When you are a songwriter, it is not easy to live in a place with names like Latham and Schenectady. Kevin McKrell, a resident of the Capital District of New York State, says there just isn’t any romance in names like that.
“Texas,” he says. “Texas has a lot of good names for songs.”
When your specialty is bluegrass, folk, and Celtic music, that need for a geographic muse is even greater.
“Irish music is folk music, same as bluegrass is to America. It is the true local music that stems from the land and the people who live there. The stories are about leaving home and missing home.”
Kevin will bring that sound to the Deane Center on Saturday, March 26, at 7:30 for an evening of sing-a-longs and stories. While this may be the first time you have heard Kevin perform, any lover of Irish music has probably hummed along to some of his work. Among the groups he has written for are The Kingston Trio, The Furey Brothers and Davey Arthur, Seamus Kennedy, North Sea Gas, Hair of the Dog, Wood’s Tea Company, Bob Shane, and The Dublin City Ramblers.
When it comes to performing at legendary music festivals, Kevin has done all the biggies: Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Troy Music Hall, Berklee Performance Center, Proctors Theatre, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the Landmark Theater in Syracuse, the Milwaukee Irish Festival, the Great American Irish Festival, the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, and the Winterhawk Bluegrass Festival.
As musicians go, Kevin came to his craft a bit late in life, starting to perform when he was twenty years old. “I played guitar and threw a few friends together. We played around the Catskills. That led to a job in Chicago.”
The next steps came fast, and Kevin was soon playing the first of many performances in the Emerald Isle itself.
You can hear the smile when he says, “And I haven’t done a lick of work since!”
Those intervening forty years have seen Irish music explode in global popularity. “When I began, Irish music was only played in true Irish pubs by Irish musicians. Now, pubs are like Chinese restaurants, every community seems to have one.”
In a nod to the origins of the music, Kevin stays away from Ireland’s native language. “I don’t speak Gaelic and I wouldn’t try to sing in it. That belongs to the true Irish. I play the music, but I’m an American.”
But, he doesn’t think there is any loss of authenticity in his songs, not being a son of the ould sod. “Folk music is folk music. The themes and feelings of the songs are universal. Look at someone like Gordon Lightfoot. How many of his songs are about watching the plane you should have been on heading to your home? In past times, it would have been a sailing ship, but the longing for home, missing loved ones, pioneering new land—you can sing that feeling and make it work.”
His greatest thrill in music is to hear someone else perform something he wrote. “You can have a portrait that you did in your home and think it’s pretty good. When someone else comes in and says it’s good, it makes it even better.” It is an apt analogy, as he also happens to be an award-winning portrait artist. In that vein, he has had the ultimate compliment, as Ireland-based Celtic bands have recorded his stuff. He also makes frequent trips to play there himself.
Kevin considers himself a songwriter first, a guitar player second. “And I am a decent guitar player, not a picker. I know what a true picker is, and I’m not that good.”
His performances are largely audience participation with sing-a-longs and story telling that make the evening feel more like visiting a friend, and this will be his first visit to the Deane Center.
So warm-up your singing voice and plan to spend an evening with Kevin McKrell, a songwriter with a very American love of Irish music.