AH, THE IRISH! (1979-80)

Not being just a violin shop allowed Hillmusic to retail other interesting things, from jaw harps to LP’s. We had a record player beside my bow rehairing bench. I didn’t even have to stand up to change a record – I’d just rotate on my workbench stool. There were so many sounds and styles to explore! Local heroes the Red Clay Ramblers had an infectious mashup of traditional old time with a trumpet, and great songs about wild situations like “Merchant’s Lunch,” describing in hilarious detail a trucker’s incident in a diner in Tennessee. They were once described as “America’s premier ‘whatzit’ band!” And Chapel Hill’s best-known solo act, Mike Cross, also had entertaining songs, and more than a taste of traditional Irish music.

I was not as attracted to the aging old time masters who lived in the mountains, like Tommy Jarrell. Those fiddle players prided themselves on not sounding like violinists, to the point of using the cheapest, raspiest sounding strings, which to my ear sounded like barbed wire under tension. I heard a story about one of the record labels which aimed to preserve both their tunes and their style. They set up recording gear in the fiddler’s house, and somebody had the great idea to change Tommy’s Black Diamond strings to Pirastro. They were also steel strings, perfect for fiddling, but would sound much nicer on the record. When he picked up his fiddle to record, he played one note, grimaced, and asked what the heck had happened. When the truth was revealed, he refused to play one lick until his original strings were put back on!

I found myself frequently playing one of the three albums by the Bothy Band, a traditional Irish band whose fiddler, Kevin Burke, had a pretty tone. He used a longer bow stroke than old time fiddlers, and bow accents were not as percussive as in old time. The chief way they added excitement to a tune was with ornamentation, not crunchy accents. Whereas the Celtic triplet was more about the rhythm of three rapid bow strokes, their turn (or roll) was melodic, more like the grace notes used in violin music since the Baroque period, using pitches both above and below to fancify an important note. This figure was stolen from the uilleann bagpipe players, who are the equal of the fiddlers in expressive tricks. Leave it to the Irish to invent a bagpipe with a bellows strapped under your left arm, leaving your mouth free for talking, singing, or drinking!

We sold music books also, and I found some tunes the Bothy Band played in O’Neills Music of Ireland, and began to play them from the sheet music. Several of my customers were also learning these tunes, so I decided to host a weekly Irish music jam after hours at Hillmusic. Before long we had regulars – Ray on fiddle, Bob on concertina and pennywhistle, Joe on four string plectrum banjo, Dan on mandolin. I met our guitar player in dramatic fashion. My wife Sarah and I had dinner at Papagayo, a Mexican restaurant deep within NCNB Plaza, and were walking down the long hallway back to Franklin Street. As we passed the elevator, the doors opened and here was a tall woman singing and playing guitar! Her name was Meg, and she already knew some of the Irish songs. Each Tuesday night, we’d gather and play through the tunes we liked, sometimes stopping to put on a Bothy Band record to fine tune our playing.

About this time, a guy walked into Hillmusic, interested in violins. After showing him some, he, like Nowell several months before, asked me if I played. This time, I said I was trained on classical, but was learning Irish fiddle. Then I asked him the same question, and he said he played “a little,” seeming curious – how did that type of fiddling sound? So I picked up a violin and hacked through one of the Bothy Band tunes I was working on, mistakes and all. He said something encouraging and left. A couple hours later I was putting an LP on the turntable and I recognized the photo – that was Mike Cross himself. I’d been had by one of the few local players who played some Irish fiddle!

