From Ireland comes news that the Niall Toner Band has released William Smith Monroe, their latest in a series of tributes to the Father of Bluegrass music. This was and is welcome news to me as I have been a fan of the Irish trio for many years, not to mention a sucker for a well-crafted Monroe tribute. I downloaded the song immediately and have listened to it many times since first doing so on Friday night.
To start, some background:
Several years ago I received in the mail an album for review from Ireland. Not knowing what to expect, I slipped the disc into the player and was immediately transported to a place where music is more important than sales charts, advertising dollars, and airplay.
Niall Toner Band's first album "There's A Better Way" was the album and I recall listening to the disc over and over again, much as I have done with William Smith Monroe. The complimentary words I wrote it my review for "Bluegrass Now" at the time hold true as I listen to the album this afternoon: "With his heart in Kentucky but his soul in Ireland, Toner has created a recording of the highest calibre."
Since that day in early 2003, I've followed Niall Toner from a distance, always eager to hear his music or see a mention of his latest endeavour. I've tried several times to listen to his radio show, but haven't lucked out yet- either on hiatus or streaming at times that aren't conducive to my schedule, I'll keep trying to catch Roots Freeway on RTE Radio One.
There's A Better Way, the song, is one for the ages. The song is masterfully constructed, and as presented on disc the performance is overwhelmingly impressive. The lyrics convey depth in a straightforward manner. As does the entire album, this song combines catchy wordplay with topical themes addressed in a clever, non-didactic manner that avoids cliché.
Niall Toner's last album was simply called "NTB3" and came out in 2008 and features additional songs that should have been hits. Long Story Short and Right Place, Wrong Time, Again are songs of the classic country tradition performed as fully realized bluegrass tunes. My Fingers is about as lonesome as it gets and features a beautiful guitar lead from Clem O'Brien.
Over the course of three albums, The Niall Toner Band has repeatedly demonstrated that- at the minimum- it has three things going for it- above average songwriting, a concise vision of modern bluegrass and old-time music, and humility.
Toner relies entirely upon original material, and has through his frequent visits to the Nashville area made contacts that help in this regard. As a result he has written with a variety of songwriters including well-respected folks like Buddy Mondlock, Peter Rowan, Barry and Holly Tashian, Terri Lynn Weaver, Keith Sewell (who included four Toner co-writes on "Way of the Wanderer"), and others. There's A Better Way showed up on a Nashville Bluegrass Band recording several years back and Josie's Reel appeared on the Special Consensus's "The Trail of Aching Hearts."
The Niall Toner Band make no apologies for not playing bluegrass like Mr. Monroe, and by proceeding in this manner do indeed follow Monroe's tradition of breaking new musical ground. Both Toner and O'Brien have brilliant voices, sometimes bluesy, sometimes grassy, and identifiable and far reaching. The first album's only instrumental, Drunken Daisy/You Gotta Have a Banjo in the Band has a rollicking Celtic feel and sounds centuries old. O'Brien's guitar playing is singularly impressive but works within the ensemble at various times both as a feature and as a supporting element.
The band isn't afraid to mix things up while maintaining a consistent sound. Truly a band, Niall Toner steps aside when the song requires fewer participants. My Baby's Gone and Said Goodbye, on which O'Brien essentially performs solo accompanied by the merest hint of bass from Dick Gladney, is an exemplar of this standard. In other places, Toner is allowed to take the lead, as on a pair of earlier Bill Monroe tribute numbers, The Master's Resting Place and Bill Monroe's Mandolin on "There's A Better Way." On "NTB3," Niall performs Sleeping Beauty sans band, accompanying himself on 5-string.
Of their three albums, the one I've listened to the least is the middle one- typical, isn't it, that the middle child gets short shrift. "Mood Swing "is the only NTB album I don't own the physical housing of and as such- given my partiality toward for 'the whole package' (even when, as in the case of "NTB3," the notes font is so tiny I need a magnifying glass to read it) I have gone to this downloaded gem less frequently than I have the albums that bookend it in the Niall Toner Band catalogue.
A shame that, as the album is pretty impressive on its own merits. The Blues Overtook Me, Railroad Dreams, Terenure Stomp, and Play the Hand You're Dealt are cornerstones for the release, featuring understated, confident playing and wonderful vocals. Black Coal Mine has the elements one expects and appreciates in a 'trapped coalminer' tune: a foreboding melody, sparse, even instrumentation, the claustrophobic heaviness as one imagines the walls closing in on the huddled miners, and finally a resolution that speaks of more than the miners' fate.
I was motivated this afternoon to write a little about the Niall Toner Band as a result of the announcement I spotted on the Internet. With Niall and band having a new song out, I thought it timely to spend some time looking back on the band's previous output. As we near W. S. Monroe's centennial, we're bound to hear more of these tribute songs, and I'm sure they will all have something positive to offer. I doubt many will be as refined as Toner's William Smith Monroe.
Toner himself writes, "Since I was a youngster in Harold's Cross in Dublin City, I have been a fan of the Bluegrass music of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. I had heard a version of Blue Moon Of Kentucky on Radio Luxembourg sung by Elvis Presley, and I told my friend, Fran O'Donnell how much that sound meant to me. Fran said "Wait 'till you hear the original," and when he played me Monroe's version, I was hooked! Now here I am, about 50 years later, still stuck on Monroe's great music, and just about to release my own new tribute song to the World, on all formats. It's a bit like a dream come true. July 4th sees the release of William Smith Monroe, hopefully to a World-Wide audience of Bluegrass/Monroe fans. The song will be available to download for 99 cent from iTunes, amazon.com and my own NTB website at [http://www.nialltonerband.com].
So, off she goes, into the ozone ............ Niall, July 1 2011"
Inspired to write the song while walking the hill toward Jerusalem Ridge at Rosine in 2006, it took Toner another four years to finish the tune, finally recording it in Nashville this past April with Sewell manning the controls.
From its mandolin kick-off, the sound of Monroe is obvious and strong in this vibrant tribute. Telling the history of Monroe's career as the Father of Bluegrass- from his time learning tunes as a young boy, playing with Uncle Pen and singing with Birch and Charlie, auditioning for the Grand Ole Opry...names are dropped throughout, honouring not only Monroe but those who forged the sound with him. The lyrics are insightful, obviously carefully chosen and well-hewn over many a revision. The chorus is magic, culminating with "all alone with the ancient tones of William Smith Monroe."
The Niall Toner Band, bringing bluegrass music from the Blackstairs Mountains. Well worth exploring, for William Smith Monroe and much more.