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Dale Russ: Irish Fiddling on the Pacific Rim
Larry Hill

Dale Russ is a friendly, unassuming man who plays Irish traditional music with distinctive clarity, articulation, and soul. Born in the U.S., he picked up the fiddle as a young adult in Washington state, far from the urban Irish enclaves. Yet, in 1993, Martin Hayes told Folk World magazine, Dale Russ is one of the greatest fiddlers I know in Irish traditional music Recognized by such luminaries as Kevin Burke, Liz Carroll, and James Kelly, Dale plays music for dancing, for listening, and for pleasure, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. He plays with the Suffering Gaels and with Jody's Heaven. He also performs solo. Dale recently toured in Japan, and plans to return next fall. He has taught advanced Irish fiddling at the Lark In The Morning Music Camp for the past thirteen years. He also teaches privately and in workshops and on video. Subtle, inventive, and steeped in the tradition, his intense work ethic and concentration are matched only by the sheer joyfulness of his music. We spoke during the Northwest Folklife festival in May 1996, where Dale performed in four separate venues in a single day.

How did you come to the fiddle and to Irish music, and did you do it at the same time?

I didn't play Irish music before I played the fiddle, and I only picked up the fiddle when I moved out to Olympia (Washington) in 1973. There was a bunch of people who were all learning how to play at the same time, so we kind of taught each other the little bits of information we knew. I was playing the guitar in a bluegrass band, messing around with bluegrass, really a mishmash of stuff, a few old timey tunes, a few Scottish, a few Irish, a few contra dance.

Was there anyone in particular who guided you?

It was a consortium of beginners. The only established fiddle player I knew who was playing anything vaguely Irish or Scottish was Frank Ferrel. He was living in Seattle and had his fiddle shop going at that time. frank's style is actually Canadian, like Graham Townsend. He played Irish and Scots tunes, but he didn't play them in a strictly Irish style. When it came to learning Irish music, we'd pick up techniques from people coming back from Ireland, from people who had gone over to learn.

So there was no one in particular who guided you in Irish music or on the fiddle. You made your own way.

I think somebody showed me how to do bowed triplets somewhere in there. There was a teach-in I saw in Sing Out! magazine where Aly Bain explained how to play "turns", rolls. From there, I realized what I was hearing on the records of like, Jean Carignan. I had a Martin Byrnes recording, but ironically he doesn't play rolls. I only found that out years later by listening more carefully. Basically, it was all studying on my own, from recordings of whoever I could get...Martin Byrnes...Somebody brought back a tape of Paddy Glackin at some session...There was Paddy on one side and Brendan McGlinchey on the other, so I took those from the cassette player and put them on reel to reel and slowed them down to half speed.

Looking back, is there anything you would do differently that would make the whole process easier or more productive?

In terms of technique, there wasn't a whole lot of dead time. There were some bowing things that took me a while to catch on to, but I think, like a lot of things, when I was ready for it, there it was. I heard it, and I was able to figure out what was going on. I really was flying blind for a long time, but occasionally someone would come through town, or I'd get some kind of confirmation that what I was doing was the right thing, that I was on the right track. If someone else was around that knew what was going on, that could have given me that affirmation earlier on, I'd probably be a more confident player than I am. Because the rest of it was just work, just getting the techniques.

You played a lot of dances then, and you still do...

When I first started with that same group at Evergreen [College], we put together a Thursday night contra dance, or square dance, or whatever kind of dance people were doing. It was a group situation where I got to play tunes up to speed. It was invaluable to be able to play loud and to know that no one was going to hear your mistakes. That was really, really useful. I also started playing for Feises, as early as 1978 or 1979, and playing for step dancers was also really valuable. To watch the motion, to watch the dances being done and to see physically the way the bodies move to execute the steps really helped with rhythm and phrasing.

Reflect on the differences for you, playing for dances or playing for an audience. It seems to me those are different things.

Either way you want to have rhythm that's steady; for the music to be effective, either as dance music or as listening music, the rhythm has to be steady. that's the common thing. And there has to be energy in it. But there is definitely a difference between dance fiddling and listening fiddling. I know that volume dynamics aren't necessarily a traditional thing, but I like to play louder and softer when I'm playing for listening, and sometimes for dancing, too, just to give it a little extra lift now and then. Now, it is a much more acceptable kind of thing. I think only hardcore traditionalists pooh-pooh that.

That's what makes it music.

I think so, too. But I think a lot of that comes from the pipes, not being able to vary the volume, you know, so if you can't make the music work without messing with volume then you're not really playing "the music." I think that is the feeling.

I've noticed you make a lot of pipe sounds.

Early on I did a lot of playing with Nick Voreas, who was a highland piper and lived in Ireland for a while, and learned to play whistle and flute. He is a clean, strong player. I learned to play whistle from him, and I almost bought a set of pipes at one point before I realized I had my work cut out for me on the fiddle. I've always loved the pipes. Seamus Ennis was a big influence on me, and later Paddy Keenan. I've always been interested in piping technique, and I've felt, in one way, fiddle is kind of an adjunct, or extension of pipes. You can kind of recreate some piping techniques on it. Piping is rhythmic especially when you get into the closed playing. I love the inflections you can get, like taking the chanter off the knee... all the different variations in sound you can get really fascinate me.

I'm kind of chameleonic when it comes to playing with other people. When I'm playing with someone else, I try to listen to how they're playing and try to match my style to theirs, especially if it's another instrument. For instance, if it's a flute player, I try to put pauses in when they take a breath, I try to phrase the same way. it's a lot more exciting to me, more unified.

Give us an example of a pipe technique on the fiddle.

There are two styles of playing rolls. One is to play melodically, like [Michael] Coleman. I think of it as an older style because I don't hear modern players play it so much. James Kelly plays them. it's more like a turn, where you actually hear both grace notes, the grace note above and the grace note below. You can only do that when the roll comes right on the down beat, like in a reel on the first three eighth notes, Da De Da Da Dum. But when you hear a piper paying, like Paddy Keenan, you are basically dividing the dotted quarter into three eighth notes, with a real fast grace, so you get Da Da Dum. The grace notes are more like percussion notation.

If you have the opportunity to play for a dance, or play solo, or with the Suffering Gaels, do you have a preference?

I don't. [However], I really enjoy playing for an old style step dancer. Solo, hard shoe, reel, jig, hornpipe -- old style, I love that. I really enjoy the interplay, rhythmically. When I was a kid the first instrument I wanted to play was drums, and there's still that desire in me for rhythm. I love a rhythm. So, really, I think of the bow as a drumstick with hair on it. 

[This article is from the (out of print) Spring 1997 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]