05 April 2012

Niall Toner on Barney McKenna

The BIB benefits from a computer malfunction which has temporarily prevented Niall Toner from publishing these memories on his own blog. We're glad to present them here, with his permission.

The passing of Barney McKenna today affected me on so many levels, it's hard to know where to begin. I had the good fortune to have known him since about 1962/3, when I used to travel with Peggy Jordan to the Abbey Tavern in Howth to hear the Ronnie Drew Folk Group, as the Dubliners were known then. On one such occasion, Barney played a particularly soft and tender tune, 'Roisin Dubh', if memory serves, during which a member of the audience continued a conversation with the person in the next seat. After the applause died down, Barney made it clear to the two people concerned that silence would be enforced even at the cost of his banjo and their heads. He got the result he deserved, and I have proudly followed his example ever since.

I also had a much more recent experience in Barney's life when I was asked by Nashville banjoist and producer Tim Carter to write a lyric for a song that Barney wanted to record about the connection - as he saw it - between bluegrass and Irish music. This I did, and I'm thrilled to know that Barney recorded the song in Nashville, and that it will be released, posthumously, soon; it's called 'When the bluegrass meets the greengrass'.

Incidentally, although I don't think he ever did record anything in this style, Barney was such a great innovator on the banjo, he could play what he called 'imitation 5-string in Scruggs style' on his tenor banjo. For banjo fans who never saw him do this, it involved fretting one string on the fifth fret to give him the 'ring' of the 5th string, and a cross-picking pattern with a flat pick that had more in common with George Shuffler or Jesse McReynolds.

This memory is particularly poignant when you realise that the world's other great banjo innovator, Earl Scruggs, died on Thursday last. Two banjo legends gone in one week. Hey, it just occurred to me that there may well be an amazing meeting of styles in a session on high. Also, although I have no intention of joining them for a long, long time - and I'm not sure if I'd pass the audition anyway - I am the proud owner of a wonderful John Alvey Turner 5-string, which you can admire in this photo [above], taken by Fiaz Farrelly in Myshall graveyard, and it will feature, soon.

Niall's friend and fellow songwriter Keith Sewell, who is producing his forthcoming album on the Pinecastle label, was one of the pallbearers at Earl Scruggs's memorial service at the Ryman Auditorium on Sunday last, where he was also honoured to be part of the 'banjo salute' on that occasion, described by Bill Evans on Bluegrass Today.

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At 12:36 pm, Blogger Colin Henry said...

Having sadly posted last week about the influence and importance of Earl Scruggs on myself as a musician, I again must sadly comment on the influence of Barney McKenna. He too was/is a banjo great. My first banjo was a tenor. I thought I was buying the type of banjo played by Earl Scruggs but in my abject ignorance I bought a 4 string and wondered why it didn't sound the same! As result I began to try and copy Barney McKenna--not very successfuly I am afraid. However, I gained a love of his playing which endures to this day. I am of course a banjo lover; 5string; 4string; any amount of strings I love them all and in just over a week we have lost two of the greatest players.


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