A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Spring 2020 / VOL. 20 ISSUE 2
By: Deric Green
Irish American Post Music Critic
When talking Irish music, the name Paddygrass regularly pops up as among the most popular bands in Wisconsin.It is a reputation well deserved and a long time a ‘comin.’To find out what the group is all about look for Derek Byrne.Easily recognizable, he is the guy wearing a multitude of hats (often in a kilt) as lead promoter, lead organizer, lead booking agent, lead musician, lead songwriter and on and on.
Byrne grew up in Ireland, living in Naas, Co. Kildare and later on, in Killeenmore, Sallins, Co. Kildare. He left his home country at age 21. Most of his family are still in Ireland, but Byrne said that he has built his own family Stateside.He doesn’t get back home often, although he certainly would like to return more regularly.However, when Byrne does have the oft chance to renew his ties to the Auld Sod, he doesn’t perform.
“I like to catch up with family and friends first,” he said, at the same time not ruling out a performance or two if the opportunity arose, indicating that “I would love to perform in Ireland though.”
Byrne, who left Ireland at age 21, bought a banjo with his first paycheck in a New York pawn shop. He taught himself to play and wrote songs. Today, his children also sing and play musical instruments, often performing together. His son, Cael, plays piano and drums, his daughter Keira plays guitar. He met his wife Carrie when she was working backstage at the Auditorium Theater, the first time he performed in Milwaukee after three years on the road.
“Love is the best reason build a new home away from Ireland. Once my wife showed me around Milwaukee, I saw all the great festivals and vibrant Irish music scene and I was hooked,” he enthused. “It was fate that brought me here to find love in the city that’s home to the world’s largest Irish festival. I certainly landed on my feet!” he added happily.
Byrne rightly brags that his wife Carrie is very creative and artistic, enjoying making props and designing sets for commercials, documentaries and independent movies. “We each have our own passion and it is healthy to have our own space to explore,” he said.
It didn’t take Byrne long to learn to find his way around the States and has favorite places in Wisconsin to showcase his talents. “I love all the Irish festivals in Wisconsin and the Highland Games too. There are so many great venues locally, I’m spoiled,” he chuckled.Paddy’s Pub in Milwaukee is a favorite since that’s where Paddygrass was launchedThe House of Guinness in Waukesha is another wonderful authentic Irish pub, where Byrne has been playing for more than 12 years. He praised the traditional Irish sessions are held at Paddy’s Pub, County Clare Irish pub, Moran’s, Draft and Vessel, plus the House of Guinness.
Lyon’s Irish Pub in Watertown is his favorite for solo shows, where the people there are like family to him.He also mentioned City Lights Brewing and West Allis’ Westallion Brewing, two great Milwaukee area breweries where Paddygrass love to appear, simply because the beer is so good and the band loves the owners.“We have never really performed as Paddygrass in Ireland but we would love to,” he suggested, pointing out that Irish music is very strong in Milwaukee because of the local sessions, Milwaukee Irish Fest and a strong local community built up around the music.
With all those options, he doesn’t really have a single favorite place to go for a pint. “I would go anywhere they are pouring one… as long as they pour it right,” he pointed out.
But back to music. Banjo was Byrne’s first instrument, one that he really took seriously, plus he plays hand drums, bodhran and harmonica. His first professional show was at the Tivoli Theater as part of the Dublin Theater Festival, appearing in the chorus for a small original musical.“But I was still petrified,” he admitted.
Byrne loves Irish music because it makes people happy. “You can’t sit still when Irish music is playing. Also, it brings me home. We don’t just play kickass Celtic music though. We are known for mixing in bluegrass and gospel, too,” he said, adding that the repertoire is made up of the old folk songs from Ireland, Scotland and America. “The kind of music you sing at the campfire.”
He auditioned for the cultural masterpiece Riverdance “back in the day” while working as a journalist. “The photographer at the paper was Andy McGlynn. His two sons ran the choir, Anuna which was singing for Riverdance. Andy told me to go audition for Anuna and six weeks later I was in Hammersmith rehearsing with the cast,” he recalled. “I have a wide range so I could reach the bass notes, plus I had experience playing bodhran. I could never claim to be a dancer, even though I had to fill in some crowd numbers,” he recalled.
