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Legacy album connects family heritage, musical tradition

February 9, 2012

NASHVILLE

There is no shortage of possible motivations for making an album — the urge to express oneself artistically; the desire to reach out to an audience; the simple need to pay the bills — all of which are perfectly valid. But Legacy — a new, eight-song Celtic-tinged folk album — was made, first and foremost, to serve a different purpose: that of helping its creators and listeners feel connected to something far bigger and older than them.

Legacy is the brainchild of songwriting Nashvillian and Living Waters for the World Director of Development Steve Young, whose interest in Scots-Irish history and culture was sparked by a trip organized by the Synod of Living Waters to the island of Iona, Scotland, several years ago (“The minute I got there, the place just grabbed a hold of me”), and was further stoked by the revelation that his own family’s roots lay in the region. “I had been told my whole life that we were a combination of English and Dutch,” he explains. Two genealogically savvy relatives finally, as he puts it, “cracked the code” and determined that, in fact, “the Young family comes from Northern Ireland by way of Scotland.”

Young also came to know the story of his ancestor Mary Lamont, who fled clan warfare in Scotland with her four young sons to start a new life in Ireland, a life their children’s children’s children left behind when they — like a great many Scots-Irish Presbyterians — migrated to this country and eventually settled in the Appalachians, no doubt bringing their musical traditions with them. Young reflects, “It began this whole process for me of thinking through generation after generation after generation and the sacrifices that our ancestors made in their context to have a better life, and to have a better life for their children.”

At the same time that Young was starting to explore writing Celtic-style songs, his brother Marty was learning the Irish whistle, having been taken with its haunting sound on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Young floated the idea of the two of them recording what would become Legacy: “‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we did this together as a way to honor our family history?’”

The vision expanded when Young enlisted Melissa DuPuy — a fellow Nashville-based Presbyterian with a Masters in Appalachian Music and plenty of experience backing folk and bluegrass luminaries — as multi-instrumentalist, arranger and co-producer. “She’s like this walking encyclopedia of all things Celtic and folk,” he chuckles, “and then she happens to be accomplished on every stringed instrument.” DuPuy, in turn, brought in friends like Matt Combs, who heads the fiddle department at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music, and Deanie Richardson, fiddler for the likes of Patty Loveless, Vince Gill and The Chieftains.

Tradition is front-and-center in the collection of original and age-old numbers the Young brothers, DuPuy and their collaborators emerged with, but they didn’t limit themselves to a strictly traditional Celtic approach. Instrumentally speaking, the fiddle has long been played in Celtic music, while the Irish bouzouki and acoustic guitar were adopted during the 1960s folk revival, and the keyboard is more recent still; all have a place here.

Listen to the album, and you’ll likely sense a significant contrast between the melodic sensibilities of certain songs, even if you’re unable to put your finger on precisely what the difference is. Songs such as “Hag at the Churn” — a traditional jig that DuPuy interwove with a second traditional jig to open the album — and “The Escape of Mary Lamont” — a sprightly instrumental she composed with Young — use a modal scale that sounds stark, even ancient, to modern ears. Says Young, “You do feel, when you do music like that, that you are kind of touching the past. It just has a connected quality to it that I’m not sure a lot of music does.” On the other hand, “Fly” — a ballad penned by Young — is one of a couple of songs that feature a sanded-smooth contemporary folk melody.

On a more concrete level, some of the song titles and lyrics suggest a sense of place that spans the land of origins and ancestors (“The Escape of Mary Lamont”, “Iona Homecoming”, “Road to Baile Mor”) to the mountains of Appalachia that are closer to home today (“Fly”, “In the Mountains”). The tender-hearted words of the latter song were written and sung by Young’s 12-year old niece, Marty’s daughter Audrey; Uncle Steve wrote the music to go with them.

A great deal of thought went into all this bridging of eras, places and generations. “We’re trying to make the same point as with the instruments,” Young explains, “which is this is music that’s been handed down and handed down. So, of course, we start the record with ‘Hag at the Churn’, because ‘Hag at the Churn’ was played back in the 1500s, 1600s. And it’s entirely Celtic-like, if you will, for there to be a Celtic-meets-Appalachia tune and, more importantly, sung by a 12 year old. She represents the fact that the torch keeps getting passed.” (It’s true to Appalachian music, too, for new and old to mix; the mountain dwellers and their traditions certainly weren’t untouched by outside influences, cultural exchange and adaptation.)

The album concludes with a beautifully reverent reading of “Be Thou My Vision”, arranged by DuPuy and sung — in the original Gaelic, no less — by Meghan Doran. (This, too, is the fruit of innovative engagement with history; she learned the words phonetically, thanks to the decidedly nontraditional sources of Wikipedia and YouTube.) “For me personally, and for many people I know,” Young shares, “there is no hymn in the Presbyterian tradition that is more beautiful than ‘Be Thou My Vision’. It’s been my favorite hymn from the time I was a young child.”

That Young moves between “I” and “we” pronouns when he talks about the album is fitting. Along with the retracing of family and cultural roots, this is a work that reminds us of our church’s legacy. Says Young, “One of the rich things about being Presbyterian is that you are part of a chain; you’re part of a linkage that goes all the way back to the Protestant Reformation and John Calvin then through John Knox all the way through to where we are today.”

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