Celtic Music Fans Are Island Impresarios
By NIS KILDEGAARD
A visitor to their woodworking shop near the ice arena finds Gregg Harcourt and Mary Wolverton hard at work, wearing headphones and goggles to protect them from the sounds and sawdust of power drills and planers. When they turn off the machinery to greet their guest, another sound becomes apparent. From speakers mounted throughout the shop come the sweet strains of Irish music - reels and jigs and airs played lightly on the fiddle, pipes and concertina.
When they're not minding their cabinetmaking, Gregg and Mary are the Island's impresarios of Celtic music. It's a role that crept up on them, spawned by their love for the music and nourished by the friendships they've found in the music-making community.
When the Vallely brothers - Niall with his concertina and Cillian with his uilleann pipes - come to play their Irish music at the Katharine Cornell Hall this Thursday night, Gregg will be running the sound system and Mary will be everywhere at once as stage manager. She may even be on stage if the performers invite her to unpack her fiddle and sit in for a song.
But Gregg and Mary's story is too good not to begin at the beginning.
Gregg came to the Vineyard in 1980 and Mary in 1993; each had planned only a short Island stint, but both of them stuck. Gregg came with his brother from Utica, N.Y., to restore an Edgartown house, and found there was plenty of work to keep a skilled carpenter busy. Mary came fresh from college in Iowa, planning to spend a summer running the Essence shop in Edgartown. It was their good fortune to share a landlord, and that Mary's summer rental had a cantankerous pilot light in its water heater.
"We met right here, at the shop," says Gregg with a smile. "She came through that door - I can still remember it. She came over to see if I'd been able to fix her hot water heater yet."
After her gig with Essence, Mary stayed on, helping out more and more in the wood shop. She's an Iowa farm girl; her father was a professor of English literature and her mother ran the family farm, so her upbringing was a mix of culture and hands-on practicality. At the University of Iowa, she'd studied in the theatre department, majoring in costume design. "But I did lots of set-building, too," she says. "I worked in the scene shop for one whole year. Plus I did a lot growing up on the farm."
In the shop they make an excellent team, turning out graceful and sturdy custom work for their Island clients. "I'm the cabinetmaker," says Gregg. "I do the cutting and preparing; she does most of the finer finish work."
It wasn't long into their time together on the Island before Mary and Gregg were drawn into the music scene. Gregg has always had an interest - before moving to the Island, he built his own guitar - but they agree that the main impetus has been Mary's passion for Irish music.
She traces it back to her youth in Iowa.
"I used to listen to public radio stations in Iowa," she says, "and I was drawn to their Celtic programs. When I heard this music on the radio, I wanted to be able to play it."
Mary had studied flute in school, and found it easy to pick up the pennywhistle and follow an Irish tune; soon she was making music with friends. "After I'd moved out here," she says, "I went to Iowa and brought back my mother's old fiddle." The instrument, handed down from her mother's uncle, hadn't been played in years. "It was sitting there in our music room in Iowa, in its case with old gut strings on it and no hair on the bow. I got the bow restrung, and Gregg worked on the fiddle a little bit, and I started to teach myself to play."
Mary took some lessons from Becky Tinus to get started - that was seven or eight years ago. For three of the last four summers, she's made pilgrimages to Ireland to study the music at its source.
On the Island, Mary and Gregg enjoyed the occasional programs of Celtic music that Avi Lev used to put on at the Wintertide Coffeehouse. Through Mr. Lev, they met Billy Kelly, a true star in the Irish music scene, and from that friendship, other musical connections grew. Mary and Gregg started out helping occasionally with concert arrangements, and without ever really deciding to, they soon found themselves organizing concerts down to the last poster and press release.
It's never been about the money, Gregg and Mary say. In fact, they'd be ahead financially without this sideline. They work hard to publicize each show, and they're happy if they get an audience of 100 for a concert at the Cornell Theatre. "If we don't get an audience, then we end up paying the musicians," says Gregg. "That's okay if it happens, because we love the music, but that's not the way it's supposed to happen. The way we want to do it is to cover our expenses, and to pay the musicians well. Because even the best of Irish musicians don't get paid well. You can win the all-Island fiddle championship and still be doing all these $200 gigs."
Mary and Gregg smile to remember that the first event they organized themselves was actually their biggest - a 1996 concert featuring Paddy Keenan, of Bothy Band fame, and a roster of other top-ranked Irish musicians at the Old Whaling Church. They packed the hall and gave the profits to the Vineyard Project for children with AIDS.
Since then, they've settled on the Cornell Hall as the venue best suited to their audience. After this week's concert, they plan to produce shows in November and December, making seven in all this year. That's enough, they agree, especially since each event consumes the better part of a week's work, and after all the bills are paid they've usually spent more money than they brought in.
They're not complaining, mind you. "We've met a lot of musicians," says Mary. "It seems like we've gotten to know some of the best musicians in the Irish field. We're so lucky."
Gregg feels the same connection. "Melody rules in Irish music," he says. "For a tune to survive, the melody has to have something special. And another thing I love about the Irish scene is the way it embraces beginners. It's open to everyone."
Trying to articulate her passion for Irish music, Mary recalls the scene in any Irish pub, where the generations have gathered on any evening and the air is thick with music. "You've got these kids, maybe eight years old, who can play like wizards, and their grandparents are sitting there playing together with them in the pub. It's such a family-oriented music. Then some guy standing up at the bar, some farmer, will just break out into a song and everybody hushes down and they all listen to him. And he doesn't have this beautiful voice, but he's singing with such feeling that everybody's almost in tears."