“It was amazing and fun touring with that troupe. We had a great support system in each other. We looked out for each other, everyone was family,” he said of that time.
Playing alone actually makes him more nervous, Byrne said.“With Riverdance, I was a small part in a huge show. We all contributed in our own way. When you are solo or front man in your own band, it is a different level of pressure,” he related.“Calling venues to get gigs is hard when you are starting out your own solo project. I am lucky to be in Milwaukee where the Irish music scene is so welcoming and vibrant. We all help each other out. Every band is so eager to help new upcoming acts find venues. There is nowhere else really that I have seen this camaraderie except Ireland,” he continued.
Over the years, local musicians got to know Byrne and saw how open he was to have people joining him on stage. “If you bring an instrument to my show and demonstrate that you can play it well, you will end up sharing the stage with me before the night is out. At the start, it was just like that.Various musicians would come to my solo shows with instruments and I would invite them up to play. I simply kept my favorite players and asked them to form a band with me.
Paddygrass also performs with the Milwaukee Irish Dance Company at bigger venues and festivals. “Their dancers are all former champions and they really get the crowd going. I saw their video on Facebook and knew I had to work with them. MIDC dancers are so professional and they put on a hell of a show,” Byrne exclaimed.
There are challenges with assembling such a diverse troupe of talented musicians, admitted Byrne. “It’s hard for us all to get together as we are all in multiple bands. I make videos of new songs so they can rehearse in their own time. We get together whenever we can.But there is so much spontaneity at our gigs that I’m happy to let the unpredictable magic happen,” he said.
As a result, a Paddygrass show might consist of a duo or a six-piece group singing in four-part harmony with everyone playing multiple instruments. “We usually perform in trios and quartets, but it is getting hard for everyone to get to every show. That is why I’ve doubled up on most instruments. I usually book gigs about four-to-five months in advance and I try to give everyone equal number of opportunities to play.”
Once he fits in a few players here and there, Byrne builds the band for each gig depending on who can make it. “ I think one of the reasons we have such a big following is that each member has their own circle of friends that come to see them perform, yet they discover new players and continue coming because they enjoy the variety and spontaneity of our shows,” he explained. “You never know who or what you will hear at a Paddygrass show, we take requests and special guests arrive unannounced and before we know it there’s a unique moment that we’ll never forget.”
He does the bookings since he knows most of the owners of the venues they play. “I have built up relationships over time and want to maintain those partnerships. I also have my wife, two kids and a Scout troop to look after. Over the years, I have coached their soccer teams too. I need to coordinate when I can be available around my family.”
Byrne often wears his MacLaren tartan kilt for shows. “It’s a scouting tartan. The MacLaren clan gave (Scout founder) Baden Powell the use of their land (Gilwell Field) for the first “wood badge” leader training camp, he related. “I am a Scoutmaster in my spare time. We have 50 boys and 11 girls in two separate troops. Wood badge is the highest level of adult leadership training in scouting. Scouting is the biggest passion in my life other than music. My son Cael is about to become an Eagle Scout and my daughter Keira is the assistant senior patrol leader in the girls’ troop.
Paddygrass’ performing circle is seldom more than four hours outside Milwaukee.“If we have to go that far, I like to build a few shows in that area so we can stay overnight and make a little tour of it,” he stated.
In addition to family, performing and community chores, Byrne works at Hal Leonard, the largest printed music publisher in the world. “Lately, we have grown that business into everything you need to make music – from instruments to pro audio equipment and recording gear to music lessons you can teach yourself,” Byrne added.
“I’m a self-taught musician myself, so I can relate to our customers and guide them in their own musical journey. Of course, I specialize in folk and bluegrass, my customers range from small Celtic gift stores to major national distributors. I love sharing my passion for music. Most of the members of Paddygrass, actually work with me at my day job.”
Paddygrass is like other performing ensembles learning as they go during the coronavirus pandemic.“We keep in touch to check up on each other. It is killing us not being able to perform together. Right now, I’m working on new songs for our next CD. We chat about different choices of rhythm and keys to suit the makeup of the band,” he went on.
