With a Little Help from Her Friends

In pubs and parlors across Ireland, traditional players sit down together in “sessions” to see what might happen musically. Stories are told, Guinness is poured, old tunes are tested out, and collaborative on-the-spot creativity is unleashed.

Imagine Steve Earle, Hothouse Flowers, Jackson Browne, and John Prine doing the same thing with some of Ireland’s top folk musicians at the invitation of a dazzling young accordionist and fiddle player. There you have it–Sharon Shannon’s The Diamond Mountain Sessions, one of the finest folk-rock albums in years.

Recorded at an old monastery in the shadow of Diamond Mountain in Connemara, Ireland, these sessions capture the same high spirits as the best ’70s and ’80s roots music jams: Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes, Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes, the Knitters. But the accent here is unmistakably Celtic, with Shannon’s elegant but soulful button accordion guiding the way on most of the cuts. Each of the 14 songs is a high point in its own way. “The Galway Girl,” a joint venture with alt country star Steve Earle, brings Texas musically within sight of Ireland’s west coast. Two tunes with Spanish piper Carlos Nunez explore the common ground of Shannon’s homeland and the Celtic-settled province of Galicia in northwest Spain. Prine shines in a duet with Irish vocalist Mary Staunton on his own “Love, Love, Love,” and traditional Irish singer Dessie O’Halloran brings a croaky majesty to the old American folk tune “Say You Love Me.”

Shannon’s steadfast refusal to sing (“not even in the bathroom,” she declares) seems to have paid off here in a strange way, leading her to invite this delightful delegation of vocal talents to Diamond Mountain. But her mastery of the fiddle and the accordion rate equal billing.

Ireland’s Folk Artist of the Year, Shannon fits squarely in the rich vein of Irish traditional music while absorbing folk influences from other lands–and dashes of rock and reggae as well.

Despite her impressive musical résumé, which includes a long apprenticeship in Irish folk circles and a stint with celebrated poet rockers the Waterboys, Shannon is only 32. But she plays like an old soul, tapping into the bedrock of human experience for a haunting, alluring spirit, heard most poignantly here on accordion tunes “Pernod Waltz” and, appropriately, “The Diamond Mountain.”

A farm girl from County Clare, Shannon spent many nights of her childhood at ceilis (traditional dances) in the parish hall with her parents, enthusiastic step dancers. Her father taught all the kids to play tin whistles, and at 12 she graduated to the accordion, teaching herself to play. “If you could imagine it,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Galway, “I was trying to play the accordion like you’d hear a fiddle. Especially the fiddle sounds from the north of Ireland in Donegal. I thought fiddle would be too hard to learn.”

A few years later she did take up the fiddle, and her band, the Woodchoppers, sometimes features four fiddlers in the front line–Sharon and her sister, Mary, plus another sisterhood of the strings, Yvonne and Liz Kane, as heard here on the traditional tune “Northern Lights.”

Almost from the beginning Shannon was called up on stage to play local shows, and she slowly built a following throughout western Ireland, the heartland of traditional music. By 1989, at age 20, she was ready to tackle her first album and decided to do live tracks at a popular hotel pub. It happened that the Waterboys were staying at the hotel while they were doing some recording, and when they heard Shannon, they asked her to join them on a concert tour beginning the next week. “It was an amazing experience,” she says. “I had only played in small pubs in the west of Ireland and suddenly I was up there on rock stages.”

She stayed with the band until they broke up a year and a half later and then returned to Ireland to finish her recording project, which appeared in the United States as Sharon Shannon in a 1993 Philo disc. She followed it up with Out the Gap, in 1995. Both albums offer hearty servings of traditional Irish fare with some Quebecois, Nordic, and Cajun seasoning thrown in.

She credits living in Galway, which has recently become a hangout for musicians from around the world, as an important influence on her playing. “I’ve never been to New Orleans, but I think Galway is alive with music the same way,” she says. “It’s constant music all night every night.” Steve Earle and John Prine both spend part of the year there, which is how Shannon met them. Earle coaxed her to work with him on “Galway Girl” (it also appears on his recent Transcendental Blues album), which became the inspiration for The Diamond Mountain Sessions.

“Sharon Shannon is the embodiment of pure joy in music playing,” Earle raves. “She’s a great player and totally fearless.”

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