Proud to Show Her Roots
PLUS Biography (Courtesy the Artist's site, 2003).
Natalie MacMaster has to be seen as well as heard. The brilliant young fiddler from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia not only plays with the prodigious verve synonymous with the Cape Breton fiddle style, she performs some remarkably intricate step dances as she plays, a kind of one-person Riverdance which can expand into a full-on kickathon when her accompanists join in.
It's a sight and sound that has left audiences and critics spellbound from Canada and the USA to New Zealand and the Far East and has earned MacMaster invitations to guest with the Chieftains, Phil Cunningham and a whole host of other artists.
Learning to dance and play fiddle (although not necessarily at the same time) was almost inevitable in a family steeped in the musical heritage of their Scottish ancestors which has been preserved in the original raw, exciting state in which it crossed the Atlantic at the time of Highland Clearances.
Natalie's mother, who played fiddle music constantly around the family home in Inverness County, taught Natalie to step dance from the age of five. Then, aged nine and a half, Natalie picked up the fiddle which a grand uncle had passed on to 'whichever MacMaster learns to play it'.
"I'd fooled around on piano a little bit when I was a kid but nothing serious," she recalls. "But when I tried this fiddle it fitted me perfectly and I managed to get Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and the Glen Coe March out on the first night."
Encouraged by these quick results, she "just kept going" with a little help from her father, whose brother, Buddy, is one of the great masters of Cape Breton fiddling. Three months after picking up the instrument, Natalie gave her first concert and it has been, she says, "go, go, go" ever since.
Her simultaneous fiddling and dancing routine began with a young group called, she winces, the Special Seven. "That name wasn't our idea, we hated it, but somebody called us that and it stuck. We had five fiddlers and two step dancers and we decided we'd all try to play the fiddle and step dance at the same time. This wasn't unique, I've since learned that Jerry Holland, who's a great Cape Breton fiddler, did the same thing when he was a little boy. Anyway, we tried it and, my god, we managed to do it. It mightn't have sounded the hottest the first few times but we managed and I just continued on with it because it's a fun thing to do and it's something you don't see all that often."
Natalie made her first album, Four on the Floor, when she was just sixteen. Her third album, Fit as a Fiddle, won her the Instrumentalist of the Year prize at Canada's East Coast Music Awards in 1994 and she has since won a further three nominations for that category, as well winning SOCAN awards as Entertainer of the Year and Songwriter of the Year for her composition Get Me Through September.
Now signed to mighty Warner Bros. for Canada, Rounder Records for the USA and Greentrax Recording for the UK and Europe, her album 1998 My Roots Are Showing, on which she revisited favourite tunes with formidable zest, has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Traditional Folk Album category in the annual awards to be held in Los Angeles on February 21, 2001.
Although her concert schedule now takes her all over the world, Natalie has a special fondness for playing in Scotland, where for the past two years she has appeared at Glasgow's Celtic Connections festival with the String Sisters, a fiddle extravangaza featuring Shetlander Catriona Macdonald, Altan's Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Chicago-based Irish American Liz Carroll, Liz Knowles of Cherish the Ladies and Norwegian Annbjorg Lien.
"I always get a special buzz from playing anywhere in Scotland," she says. "It's pretty cool to be playing in the country where Cape Breton music originally came from and wasn't heard in quite the same for a very long time. It's like returning something that was borrowed and has been in constant use but is still in good working order."
© Rob Adams
Biography (Courtesy the Artistís site, 2005)
Bluegrass and Celtic music are close cousins, with shared roots dating back several hundred years. But that's not what prompted Celtic fiddling virtuoso Natalie MacMaster to enlist some of the world's top bluegrass pickers-including Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and Edgar Meyer-for her latest album, Blueprint. MacMaster, a native of Canada's Cape Breton Island, says her only motivation in choosing guests for the album was to feature the best acoustic musicians she could find. The common thread of bluegrass turned out to be a happy coincidence.
