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Irish singer Maura O’Connell taps into the spirit of the songs

Gwendolen Cates

Maura O’Connell is in the midst of her “farewell tour,” but she’s not ready to bid goodbye to performing just yet.

The Irish-born interpretive folk singer would like to continue presenting her rich alto voice to a loyal following, but she hasn’t decided what form those future performances could take.

“There are many reasons for that,” O’Connell said by phone from her home in Nashville. “One is that I’m an old fogey. I’m not 20 or 21 or 30. I’m 54. One has to sort of acknowledge that you may be past your prime. I just want to take a break from the whole thing, and if something comes up that interests me, I’d be happy to do it. I’ve had a wonderful life in music up to now. I just don’t see a place for me in the future of what the music business is.


“Also, the cost of touring has gotten so expensive, and there’s such pressure on the public for tickets and money; people have choices to make to go see things. My time may have already been decided whether I want it or not.”

O’Connell will play the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton on Friday night and the River Club Music Hall in Scituate on Saturday night. Like a smooth shot of Irish blend, she’s the perfect complement to St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

The tour will end at year’s end. What O’Connell will be doing in 2014 is anybody’s guess — including her own. “I don't know,” she said. “I’ll be 55 then, and I’ve been traveling most of my adult life. I think I should take a vacation and not travel so much. . . . Actually, what I’d be happy and excited to do is collaborate with other musicians, find some new, exciting ideas. I think I’ve covered everything to death at this stage in terms of finding songs that speak to people, unless I get another idea, which would be great. I haven’t found another song that has another word to say on anything.”


An interpretive singer is a non-writing performer, one who literally interprets the lyrics penned by others. O’Connell's 11 albums, spanning the period 1983-2009, are filled with stirring, heart-driven tunes authored by such folk stalwarts as John Gorka (“Blue Chalk”), Cheryl Wheeler (“Summer Fly”), Paul Brady (“Helpless Heart”), Patty Griffin (“Long Ride Home”), Nanci Griffith and Rick West (“Trouble in the Fields”), and countless others.

If no new songs on the open market speak to O’Connell’s audience, why not write her own and address her constituency directly?

“I’ve never written a song in my life and wouldn’t start now,” O’Connell, twice nominated for a Grammy, said. “I’m an interpreter. I’m a singer, pure and simple, no extras, just straight up. If I could have done it up to now, believe me, I would have.”

Her beautifully crafted delivery of songs has earned her respect worldwide, regardless of the source of the lyrics.

“There aren’t that many singers who are given any credit if they don’t write, unless they’re involved in opera or something like that,” O’Connell said. “So I’ve been given a special place in the musical universe. And I'm very grateful for that.”

O’Connell is a long way from her native Ennis in County Clare in the west of Ireland, where light opera was played at home while young Maura’s interest lay instead in folk music. After she sang successfully in local Irish folk clubs in the late 1970s with guitarist friend Mike Hanrahan as an amateur duo called Tumbleweed, word of her talent spread and she was invited to go on a six-week tour of the United States with Dé Danann (later De Dannan).


After some internal debate, she joined the traditionally based Celtic band and “turned pro.”

“The next thing you know, 30-something years later, I’m still here,” O’Connell said. “We (Dé Danann) did a record, ‘The Star Spangled Molly,’ which became a huge hit in Ireland [in 1981]. If it weren’t for that album, I probably would have gone home and quit the music business.”

She didn’t. She discovered New Grass Revival music in the United States, moved to the States in 1986, and made Nashville her home. Collaborating with Jerry Douglas and Béla Fleck on most of her CDs, O’Connell has built a significant fan base across America, enough so that in Boston, the playlist for folk radio WUMB-FM (91.9) includes about 20 O’Connell tunes.

“Where she comes from is a big part of her music,” said Jay Moberg, WUMB music director, “but I think what has made her resonate with a folk audience is the more Nashville side to her. I think her overall appeal is that she can be a traditional Celtic singer if she wanted to, but she can also branch out into folk and country, which is why her stuff holds up at the radio station.”


O’Connell shares home life with her husband and 17-year-old son. Her husband is a businessman, but it’s not the music business.

“No, thank goodness, not at all. No, no, no,” she said happily. “He married a folk singer. What do you think? Someone has to make money. He can make money. I can’t.”

Dick Trust can be reached at rtrust68@comcast.net.