In size, scope, and direction, Green Linnet Records doesn’t have much in common with most American record companies. Indeed, the label’s uncommon devotion to Celtic musicand to having a good timecan be summed up in the story of one of many wild, all-night parties at the home of Wendy Newton, label founder and president.
The story of this particular party dates back to 1981. Acclaimed Irish accordionist Billy McComiskey had just finished recording an album of traditional dance songs with his mentor, Sean McGlynn. Given the rousing nature of the songs they had recorded, it’s not surprising that the musicians, as well as a throng of supporters, felt like keeping the night alive. Newton gladly threw open her doors and invited everyone in.
The musicians congregated around the kitchen table, and “the room was filled with friends and dogs,” Newton recalls. At some point, a German shepherd belonging to guitarist Mick Moloney (who had produced the album) flew into a raging battle under the table with Newton’s two dogs. The barking and yapping shook the furniture, and the crowd shrieked with laughter, creating an even bigger commotion. All the while, the two accordionists kept pumping. “The reels never lost a beat,” Newton beams proudly. In the midst of all this excitement, someone had turned on a small recorder; 15 years later, hundreds of homemade copies of “the dogfight tape” have circulated throughout Ireland and America.
Later on, someone at the party decided the music was too good to be limited to the room. A phone call went out to Chicago to Hughie Gilles-pie, son of one of Irish music’s most famous figures, Hugh Gillespie. The phone was set in the middle of the table, so that he could enjoy a few minutes of the music. In the excitement, however, the phone was forgotten; hours passed. When someone finally picked it up again, there was Gillespie on the other end, still listening.
This kind of enthusiasm marks the history of Green Linnet. “We’re a different kind of record company,” Newton says in typically blunt and colorful fashion. “We have a better time than anybody.” Characteristically, the Danbury, Conn.-based label has been celebrating its 20th anniversary in 1996 with a yearlong party. Events have included a performance in February at the Station Inn as part of the Nashville Entertainment Association’s annual Extravaganza, and this fall will see a weekend-long orgy of Celtic music in the Catskills Mountains.
In commemoration of two decades in business, Newton has also helped put together a new, historic compilation, Green Linnet Records: The Twentieth Anniversary Collection. Her passion for the music shines through in how painstakingly and diversely the package surveys the best of traditional and progressive Celtic music, some of it recorded long before the company began. With 38 songs and 140 minutes of music packed onto two CDs, the budget-priced album reveals that the folks behind Green Linnet are traditionalists, but they aren’t afraid of where the future may take the music they loveas long as it has a solid basis in Celtic, Scottish, or Breton folk stylings. “Our commitment,” Newton says, “is to the elders who send the music down to new generations. We release a lot of new music, and a lot of progressive music that brings in other styles, but we try to be sure the old flavor is there. It’s the original music that drives us, and it will always have a home here.”
It’s the old flavor that first inspired Newton. In the mid-1970s, while on a trip to Ireland, she and her husband stopped into Mary Haran’s Pub in Ennistymon, a town in Ireland’s famed County Clare. There, Newton first heard legendary Irish fiddler Tommy Peoples, and she spent five hours that night getting intoxicated on Peoples’ spirited renditions of traditional song. The fiddler had recorded often, but none of his music was available in America; the same went for the recordings of dozens of other Irish musicians who were keeping age-old reels and airs alive.
A political and social activist, Newton decided she needed to do something. So she started Green Linnet expressly to bring in albums by the likes of Peoples and colorful artists like the late Seamus Ennis, who can be heard weaving folk stories and playing uilleann pipes and tin whistle on Green Linnet’s first release. The positive response to the record led to another album, then another. Along the way, Newton gathered what she calls “the Green Linnet brain trust,” a collection of friends and advisers who licked stamps, stapled boxes, and led her to undiscovered performers and fresh marketing ideas.
Originally created to import albums from Ireland, Green Linnet discovered a wellspring of outstanding Celtic musicians residing in America as well. Nowadays, with Irish music selling more than 1,000 copies a week across the United States, Newton is no longer surprised at the music’s reception or at the increasing number of accomplished bands sprouting up across the country. In Nashville, these include the tradition-based Rogues and the Celtic-inspired rock of Ceili Rain.
Actually, Nashville is a good representation of what’s happening with Celtic music in America. Until recently, it was difficult for Celtic bands to find a suitable venue here. The Station Inn occasionally booked local acts like The Rogues, but it resisted paying a higher price to bring in touring acts. That stance changed this year, starting with the Green Linnet party during the NEA Extravaganza. The event proved to be a huge success, as was a spring performance by young Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon. A recent show by The House Band, a traditional quartet based on the East Coast, also drew a healthy crowd. (“They’re my favorite band at the moment,” Newton says. “They’re just incredible musicians.”) Live Celtic music is now also featured regularly at Sherlock Holmes Pub on Elliston Place, and Tower Records on West End recently expanded its Celtic section to meet growing demand.
Just as the Country Music Foundation encourages country fans to discover Hank Williams and Bill Monroe along with Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, Newton hopes listeners will seek out Celtic music’s older masters as well as the younger bands and soloists. But Green Linnet stands solidly behind the new talent; the label has nurtured a few of the music’s most promising progressive bands, including the outstanding Capercaillie, an Irish band that blends traditional instruments with modern rhythmic accompaniment. The label has also put out records by Altan, another fine young band from Ireland; the group recently released a well-received album for the much larger Virgin Records.
As the music grows more popular, Newton also hopes people will differentiate between tradition-based Celtic music and lighter-weight, commercialized music that strays far from its roots. “There’s a lot of popular music around being called Celtic,” she says. “Enya and Clannad, for instance, who really have more of a New-Agey feel. What we put out, and what we love, is music that is a bit more of a challenge. But if you hear it right, if you get exposed to it in the right manner, I don’t think you can help but be moved by it. It’s very deep, very old, very sensual, very real. It’s a little harder to assimilate for large numbers of people. But we’ve worked hard to find a market for it.”
Newton, of course, has danced her share of jigs for the cause, and sometimes she’s had to drag the dogs outside so the party can keep going. She plans to keep kicking up her heels for another 20 years, inviting more and more people to join the celebration.
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