Cherish The Ladies Returns To Kansas For A Celtic Christmas

Dec 14, 2018

Veteran Celtic music act Cherish The Ladies brings its Christmas show to Wichita's Orpheum Theatre Sunday, Dec. 16. The group has recorded three holiday LPs to date, the latest being Christmas In Ireland. The evening features traditional Christmas songs such as "Silent Night" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" in unique arrangements.

The band has also recently issued the album Heart of the Home, its 17th overall album. Additionally, founding member Joanie Madden recently received the Eugene O'Neill Lifetime Achievement Award, joining the ranks of Malachy McCourt, Pete Hamill, John Patrick Shanley, Judy Collins and Brian Dennehy, all of whom have had the award bestowed upon them in the past.

Madden recently spoke with KMUW about the band's origins and its current run of Christmas shows, including this rare Midwestern appearance.

Interview Highlights

Can you tell me a little bit about how Cherish The Ladies came into being and how it grew from there?

It started with a concert series. Myself, Eileen Ivers and a whole bunch of us went to Ireland one year for [the All-Ireland music] competition and I got very lucky. I won three gold medals at the world championship, Eileen Ivers won for the fiddle, there were a few others, but it was all women that won. [Musician] Mick Moloney called me up to congratulate me and pointed that out. We didn't even realize it. We were just so happy, as Irish Americans, to bring gold medals home with us. Mick said he wanted to do a concert to celebrate this amazing phenomenon. For so many centuries it was the men that were playing the music. He thought we should do a concert to celebrate the fact that there were so many women doing outstanding things.

I suggested that we use the name Cherish The Ladies because it's the name of an Irish jig. The three concerts we did [in 1985] were all sold out. We went on to record an album. That was chosen by the Library of Congress as one of the best folk albums of the year. We received a grant from the National Endowment for The Arts to do a two-week tour. That two-week tour now, on January 5, will be 34 years! [Laughs.] I'm just a girl from the Bronx.

You really have become this phenomenon. A few years ago a friend mentioned you to me and, I have to confess, I wasn't familiar. She looked at me like I had two heads. I got schooled very quickly.

[Laughs.] There's always people you don't know about. We all grew up as daughters of great musicians. My own father was an All-Ireland champion on the accordion. Every one of us, our dads played. We were very fortunate that we grew up in musical households and had the music passed down to us. We're carrying on the tradition. We're also excited to be coming back to Kansas. The Walnut Valley Festival is near and dear to our heart.

There's so much music that happens at that festival. What was it like for you to come out here and play that festival for the first time?

We had no idea what to expect. I booked flights into Kansas but booked us into the wrong airport. I had to drive like a lunatic to get to Winfield. We got to the stage about 15 minutes before show time. I said to the girls, "Look at the line for the ladies' room." After we started playing I looked at my guitar player and realized that was the line for the CDs! We had only started playing a few minutes earlier. There was a line a quarter mile long. We sold out of everything we brought after that first show. We had another seven shows to do that weekend.

We were so fortunate to get to come back there so many times. They've invited us back so many times but now every September and October we do a tour of Ireland, so we haven't been able to return. We made a lot of friends and a lot of fans and they show up everywhere. I have to say that festival … I remember jamming with Tommy Emmanuel, meeting John McCutcheon, so many legends. Chris Thile came up and played with us. I made life-long friends from going there. It was different for us because we'd only been playing Irish festivals and Irish folk festivals. It was our bluegrass experience.

Tell me a little bit about this new record, Heart of the Home.

I would love to tell you that this was planned but we had a tour of China that was pulled at the last minute. We had a couple weeks off and were in Ireland, we had everybody together and the time. I said, "Let's get it started. We can come back and finish it in a couple of months."

My mother comes from County Clare and I have a house over there in Milltown Malby, a place known for Irish music. We set up camp there in the town. It's such a beautiful area. I don't know what came over us but we wrote a lot of music and brought in some great singers. It's our seventeenth album and I would definitely put it up there with one of the best of ‘em.

Let's talk about the Christmas show. Is this something where each year you have different conversations about what you can do differently than the previous one?

Totally. About 10 to 15 years ago, probably 15 year ago, I received a call from a promoter. He said, "Hey, Joanie, does Cherish The Ladies have a Christmas show?" I said, "Of course we do!" I hung up the phone, called the girls and said, "We don't have a Christmas show! We have to get one together!" We sat down to arrange the material and it was amazing to me how well Celtic music and Christmas music work so well together. We really spent a lot of time and recorded our first Christmas album, On Christmas Night. We recorded it in my house. We rented a grand piano and couldn't believe it when The New York Times named it one of the best Christmas albums of the year. Frank Sinatra was behind us! [Laughs.] In a genre where everybody and their mother has made a Christmas album, we've actually now recorded three Christmas albums.

We love to do the classics that everybody loves but we also like to find new Christmas material that nobody's ever heard and we write a lot of our own music. We don't usually leave the East Coast because practically every one of our Christmas shows are sold out already. It's so successful. People just love it!

You recently received the Eugene O'Neill Lifetime Achievement Award. That had to feel great.

It was a beautiful ceremony, a wonderful night, very humbling night. I feel so fortunate to have had this career. I remember my parents having a heart attack when I quit college. I was going to college to be an accountant and I said, "No, I want to be a musician." I've managed to have an incredible career playing a pennywhistle. Who'd ever think you'd sell a million records as a pennywhistle player?

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.