Getting to Know Tannahill Weavers

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Legendary Scottish group Tannahill Weavers are celebrating their 50th anniversary with their new album Òrach (Gaelic “Golden”). Their award-winning music breathes new life into Scotland's vast repertoire of traditional melodies and songs. The group's unique combination of powerful pipe solos, driving guitar, and ethereal flute make their performances unforgettable.

We spoke with flautist Phil Smillie prior to the group's return to The Cedar on Thursday, May 24th about their new album, returning to Minnesota, and the band's defining moments. Read the full interview below and get tickets for the show here.

What is the cultural significance of the Scottish poet Robert Tannahill and how did he influence your band name?

Robert Tannahill was a poet from Paisley, Scotland who lived around the same time as Robert Burns (end of 18th/early 19th century).  He was overshadowed by Burns popularity wise, however that did not stop him being a prolific writer. He lived and worked in Paisley as weaver to trade, and wrote his poetry as he worked at the loom.  We have actually met some of his distant relations now living in the USA which was amazing.

Like Robert Tannahill the band came from Paisley and formed the group in 1968. We were familiar with Tannahill's writings from an early age, so when it came to looking for a name for the band we took his name and profession and ran them together to get Tannahill Weavers. The name stuck and we've been called that ever since.

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A portrait of Robert Tannahill in Paisley Museum

Congratulations on your band’s 50th anniversary!  What has been some of your defining moments throughout the years?  

Yes, 50 years! Who would have thought it would have gone on for so long.  When we started, driving ten miles to a gig felt like we were starting to hit the big time.  In the early 70s we ventured south for the first time over the border into England, from there we were invited to make a tour in Germany!  This was unbelievable for us at the time. We made many friends, and met a lot of promoters which resulted in us being offered our first recording contract in the south of England.  We started getting so much work that the band made the decision to turn professional and in 1976 we made our first album "Are Ye Sleeping Maggie". (The title of the album is from one of the songs included, based on a poem by Robert Tannahill.)

I think the real defining moment for the band was when we brought the Scottish Highland Bagpipes into the group. We were the first band to do so as it had never been done before.

It all seems so natural now but back then everyone played in concert D and the pipes were in Eb, which meant we had to discover how to adapt all of our instruments to the pipes. In some cases we had to make separate whistles to fit the key. Once we got our head round how to do it, it was an amazing sound.

That was the sound the band got known for and throughout the years we developed it to incorporate all our vocal harmonies with the pipes, which was quite unique at the time. Our third album won the Scots Star award which was definitely a huge defining moment for the Tannahill Weavers.

Scotland has such a rich history. How has your traditional musical style been influenced by modern Scottish/Celtic and global music and culture?

We had many early influences - in the 70s we listened to many different styles of music. I remember Gerry Rafferty being played in our tour bus - then Genesis took hold for a while. There are one or two songs from the third album which definitely have a Peter Gabriel feel to them.

Roy, our singer has written many songs about life and culture in Scotland. One song in particular that we will be performing at the Cedar Cultural Center is about the demise of the Scottish ship building industry in Glasgow, which at one time was the most productive in the world.

On our brand new anniversary album "Òrach" we have recorded songs from many of the artists we have performed with over the 50 years. From Matt McGinn in the 60s to Billy Connolly in the 70s, Stan Rogers the 80s, Daith Rua a brilliant singer song writer from Ireland to Robert Tannahill himself. Though we never actually met him!

What is some of the historical and cultural significance of some of the instruments you play in your band, including the bodhran and bagpipes?

Well, everyone knows the bagpipes. After the 1745 Jacobean rebellion in Scotland the English banned the playing of bagpipes for decades to come. This gave rise to Gaelic mouth music. Instead of playing the pipes they would sing the melodies and put words to the melodies. Thankfully there are more pipers in the world now than ever.

The bodhran in Scottish music came over from Ireland. Before that it is believed the instrument came from somewhere in the Middle East. The rhythms we use in Scottish music are very similar to what they use in Ireland.

The fiddle dates back as long as the pipes from past masters of the Scottish fiddle such as Scot Skinner and Neil Gow to name two.

Flute playing in Scottish trad music is relatively new.  When I started playing flute with the pipes in the 70s there was perhaps only one other who I know of had done it.  However,there were many Irish flute players around Glasgow at that time.

Irish music had a big influence on the rhythm playing of guitar and bouzouki in the early days though the players of today have developed their own style.

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The bouzouki

What is inspiring you lately?

I guess the fact that we are still producing music that the audience still enjoys is a huge inspiration to us. Our music seems to have withstood the test of time which is a big honour. We don’t listen to bands now and say Oh, let’s try and sound like them. We are very thankful that we still have the desire to continue making our music and still feel we can improve on our next project. When that inspiration fades we’ll know it’s time to pass it along to someone else.

The last time you played The Cedar was 2010. What excites you most about coming back to Minnesota?

Well, my wife Maggie who is our band manager is from Minnesota.  Minneapolis was one of the first cities the band played when we made our maiden tour to the USA in 1981.  We remember the winter and ice sculptures very well. Since then the band has been a frequent visitor to the Twin Cities with many appearances on the Prairie Home Companion along with shows at the Cedar.

We have built up so many good friends here along with my family in the Twin Cities that the band feels like playing the Cedar is like a home coming concert for us.  We are so looking forward to it; it will be nice to be among our friends and family from Minnesota! See you all on the 24th - all the best from the Tannahill Weavers!