"I gravitate toward quality musicianship-that's what I grew up with," says MacMaster, who earned a Grammy nomination in 2000 for My Roots Are Showing in the Best Traditional Folk Album category.
"Irish music affects me the same way as Cape Breton music because those are the sounds and instruments that I've heard since I was a child. It's the same thing with bluegrass music, which has many of the same sounds and instruments. And, in a way, bluegrass musicians play reels, breakdowns and jigs too, so it's all very similar."
Working in Nashville with producer Darol Anger, MacMaster began assembling a wish list of who they'd like to work with. After recruiting banjo star Bela Fleck and mandolin great Sam Bush, MacMaster and Anger needed to line up a vocalist to sing "Touch of the Master's Hand," a poem set to music written by MacMaster and her guitarist, Brad Davidge. It was only when they settled on singer John Cowan did they realize the connection; Fleck, Bush and Cowan had all been members of bluegrass innovators the New Grass Revival. Douglas, who appears on five of Blueprint's 13 tracks, provided another unexpected link: it turned out that bassist Meyer and guitarist Bryan Sutton had both previously worked with the Dobro master.
"Jerry's the best Dobro player in the world," enthuses MacMaster. "We thought, 'why not start at the top?' He's so versatile and he adapted to the Cape Breton style right away." Adds MacMaster: "None of the musicians were show-offs. They're all just totally devoted to music-no matter what the style-and they were a total pleasure to work with. That was the coolest part of making this record."
That joyfulness is evident on the album's opening track, "A Blast," a series of five rollicking fiddle tunes, three of which MacMaster wrote herself. She also co-wrote "Jig Party" with her bagpipe player Matt MacIsaac and penned "Minnie & Alex's Reel" for her parents. MacMaster's compositional output is at an all-time high. "I'm in a real creative phase right now," she acknowledges. "Every time I sit down to practice, I have a lot of ideas for tunes and usually spend the first half hour just writing them down."
While still fairly new to composing, the 30-year-old MacMaster is already a veteran of her instrument. She first picked up a fiddle at the age of nine and hasn't looked back. The niece of famed Cape Breton fiddler Buddy MacMaster, Natalie quickly became a major talent in her own right.
After winning numerous East Coast Music Awards for her early traditional Cape Breton recordings, she began taking Celtic music to new heights with albums like In My Hands, which featured elements of jazz, Latin music and guest vocals by Alison Krauss.
To her accomplishments, she's added two Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy) for Best Instrumental Album and several Canadian Country Music Awards for Fiddler of the Year.
She has shared the live performance stage with acts ranging from Carlos Santana to the Chieftains, Paul Simon to Luciano Pavarotti, Alison Krauss to Mark O'Connor and dozens of world-class symphony orchestras. She's performed on ABC Television's New Year's Eve broadcast at the special request of one of her greatest fans, host, Peter Jennings. She's created, financed and produced her very own nationally broadcast network TV special.
Two of her CD's have charted on Billboard's Top 20 Selling World Music charts. Four of her previous five CD releases have been certified "gold" (50,000 +) in Canada.
Her exhaustive touring schedule has taken her from stages in Hawaii to Antarctica, Alaska to Japan, from Scotland to Italy, Germany to the Hollywood Bowl and beyond. She is often referred to as "the busiest woman in the Canadian music business."
For every contemporary album, MacMaster is quick to respond with a traditional one, like My Roots Are Showing. Her last recording, LIVE, was two albums in one: the first disc showcased her whole touring band, including the big-concert sounds of synthesizer, drums and electric bass, while the other featured a down-home Cape Breton square dance with just piano and guitar. MacMaster, who plays with what the Los Angeles Times described as "irresistible, keening passion," thrives in both settings.
With Blueprint, MacMaster is once again pushing the boundaries for traditional music, fusing her brilliant Cape Breton fiddling with the sounds of Banjo, Dobro and Mandolin, as played by the cream of America's bluegrass community.
"Alison Krauss was the artist who first got me listening to bluegrass music," recalls MacMaster. "With this album, maybe I can do the same thing and attract people to traditional Cape Breton music."