popular in the mid to late 50's, Arty got his first guitar. "For every kid at that time with rock 'n roll, the guitar was the big thing. I was very lucky because the guitar came easily to me. I was playing accordion and had a good sense of chords on the left hand, and a good sense on melody."

"Little Richard, Fats Domino, whatever, I got hooked in there and that was the end of the accordion really for me" he says, He joined his first band at the age of 14 and started playing weekends. "I ran away from school as quick as I could, I flung my bag over the wall as soon as I was able, and by playing in bands I was earning more money than my father was making when I was 16."

"The melody Boys' (his first band) were coming out of the Dixieland swing era, we had clarinet, trombone, trumpet, piano and guitar and we played stuff like 'Grand Street parade', and 'St. Louis Blues'. I had to learn all my chords; it was a great schooling for me, apart from the fact that I was playing all the rock and roll stuff, Gene Vincent and the Bluecats, Bill Haley and Little Richard. I was listening to all the stuff that was happening musically in America that time, that whole explosion. It was a very exciting time because everything you heard was new". His first decent electric guitar was a cherry red 335 Gibson bought around 1960. He also had a Fender 335 and a Fender showman amp with a Benson echo chamber "We used to shake parochial halls with the noise of that thing" he smiles.

Unfortunately, by the late 60's the shire had gone off the showband way of life for Arty. "One night stands, the music, you're bored playing for dancers all the time, half the audiences have their back to you, it's not very rewarding musically."

"I was playing with The Plattermen at that time and then I left for a while and I was going to stay out of it but I found I couldn't really do anything else. I had a family to rear so I went back to a singer who had been with The Plattermen, Brian Coll, he had a band called the Buckaroos, so I was a Buckaroo for about 6 years." During his time with the Buckaroos, Arty took up pedal steel and became quiet accomplished at it, so much so that he was in demand at recording sessions and that led him to recording some of his own music, which was the basis for that first album.

Now Arty's name is spoken reverently, always the consummate professional and gentleman to the tips of his musical fingertips, is much respected and in demand. At the Galway Arts Festival in July 2003 Arty was honoured with a special tribute concert. It was easily one of the most special and entertaining star-studded events of the year. Two MCs, John Kelly and Davy Hammond introduced guests who included, John Prine, Paul Brady, Andy Irvine, Sean Keane, Alan Kelly, Liam O'Flynn, Frankie Gavin and Nollaig Casey. One surprise on the night was the appearance of Maura O'Connell whose performance was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. "We imported Arty to Nashville," she declared before delivering a stunning version of 'Down By The Sally Gardens' followed by 'Summerfly'. "She rang me up," says Arty "and said she was coming, we didn't realise she was in the country." Throughout the concert, Arty took side stage. "I always see myself as a side man more than a front man" he told me beforehand, but his presence meant a cool organised flow of events, because quietly he was directing the entire performance. It was a long day, rehearsing from eleven in the morning, but as he said himself afterwards "if I had been sitting around all day thinking about it...." Everyone had good things to say, memories to relate, and whenever Arty gets round to listening to the tapes, I'm sure he'll smile at it all.

The Van Morrison Band, Patrick Street and various other ensembles have been graced by Arty's musicianship, nowadays he does a lot of work as a producer, but he doesn't like that description. "I work with the people I like to work with," he explains. "I see myself more as a guitar played and arranger with people, not as a producer. Someone who is already established, all you can do is enhance that a bit."

In June 2003 he enjoyed an Irish tour with Frankie Gavin and Brian McGrath and they have recorded an album, yet to be mixed and released. Currently he's finishing work on fiddle player Nollaig Casey's solo album. His long time partner, they married in 1984 and have two innovative duet albums to their credit. Frequently, like last month, they toured with Nollaig's sister the harpist Máire Ní Chathasaigh and her husband the guitarist Chris Newman in Belgium now that's some class act! Meanwhile Arty produced Sean Keane's latest album 'Valley of the Heart' and is gigging with various artists, not content to join any bands on a full time basis. "I've been very lucky that I get asked to play with people and I think also from doing 18 years in the showbands I'm scared of committing to any one band. I like to be able to pack my case in the morning and be able to go if I need to."

Although he has never seen himself as a traditional musician in the pure sense, Arty McGlynn has contributed more to traditional music in Ireland than many. His inspiring guitar work first witnessed on his first album 'McGlynn's Fancy' has gone down in the annals of Irish music history as definitive and groundbreaking. There are many