Originally published in Alaska Dispatch News
Growing up in the Bronx, Joanie Madden would listen to her father, an Irish immigrant, play his old accordion. She learned under her father and began playing traditional songs on tin whistle and flute. But it was still a shock to her parents when she decided she was going to become a professional traditional Irish musician.
“I remember my parents had a heart attack when I told them I was going to go into playing Irish music. ‘Are you out of your mind, what are you going to do?’ I told my dad I wanted to be the next Chieftains,” Madden said.
Madden continued her studies, eventually working with traditional Irish musician and scholar Mick Moloney. In 1985, Moloney organized a series of concerts showcasing women from across the country who performed the Irish music.
It was from that concert series — the first of its kind, Madden said — that all-female super group Cherish the Ladies was formed.
“It was something that was never planned, it was something that happened. We got together just doing some concerts in New York City celebrating women playing Irish music. We were all the top women in Irish music around the country. All the shows were sold out. We decided to record an album, that album was named the best folk album of the year by the Library of Congress,” Madden said. “That’s when the band was born.”
Madden found that the women she was playing with also learned the music first from their fathers. They decided to give the band a traditional and fitting name.
“What once had only been a male-only genre, for centuries it was always passed from father to son, but now it’s being passed from father to daughter, so I suggested Cherish the Ladies, an Irish jig we play,” Madden said.
With 16 albums, the band travels to about 100 cities a year. Cherish the Ladies has played in five continents, been named the top North American Celtic group by the Irish Music Awards and was nominated for a Grammy in 1999. The album “Woman of the House” made the top 10 list of the Billboard world music chart when it was released in 2005.
Their success paved the way for other female Irish musicians such as Eileen Ivers, Winifred Horan of Solas, Cathie Ryan and Heidi Talbot.
“In the early days it wasn’t really proper for a woman to be in a pub; nowadays some of the biggest names on the scene are women, without a doubt,” Madden said. “For years, we’ve had to overcome major stereotypes. When we first got together, people used to think ‘oh, little pansies,’ and then they would hear us play and go ‘oh, oh my God, these girls can play.'”
Traditional Irish ensemble Cherish the Ladies will perform in Anchorage and Fairbanks this week.
Madden and Mary Coogan (who plays guitar, mandolin and banjo) have been a part of the band since its beginning in 1985. Despite worldwide critical acclaim during the last three decades, Madden said the approval that still matters most to the band is that of their fathers.
“We would be more worried about what our fathers would think of the records than what the New York Times music critics thought. We are purists very much at heart — 70 percent of the show was composed by us and composed in a traditional idiom,” Madden said.
“They took the music so seriously. When they passed the music down to us, it was the greatest gift that they could give us. We never felt the music needed bass or drums or rock ‘n’ roll to make it sound good.”
Cherish the Ladies will be performing a special Christmas show in Anchorage and Fairbanks this week, sharing songs from their most recent album, “Christmas in Ireland,” and other Christmas music favorites. They’ll be accompanied by traditional Irish step dance.
“It’s always amazing to me how well Irish music and Christmas music gel together,” Madden said. “Our job is to get people in the Christmas spirit. That’s what we hope to achieve here. We’re going to work our behinds off to make sure everyone has a ball.”
When the members of Cherish the Ladies aren’t touring, Madden said, they are teaching.
“To me, this music is beautiful. So many people were turned on to Irish music and became fans. We have people from every ethnic background who follow our music and love Irish music. The virtuosity level among Irish musicians is second to none,” Madden said.
“This music touches people’s soul. This was music that was passed down. We’ve all been handed this music down; we are all keepers of the flame. Now it’s our turn to pass it down.”
Cherish the Ladies
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9
Where: Atwood Concert Hall
Tickets: $32.50-$66 at alaskapac.centertix.net
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10
Where: Hering Auditorium in Fairbanks
Tickets: Varies depending on membership level; see fairbanksconcert.org