If you go through various cultures, you often find a similar style of music that might seem strange given the differences in geography. The deep South and Ireland don’t have a lot in common, but the resurgence of “mountain” music thanks to O Brother Where Art Thou as well as the subsequent tour put one component back on the map. Thanks in large part to Chieftains‘ figurehead Paddy Moloney, the Irish factor has never left the hearts and minds of fans all over. When both parties merged for last year’s Down the Old Plank Road, which also became a DVD, the results were excellent. Now the two camps are back at it again — this time with John Hiatt, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, and Chet Atkins among others lending their talents. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And this is far from broke.
Beginning with “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy” featuring Nickel Creek, the Chieftains let themselves in the backdoor as they provide the drama and intricate Irish styling that has kept them going this far. This despite the recent passing of harpist Derek Bell last October. But here Nickel Creek don’t sound out of their range, although the latter verses sound just a tad forced and slick. John Hiatt gives the album a kick up the rear with “Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel”, a lovable toe-tapper that has the Chieftains in fine form throughout with Moloney’s Uillean pipes dominating the track. Relative newcomer Allison Moorer does a soulful “Hick’s Farewell”, a song dating back to the 1830s.
Tim O’Brien does “Shady Grove” and the bluegrass meets Celtic reel works excellently. This is the first true instance where the listener can see just how similar these style are at their cores. The banjo plucking meeting the Uillean pipes and bodhran in unison. It’s another “boogie” song that gets limbs going in different directions. John Prine’s rendition of “The Girl I Left Behind” doesn’t sound as strong as it could, with Prine’s vocal style sounding a bit too country for the Irish touches. Jerry Douglas, the solid dobro player known from Alison Krauss and Union Station, shows his stuff on the three instrumentals “Rosc Catha Na Mumhain/Arkansas Traveller/The Wild Irishman”, the latter of which is the most energetic and free-wheeling.
“Lambs in the Greenfield”, which has Emmylou Harris on lead vocals, isn’t as surprisingly good as it could be. Harris sounds a bit horse on the recording early on, but she finds her niche by the end of the opening minute. It’s as if she’s trying to capture the Celtic lilt too much, but she gets stronger as it goes on. “The Moonshiner/I’m A Rambler” has Joe Ely giving the two songs his best. Ely and the Chieftains might be an odd pairing, but Ely shines on the mid-tempo mix of Irish pub and Austin bar sound. The waltz of the second number is also another highlight. “Wild Mountain Thyme”, which Don Williams reads more so than sings, is definitely leaning on the Celtic side. Chet Atkins’s finger-picking on “Chief O’Neill’s Hornpipe” is interesting without being too overbearing.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band sounds like a perfect fit for the album as they perform “The Squid Jiggin’ Ground/Larry O’Gaff”. The first half is a give-and-take affair between the band and the Chieftains’ Kevin Conneff on vocals. The second part is a rather quick reel. Patty Loveless recaptures the feeling that Moorer used for “Three Little Babes”, a melodic ballad that uses the fiddle and Bell’s harp to create a nice mood. Ricky Skaggs opens up “Talk about Suffering/Man of the House” with a slower, gospel-like ballad that crawls along. And Rosanne Cash wraps it up with the galloping “The Lily of the West”, which sounds a bit like music for a spaghetti western than anything else.
While they may now sadly be a member short, the Chieftains still sound as good as they ever have. Hopefully they’ll go even further down this road in the future.