by Earle Hitchner
If the car he was riding in had not broken down in the dead of winter two years ago in Providence, Rhode Island, Séamus Egan might never have had the chance to score the music for the critically hailed movie "The Brothers McMullen." At the time, this 26-year-old master of no fewer than seven acoustic instruments--flute, four-string banjo, tin whistle, mandolin, guitar, uilleann pipes (Irish "elbow" pipes), and bodhrán (Irish hand-held goatskin drum)--was part of a "Young Turks of the Banjo" tour in the Northeast. The other two musicians touring with Egan were both five-string specialists: bluegrass's Tony Furtado and old-timey music's Dirk Powell.
"The car belonged to Dirk's mother," Egan recalled from his apartment in Manhattan, "and the water pump cracked after we did a gig in Providence. We were staying in the home of the Yarme family there, who loaned us their car so we could finish out the tour. As our meager way of saying thanks, we left them a few CDs, including my two solo albums. Only later did I find out that their son, Andy, who lived and worked in Manhattan but was visiting his family that weekend, was a technician on a film being made by Edward Burns." Andy Yarme returned to Manhattan with the compact discs and gave them to Burns, a struggling screenwriter and director then shooting "The Brothers McMullen" in his hometown of Valley Stream, Long Island, on a shoestring budget of $20,000. Burns liked the CDs and contacted Egan about using the music from his second solo album, "A Week in January" (Shanachie Records), on the soundtrack. "I said sure, then I didn't hear another word about it until shortly before Thanksgiving of last year," explained Egan. "Eddie called to say he completed a rough cut and had used my music. I thought it would be just a track or two, but it turned out to be the only music used in the film. After Thanksgiving, he called again to say the film had been accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the grand jury prize. That's when Fox Searchlight Pictures [a subsidiary of Twentieth Century Fox] picked it up for distribution."
Additional soundtrack music was taken from Egan's third Shanachie solo album, a work-in-progress that he hopes to finish for a February 1996 release. He also shares compositional credit with Nova Scotia singer Sarah McLachlan on the film's lone song, "I Will Remember You," based on his own melody "Weep Not for the Memories." Interestingly enough, the video for this single, now seen on VH-1, cost three times as much to make as the movie. So far, "The Brothers McMullen" has earned nearly $10 million at the box office, and the Arista Records soundtrack has ranked among the top nine albums on Billboard magazine's "World Music" chart for the past nine weeks. Though Egan himself attributes this nexus of events to "a pure stroke of luck," his reputation in Irish traditional music circles was well established before Burns's film caught Hollywood's attention.
Born in the northern Philadelphia suburb of Hatboro on July 1, 1969, Séamus is the second oldest of Mike and Ann Egan's six children. When he was four years old, Séamus and his family left America for his father's birthplace, County Mayo, residing first in Ballyhaunis and then in Foxford. It was there that he took up Irish traditional music in earnest under the tutelage of Martin Donoghue, a button accordionist from nearby Ballindine whose extensive paralysis since birth did not deter him from either playing or teaching music.
"Martin was an amazing man," Egan said with affection. "His wrists were turned in, yet he could shift and tip the accordion around to get at the keys and play them. I took tin whistle and then flute lessons from him. Even though he couldn't play these instruments himself, he'd teach me by talking me through them. I studied with him for four years. He had unlimited patience."
That patience certainly paid off for Séamus Egan. By age 14, he had won four All-Ireland music championships, each on a different instrument: flute, tenor banjo, mandolin, and tin whistle. It was an unprecedented feat for any competitor, let alone someone so young.
"There are an awful lot of virtuoso musicians in Irish music," said Limerick-born Mick Moloney, a prominent scholar and musician who helped shape Séamus's technique on the tenor banjo and mandolin after the Egan family returned to Philadelphia in 1980. "But it's very hard to find too many people who excel at the top level on at least two totally unrelated instruments--in Séamus's case, the banjo and flute. They couldn't be further from each other in terms of technical requirements. Above and beyond all that, Séamus has an innate sense of musicality, which to my mind transcends virtuosity."
This rare combination of virtuosity and musicality has served Egan well over the past 15 years. He has made two acclaimed solo albums (the first at age 16), guested on a slew of other Irish traditional releases, and has recorded with such diverse, non-Irish musicians as folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary, bluegrass banjoist Alison Brown, and rock guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour.
"Doing a recording session with Reid was one of the more intimidating moments of my life," said Egan. "He played electric guitar and I played uilleann pipes on a hip-hop instrumental with a rap laid over it. It was, to say the least, an unusual collaboration." Another challenging collaboration for Egan came on March 17, 1991, when he was the featured soloist on flute and tin whistle with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. And the 1993-94 "Masters of the Banjo" tour mounted by the National Council for the Traditional Arts gave him the chance to share the stage on tenor banjo with other, mostly five-string players, including bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.
More recently, Egan was one of ten Irish traditional musicians performing on the soundtrack to "Out of Ireland." This two-hour documentary by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Wagner on the history of Irish emigration to America aired nationwide over PBS this past summer. A brilliant new band formed by Egan, Sólás, gave a rousing performance this past May at the 1995 Wolf Trap Irish Folk Festival in Vienna, Va., and also received national exposure this past September 15 on "Mountain Stage," a Public Radio International program based in West Virginia.And just last month, he played uilleann pipes, bouzouki, and low whistle on the soundtrack being recorded for "Dead Man Walking," an upcoming movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Throughout all his musical partnerships and projects, Séamus Egan has clung to the idea that the Irish tradition belongs not just in a museum or library but on stage, in the studio, and in the home.
"It needs to grow in order to stay alive," Egan insisted. "Even though I'm a traditional musician, I'm still a musician influenced by what's going on outside of the tradition. I find it challenging to mold something new out of elements not necessarily thought of together. By the same token, I don't want to lose sight of where the music has come from--the older players, many of whom never got the chance I'm getting yet made the difference for me and countless others."
*This article appeared in a November 1995 issue of The Wall Street Journal.
Copyright © Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. In addition to The Wall Street Journal, Earle Hitchner writes on Celtic music for the Irish Echo newspaper and Irish Music magazine. His writing has also been published in The New York Times, Reader s Digest, The Oxford American, New Choices, Details, Publishers Weekly, Attenzione, Treoir, Irish America, An Gael, Concertina & Squeezebox, CTMS Journal, and many other publications.