Tannahill Weavers:
remaking traditions

A few decades ago, a lot of Scottish bands were playing Irish music.

It's not just that Irish bands -- the Chieftains, the Clancy Brothers and the Irish Rovers, among others -- were carrying their music to eager audiences around the world.

Scottish traditional music, according to Roy Gullane, one of the genre's biggest proponents over the past 40-plus years, just wasn't that well known -- even in Scotland.

"We simply didn't know of its existence. It was a well-kept secret," he said.

Gullane is the lead singer and guitarist for the Tannahill Weavers, a venerable Scottish band that has been performing since 1968.

He was interviewed by phone last week in Columbia, S.C., where the Tannies had a gig at Delaney's Pub. The band will be in Pennsylvania this weekend for the 19th annual Mid-Winter Scottish & Irish Music Festival & Fair at Valley Forge Convention Center in King of Prussia.

The Tannies spend a lot of time on the road -- the next few months see them jetting from Florida and Vermont to California and Alaska, Germany and various points in the United Kingdom -- but Gullane says they never tire of the experience.

"Everybody has a bad day at work. Sometimes things don't go quite right. You get stuck in traffic or have a rotten time at the airport," he said. "But it's all right."

The Tannahill Weavers formed from a regular session in Paisley, Scotland. The band was named for famed local poet Robert Tannahill along with the town's historic weaving industry.

Gullane -- who, along with flute, whistle and bodhran player Phil Smillie, is a founding member of the band -- wasn't sure at the time he'd embarked on his life's work.

"I certainly hoped it was," he said.

Back in the day, he recalls, they were all playing Irish music, basking in the glow of the growing popularity of their western neighbor.

"The big groups at the time were all out of Ireland," Gullane said. "Much later on, we discovered we had our own music. It kind of happened overnight. But suddenly, Scottish bands decided to focus on Scottish music."

It was a shift in focus that the Tannies -- and their fans -- quickly embraced.

A key component of their fledgling sound was the bagpipes, the instrument most typically identified with Scotland -- but a very difficult instrument to mix on stage with an acoustic fiddle or guitar.

"It happened less in the beginning. We simply didn't know how," Gullane explained. "But the technology arrived, it definitely made it possible to integrate the Highland bagpipes into a folk band."

Now, he says, it's hard to imagine a Scottish band not building its sound around that distinctive Highland skirl.

"People think of Scotland and they think of bagpipes," Gullane said. "The bagpipes will always be there."

Gullane said he listens with interest to younger bands that have electrified their sound, but he says he has no interest in plugging in.

"We messed around with that 20 years ago," he said. "It's fine for the bands who are doing it. But it wasn't for us."

The the early 1980s, for instance, the Tannies added Canadian singer Bill Bourne to the lineup and blended electric guitars into the mix on 1984's Passage. It wasn't a style that lasted for long, however; by 1986, the Tannies released Land of Light, dropping both Bourne and electronics in favor of their more traditional format.

That doesn't mean the Tannahill Weavers are dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists. While much of their playlist dates back a few centuries, they have injected a great deal of original material into their shows over the years.

In fact, Gullane has been known to stave off complaints by reminding audiences that composition is also a grand Scottish tradition.

Anyway, he said, "we do it in such a way that hardly anybody ever notices. We write in a traditional style, and unless people read the liner notes, they don't even know."

Besides Gullane and Smillie, the band includes Colin Melville on Highland bagpipes, Scottish small pipes and whistles, and John Martin on fiddle and vocals. There have been a lot of personnel changes over the years; past Tannies include founding members John Cassidy, Neil Doherty, Jim McGowan and Stuart McKay, as well as Gordon Duncan, Dougie MacLean, Hudson Swan, Ross Kennedy and Iain MacInnes, among others.

The band currently has 17 albums under its belt, and Gullane said they always relish a trip to the studio to record another.

"We try to make every album a little bit better than the last one. But there's no fixed game plan at this point," he said.

"One of the reasons people like us is they know what they're going to get. There certainly have been no radical changes over the years," Gullane added.

"We just kind of do what we do. There's no trick to it."

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interview by
Tom Knapp

19 February 2011

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