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Crazy Dreams

Paul Brady reflects on his career as a Celtic trad pioneer and pop songwriter

     No musical tradition has enjoyed a bigger explosion of popularity or a wider spread of style and invention during the past 30 years than Irish music. And no musician personifies Irish music’s arc of popularity better than northern Irish guitarist and singer Paul Brady. Brady started performing in Dublin pubs in the 1960s, at a time when all Ireland seemed consumed with a rediscovered passion for its music and heritage. He dove into the music, and by 1967 he and his band the Johnstons were top draws everywhere in the British Isles.

     After seven very traditional albums with the Johnstons, Brady joined Planxty, a band of astonishing innovators and eclectic musicians that included Andy Irvine, Christy Moore, and Donal Lunny. Planxty was, in every sense, the Beatles of modern Irish music. Through the 1970s, they propelled the tradition in a dozen new directions at once, infusing their sets with rock energy and Balkan exoticism while allowing all the essential Irishness to shine ever more brightly.

     After a stint with Planxty, Brady went on to perform and record both solo and in harness with various combinations of Planxty members, including notable work with mandolinist Andy Irvine. Irvine and Brady’s eponymous duo album is still on nearly every Irish music fan’s Desert Island Disc shortlist. Brady’s "Arthur McBride" from that album is a riveting story so passionately sung and so tastily accompanied on guitar that it became an instant classic and remains a favorite in sessions around the world.

     Brady’s career took another surprising leap in 1981. He shocked his fans by hitting the stage with a full rock band and singing original songs as powerful and catchy as anything since early Van Morrison. He followed his breakthrough album, Hard Station, with nine more and is now one of today’s most-covered Irish pop balladeers, with songs recorded by the likes of Phil Collins, David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt, Santana, Cher, and Tina Turner.

     Last year, Rykodisc released Nobody Knows: The Best of Paul Brady, which focused on Brady’s long career as a genre-jumping songwriter. But two songs from Brady’s earlier Irish trad incarnation made it onto Nobody Knows--"The Lakes of Pontchartrain" and "Arthur McBride."

     I was particularly intrigued by the inclusion of "Arthur McBride" and by Brady’s decision to record a new version 25 years later, rather than simply include the familiar original. I caught him in Dublin on his way to master his next solo album, due for release this year. Brady chatted about the different hats he’s worn in his long career and about why he decided to revisit a 200-year-old Irish traditional song from his early days in the folk clubs.

For the past 20 years, every aspiring Celtic guitarist seems to have felt compelled to learn your version of "Arthur McBride." What do you suppose it is about this particular song that speaks so strongly to people?

BRADY It’s a very interesting story, I suppose, and as a ballad goes it’s full of drama. It’s full of antiquity, which attracts a lot of people. The style of language is quite archaic. I brought some of the dynamism I’d learned through playing blues and rock music into the presentation of that song, and I think that might have captured people, too. I’ve always tended to do that--even when I was working within the forms of traditional music--to attack songs in a way that wasn’t customary at the time. People tend to have this reverence toward songs and treat them as museum pieces. But I wanted to grab them by the scruff of the neck and turn them into something that had a lifeblood of their own.

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