Irishman Paul Brady Navigates the Pop/Traditional Divide but Still Seeks American Success
by Earle Hitchner

Paul Brady
"The Crossing"

Click on the photo for Paul
Click here for Mr. Brady's Discography

his year marks the 20th anniversary of the hunger strike that claimed the lives of Bobby Sands and nine other Irish Republican Army prisoners in Northern Ireland. Their sacrifice was still fresh in the minds of the Irish populace when native County Tyrone singer-songwriter Paul Brady recorded "The Island" for his 1986 album, "Back to the Centre." Searingly beautiful, the song pleads for reason amid "the troubles" riving not just Northern Ireland but Lebanon and other sectarian hot spots. Images of blight ("mighty cedars bleeding in the heat") alternate with images of bliss ("we'll make love to the sound of the ocean"), but the stance taken by the narrator never wavers: "Up here we sacrifice our children / To feed the worn-out dreams of yesterday."

In 1992, Galway singer Dolores Keane covered the song to great acclaim on what was then the biggest-selling album in Irish history, a compilation entitled "A Woman's Heart." She's part of a long list of performers who've covered Brady compositions: Tina Turner, Cher, Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Phil Collins, Trisha Yearwood, David Crosby, Art Garfunkel, Bryan White and Dave Edmunds.

In Ireland, Paul Brady is celebrated as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist of rare gifts, an artist who has made an indelible impression in both traditional and pop-rock genres. But in America, his reputation is still cultish, largely residing--hiding, actually--in those song covers by better-known performers, while his own solo albums have usually met with warm critical response and lukewarm sales. "The record business in America is entirely geared to niche marketing, and my music is not easily niche-marketed," the 53-year-old musician conceded by phone from Nashville, where he was visiting Compass Records and also writing some new songs. Last month, Compass issued his new solo album, "Oh What a World," and, over the next year or two, also reissue his newly remastered back catalog of pop: six albums, plus a best-of compilation.

"For better or worse, I've been given the gift of diversity," he said, "and it turns out that that is a liability a lot of the time, and there's nothing I can do about it. For many years, this bothered me, but now I feel I'm out of the tumble dryer and into a better frame of mind. Even if I haven't arrived at a place defined by the mass media, I still feel I've arrived as an artist."

Irish traditional music fans knew Paul Brady had arrived as an artist as far back as 1974. That was the year he replaced lead vocalist Christy Moore in Planxty, a band that grabbed Ireland's folk balladry by the scruff of its neck and shook it up with traditional instrumentation and fresh arrangements. Though Planxty never released any recordings with Brady in the two years they were together, he did cut an album with fellow Planxty colleague Andy Irvine in 1976. “Andy Irvine/Paul Brady" is one of the most accomplished Irish traditional duets ever made, and Brady's powerful singing of the anti-recruiting ballad "Arthur McBride" inspired Bob Dylan to cover it on his 1992 album, "Good As I Been to You."

Always a compelling vocalist, Brady is also a talented keyboard, mandolin, bouzouki and tin whistle player. As an acoustic guitarist, he helped to refine open, or modal, tunings for accompaniment and establish the guitar as a bona fide solo instrument in Irish traditional music. His mid-'70s recordings with flutist Matt Molloy (now with the Chieftains) and fiddlers Tommy Peoples, Andy McGann, Paddy Reynolds and Kevin Burke represent Irish traditional music at its peak, and his solo recording debut in 1978, "Welcome Here, Kind Stranger," was picked as the best folk album of the year by Britain's Melody Maker magazine.

No one in Irish traditional music was riding higher in reputation than Paul Brady by the end of the 1970s, which made his sudden switch to rock and pop on his second solo album, 1981's "Hard Station," all the more shocking. "After spending years in traditional music, I found I was yearning to get out of that world, which was getting claustrophobic for me," he said. "I had played rock, pop, blues and R&B before I was struck by the lightning of the folk and traditional boom in Ireland. All I was doing was going back to that."

The eight songs on "Hard Station," Brady says, were an attempt "to find out if I could write songs or develop into a songwriter." He found out. The rock rave-up "Busted Loose," the moody, tango-flavored "Crazy Dreams," and especially "Nothing But the Same Old Story," a scalding slice-of-life narrative about Irish immigrants "living under suspicion" in England, quickly won Brady a new legion of fans.

The progression of albums to follow marked greater polish in his songcraft and greater boldness in the studio. "Steel Claw," from his 1983 album "True for You," is as kinetic a rocker as he's ever written, featuring some stinging electric-guitar playing as well as a four-piece horn section. "Nobody Knows," on his 1991 release "Trick or Treat," captures Brady in a more pensive, perhaps autobiographical mood. The song's inspiration came from an unlikely source: the Beatles' 1969 performance of "Get Back" atop London's Apple headquarters to a throng gathered on the street below. But Brady gives the scene a cruel twist, singing "Up on the rooftop he turns to the crowd / No one is waiting / No one is there."

Self-doubts also creep into his new album, "Oh What a World," but they're rarely the crippling kind. "I don't want to spend my life / Callin' out the devil's name / Lookin' for a reason why / Tryin' to find somebody to blame," he sings with renewed resolve in the song "Travelin' Light."

More so than any previous recording of his, "Oh What a World" stresses collaborative songwriting. Nine of the album's 11 tracks were composed with such established names as Carole King, Will Jennings ("My Heart Will Go On" earned him an Oscar for the film "Titanic"), Gary Nicholson and Dean Grakal. "The experience of co-writing pushed my boundaries as an artist way farther out," Brady said. "It was the first time in my life where I was able to indulge myself entirely in all the things I'm able to do musically--without having to think of anything else, including whatever image of me is out there as a musician."

If the new album and the April reissue of "Hard Station" get a fair hearing in America's teeming, teen-dominated marketplace, Paul Brady the pop singer may yet earn the same appreciation as Paul Brady the pop songwriter.

Copyright © 2001 by Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. This article was the lead feature for the “Leisure & Arts” page in the March 15, 2001, issue of The Wall Street Journal. Reprinted at the Celtic Cafe by permission of Earle Hitchner. Besides The Wall Street Journal, Earle Hitchner has also contributed articles and reviews to Billboard, Details, Irish Music, New Choices, Irish Echo and The Oxford American magazines. Earle has written liner notes for over 40 recordings, including 1999's Grammy-nominated "The Celtic Album" by the Boston Pops Orchestra. In 1999, he wrote six essays for the widely praised reference book "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music," co-published by Cork University Press and New York University Press. He also consulted on four film documentaries of Irish traditional music broadcast on public television.

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