Well, Pat McGill, he of The Beehive Bar in Ardara, has done it again - he has singlehandedly produced another successful weekend of bluegrass music in the beautiful setting of Ardara, nestled just inland from the sea along the Wild Atlantic Way in Co. Donegal. Throughout the weekend, local and visiting musicians and music fans congregate in The Beehive, well known all year round as a mecca for traditional Irish music, where the sessions run from morning until late into the night.
The main event, however, takes place across the street in the welcoming Nesbitt Arms Hotel.
In a typical Irish hotel ballroom that has no doubt played host to many a country wedding (complete with low ceilings, chandeliers, a dance floor and a bar at the back) Pat always manages to organise a great show, with excellent sound.
First up this year was The Henry Family from Belfast, who are no strangers to this festival. Not strictly bluegrass, they treated us to several original country songs penned by Janet, and a selection of covers. Her warm vocals and guitar are accompanied by her dobro-playing husband Colin. They are joined by their son James, who is going from strength to strength as a banjo player - an instrument he only took up three short years ago. He’s just about to head over to Bela Fleck’s Blue Ridge Banjo Camp in NC. No doubt his confidence as a player will grow even further following this opportunity. Tonight he augments the set with his sensitive playing, as well as getting down on a bluegrass breakdown set with his father.
Kingblue, a bluegrass band from Co Armagh, also made a welcome return to the festival after an absence of several years. What the boys have been getting up to in other musical guises since Kingblue’s sad demise a few years back would take too long to detail but tonight they were back with a bang. Specialising in covers of driving hardcore bluegrass, they didn’t disappoint. Sean McKerr’s mandolin playing is superb, Mel Corry’s tenor voice has become richer and his banjo playing more fluid than before. Chief keeps them all in line on upright bass, while they break in their new (former) guitar and banjo player, Charlie Cooper. Colin Henry pops up again as an important member of the line up with his smooth dobro playing.
Next, the star attraction Alecia Nugent & Band hit the stage like a gale force and launched into fan favourite Wrecking The Train, followed by Tom T. & Dixie Hall’s I Cried All The Way To Kentucky. Louisiana native, now relocated (again) to Nashville, Alecia was initially dubbed the Hillbilly Goddess by music journalist Robert K. Oermann, and the name stuck. Starting off as a youngster with her father’s bluegrass band, she began to front the band at 15 years of age. Her voice has only improved in the intervening years, when she has continued to lead her band up and down the US and Europe. Initially known for her fabulous voice and as an interpreter of bluegrass and country ballads, she has more recently started to write and co-write. She treated us to a few of these songs in Ardara - Hillbilly Goddess (co-written with her legendary producer Carl Jackson), Letter From Home (memories of the letters her parents would write when she first left home for Nashville) and the closer They Don’t Make ‘Em Like My Daddy Anymore (another Carl Jackson cowrite) gave an insight into her life thus far. Warm and funny, Alecia had the audience eating out of her hand from the outset and was clearly delighted to be in Ireland for the first time. Thanks to music promoter John Nyhan and the aforementioned mega fan Pat McGill, this gig was part of a successful Irish tour. Alecia was superbly supported on this tour by members of her regular touring band, all of whom are well respected in the US scene. Banjo and bass maestro Gena Britt (Sister Sadie, Grasstowne, Lou Reid & Carolina) who has just launched her own solo album on Pinecastle Records, also assisted on backing vocals, as well as treating us to The Prisoner’s Song. Another founding member of Grammy award winners Sister Sadie, as well as the Daughters Of Bluegrass project, Beth Lawrence played bass on this tour. The three female voices created the most heavenly triple harmonies throughout the long set (I counted eighteen songs, including the encore). Then there was James Kee on mandolin - eagle eyed readers may recognise him from his last visit to Ardara with the Hamilton County Ramblers in 2017. Guitar duties were taken superbly by Jed Clark, a flat picker of incredible ability.
One of the many highlights for this reviewer was a version of Harley Allen’s High Sierra, which actually moved me to tears. Alecia and her band left a big impression on Ardara, and rumour even has it that Alecia was spotted pulling pints in The Beehive … we look forward to their return!
Review and photography by Eilís Boland