The band is finding ways to still work together, with Byrne recording videos of the new songs so they can learn them. “Not knowing when the next show will be is hard. You see whole chunks of shows cancel a month at a time. Now we have lost three months of gigs and it is hard to keep up morale. That’s why working on new material is so important. I need to show them that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, just as a true leader should and does.
And, best of all, his family is okay back in Ireland since that country tested more people and locked down earlier so the outbreak was not as bad as in the United States.
“I like to write my own music but Paddygrass is not really about me. People know us for Irish, bluegrass and gospel. I like to find old songs from Ireland, Scotland and America and arrange them in a way that gets people moving. Once you can’t keep still, you know it’s becoming a Paddygrass song,” Byrne laughed.
According to Byrne, there are many extremely talented younger musicians. Most of my favorite up and coming players are in the band. I love finding new young musicians and inviting them to join us. That is how we stay fresh. Paddygrass is a band where you can come in as a young musician and even teach the old guys a thing or two. My advice would be to play with as many other people as possible. You learn so much when you collaborate with new people. Be humble and open to learning.”
Byrne easily answered what makes a great Irish musician.He listed pride in one’s roots “yet knowing when to kick up your feet and explore the ability to relax and enjoy playing in a group of strangers. “
If Byrne invited five-to-six Irish or Irish Americans musicians to a local pub or to sit around his kitchen table for a pint and chat, he would invite a distinguished roster of musicians:Paul Brady, Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly and all the Clancy brothers, Delores Keane, Eileen Ivers, Katie McMahon, I would also throw in Fats Waller, Pete Seeger, Annie Lennox, Tina Turner and Cindi Lauper for spice. “Why confine myself?” he queried.
Byrne and other Paddygrassers don’t just sit around between gigs.“We listen to others and learn from them,” he said. It’s a trait that will do him well into the future. “How many years can I keep going? Until I die, even then I plan on haunting a few fun places or coming back and doing it all over again,” he laughed.
With no sort of demise expected soon, Byrne has lately been exploring gourd banjos and old mountain banjos. He even experimented and invented his own instrument, a gourd banjo in the ekonting style with a sympathetic mandolin underneath the five-string banjo. “I got the idea from Hardanger fiddles, sitars and dotaras. Jeff Menzies, who lives in Jamaica, helped me build it during the quarantine. He is a master craftsman with a wealth of knowledge of world ethnic instruments.”
Paddygrass Recent Irish Play List
All for me grog
A Nation once again
Black is the color
Black Velvet Band
The Drunken Scotsman
Fairytale of New York
Fields of Athenry
I’m a Rover
If I should fall from grace with God
Johnny I hardly knew ya
Jug of Punch
Lakes of Pontchartrain
Maids When You’re Young
Mo Ghile Mhearr
Red is the rose
Seal a na mbo na mbo
Suil a Ruin
Ta mo ceamhnas a deanta
Tell me Ma
The Gypsy Rover
The Hills of Connemara
The Holy Ground
The Homes of Donegal
The Irish Rover
The Lark in the Morning
The Leaving of Liverpool
The Little Beggarman
The Lord of the dance
The Minstrel Boy
The Mountain Dew
The Parting Glass
The Rising of the Moon
The Rocky Road to Dublin
The Star of the County Down
The Water’s Wide
Wild Mountain Thyme
Whiskey in the Jar
Whiskey You’re the Devil
Wild Mountain Thyme/go lassie go
For more information:
Contact Derek Byrne, founder of musical group Paddygrass at firstname.lastname@example.org
With that fun backgrounding, no wonder fans’ feet get to tapping.
(Editor’s Note: Here is a playlist Derrick Byrne made on YouTube: )
Paddygrass is certainly outstanding in its field.
Its members (left to right) include:
Steve Kendziora (bass and vocals) Rory Modlinski (guitar and vocals), Olivia Langby (violin), Molly Noyes (flute and pipes), Derek Byrne (banjo and lead vocals), Randy Foat (drums), Leah Redding (violin), Randy Gosa (guitar)
and Elyse Transon (lead dancer)
Band Portrait by Cassandra Forbes, Gilded Lens Photography
Dererk Byrne’s latest instrument, a gourd banjo, with Hardanger roots.
Photo Courtesy of Derek Byrne