Before long, our Tuesday night Irish jams were getting popular – we even had a North Carolina Symphony violinist in his black suit come one night to check it out. I had my routine. I’d close the shop at 6:00, head towards Franklin Street, passing the Ford logo etched into the concrete sidewalk. Many years ago, a Ford dealer occupied that corner. How many Model T’s and Model A’s hit Columbia Street from that former driveway? At the corner, I made my choice. Go left and get a Subway meatball sandwich to eat on the stone wall across the street from the Post Office, or turn right and get an awesome chicken and biscuit from Time Out, to dine with the sound of frying chicken and the fragrance of baking biscuits. Either way, after eating, I’d drop in to the Happy Store, a quickie mart at the corner of Columbia and Franklin (site of Top Of The Hill now), and grab a sixpack of the most interesting beer they stocked – Schlitz Malt Liquor, “The Bull.”  The other beers seemed too watery to me, and it was too far a walk down the hill to Big Bertha. This walk-in beer cooler was in the back corner of Fowler’s Food Store, the closest grocery to campus. Even there, given the NC laws restricting alcohol content in beer, flavorful beers were hard to come by.

Even though there were two violinists much better than any of our Tuesday night regulars who played some Irish tunes – Clay Buckner and Michael Platt (aka Barney Pilgrim) – at that time, our weekly group was the only band specializing in traditional Irish music. As gig requests came in, we gave ourselves the name “De Mairt,” Gaelic for “on Tuesday,” and honed our repertoire. Our most visible gig was St. Patrick’s Day either 1979 or 1980 at Carrboro’s The Station. This was the bar and dance hall where I spent many a happy Monday night, at the weekly square dance, where the house band was often the Red Clay Ramblers!

By this time I had a bodhran, the Irish frame drum played with a two-headed mallet called a tipper. This seems ironic for two reasons – one, that I later had a store full of hand drums, and, two, I got the bodhran in order to add percussive accents, and that was my least favorite part of old time fiddle! From a musical standpoint, here I was alternating two very different instruments – a violin and a drum – and loving the variety of it. And, by day, I’d be called on to switch from classical music historian to violin shop guru to guitar salesman to old timey fiddler – and none of it was a stretch!

After a solo performance in Nashville, our local star Mike Cross was approached by a woman who complimented his Irish fiddle playing, saying it reminded her of her homeland. When asked about that, she revealed she was from Ireland, and was a former member of the now defunct Bothy Band. Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill had an amazingly deep and strong voice and also played an ancient-sounding keyboard called the clavinet. It was made by Hohner and based on the pre-Renaissance clavichord. Triona and her brother Michael Ó Domhnaill moved to the US in 1980, along with fiddler Kevin Burke, and she was in Nashville looking for work doing recording sessions. Mike invited her to visit Chapel Hill, and very soon she had a show at Cat’s Cradle. Hearing her voice and clavinet live catalyzed the local traditional players, and she must have felt our warm welcome also, for soon after, Triona’s brother Michael and fiddler Kevin Burke were also booked to play here. They had recorded Promenade, a highly rated duo album, just after the Bothy Band broke up and were touring in support of it. The woman who was their agent for this tour was local, and knew of our Tuesday night gatherings. When she asked if we wanted to host workshops with Kevin and Michael, there was no hesitation! Michael did his workshop for guitar players, and Kevin of course had us fiddle players entranced. I still remember his description of proper posture for fiddling: “Your body is like a tree in the ground, your upper arm like a fixed branch, your elbow a well-greased hinge, and your wrist is like a limp dishrag.”

And indeed he played with such a relaxed bow arm that it seemed like the easiest thing in the world. After the fiddlers left, I thanked Kevin, and gave him one of our Hillmusic T-shirts, with the ornate violin logo. He immediately stripped off his shirt and put it on! And then he confided in me that he had never taught a workshop before. I felt so honored on both counts.

This sparked a wider local Irish music scene, and soon Triona herself lived here, forming a band called Touchstone that toured nationally. De Mairt had dissolved by this time, since many of the members had moved away, and I let my Irish tunes get rusty. Ah, ‘twas grand while it lasted!


Blaise Kielar received Honorable Mention in the 2022 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize for an excerpt from his memoir in progress, "Be Heard: The Quiet Kid Who Started the World’s Loudest Violin Shop." He opened Chapel Hill’s first violin shop in 1978 and retired from a music retail career by transitioning Electric Violin Shop into the first worker-owned co-op music store in the United States. He plays jazz violin and clarinet in several bands and leads the Bulltown Strutters, Durham’s community New Orleans brass band.