Randal Bays comes at you like a summer squall: a little anticipation and suddenly you're drenched. He leads you through a complex musical experience: frolicsome, introspective, lamenting, and plain break-neck fun, and he leaves you with a sense of stimulated well-being. Widely known as the superb guitar accompanist on Martin Hayes' 1993 debut album, Randal first embraced the Irish fiddle more than twenty years ago, devoting both personal and professional focus to the intricacies and subtle nuances of this tradition. With the winter 1997/98 release of his own album, Out of the Woods, he placed himself clearly among the best Irish fiddlers of his generation. He teaches and performs full-time, both here and abroad. He produces recordings for his own label, Foxglove. Witty and engaging, he seeks the smaller stage and the more intimate setting, where performer, music, and audience merge. The following is condensed from a two hour conversation last spring.
So you were about twenty-six, you heard the Irish fiddle, and you made a big change.
I had already quit the classical guitar. Basically, it just wasn't a big enough voice for me. It expresses a kind of gentleness, but there was also this more powerful voice I wanted to have. I didn't realize so much in those terms what I was looking for, then I got talked into going to hear a concert. Kevin Burke and Michael O'Domhnaill were working as a duo, and the music they played absolutely, totally got me. It was absolute magic. I was awake all night talking about it. So I got into the fiddle then. I was lucky because those guys ended up moving to Portland. Kevin was my neighbor. I never took formal lessons from him, but he was so generous with his time, and he guided me to a lot of great players who were a lot different from him. In particular, to P.J. Hayes and Paddy Canny. So I got on to them right in the beginning, and I'd been listening to them for years by the time I met Martin Hayes. It's part of the reason Martin and I clicked so readily. I already had his family repertoire in my brain.
You are a traditional musician, and you write new tunes in the tradition. Is there a conflict?
The Irish tradition is a living tradition, unlike some of those that died out and got revived. Irish music never died out. It continued to be a rural peoples' music right up into the present. I mean we're seeing the end of it now, unfortunately. So it has always been a living music, which means it has always been added to. What I've tried to do is to make tunes that sound as though they have the right sense about them. And you can't get too fat a head about it because if you're successful you'll have to come up with tunes that are original and yet have a lot of elements of other things in them that have already gone down. It just seems unnatural not to be making new tunes into a tradition.
You are a professional musician, but do you have a larger purpose?
When I quit the classical guitar, part of it was turning against that whole world of professionalism. I came to not like that paradigm of the performer being separate. You spend all your time: practice, practice, practice. You go up on stage at a huge distance from the audience put the music out. It's like spectator sports. I'm much more into sandlot softball. Well, I do go to Mariners games.
Everywhere I go, I find a great group of people who are really interested in traditional music on a grass roots level. I play for those people. I find it's the same in Ireland. You have the really big gigs and the fame, but there is this kind of kitchen and small gig oriented thing of people who really appreciate the art of the music.
By way of closure, can you reflect a bit?
When I got into this I had no attraction on an ethnic interest level. The music itself is what attracted me. I see so many people who are so passionate about it, so I ask myself, why is it? I find over the years, the dynamics of how this music works the music itself, the performance settings, the scene it has a lot in common with blues or jazz. It is a social music, an intense music, and it's a music that respects and honors wildness. That's really important. It's not necessarily always a nice music. In fact, that's another place where us Yanks get into trouble with it. We want everything to be democratic and nice. This music isn't that way. Sometimes it's wild and intense and fiery.
I'd like to say here: we need to take this music seriously. Somewhere else put: we really shouldn't take this music too seriously. Both are true. I go into these sessions and see people staring intensely at the floor, I want to say, "Lighten up. Joke with the person next to you. Have some fun." On the other hand, take it seriously because it's a precious heritage, whether you're Irish or not.
[For the full text of this interview, as well as "The Homer Spit" by Randal Bays and "Tim Moloney's Reel" as played by Randal, purchase the Winter 08/09 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Larry Hill writes from Seattle. He has played Irish music on fiddle, flute, and whistle for twenty years.]