By Earle Hitchner
Earning the respect and admiration of the finest traditional musicians in Ireland is always gratifying to an Irish traditional musician born, raised, and residing in the United States. Chicago fiddler and composer Liz Carroll is that rare "Yank" who commands such attention in Ireland.
Of course, Irish traditional music lovers in America have known for many years what a tremendous talent Carroll is. But her accomplishments in 2000 have been particularly notable, meriting the year’s highest honor from the Irish Echo, its traditional musician of the year. She joins an illustrious group of past winners: Charlie Lennon, James Keane, Joe Derrane, Seamus Egan, Joanie Madden, John Whelan, and Mick Moloney.
In 2000, Liz Carroll broke a 12-year dry spell in solo recordings with "Lost in the Loop" (Green Linnet), which finished sixth in the Irish Echo’s list of the top 10 traditional albums. If it was intended to be a bold musical statement of "I’m still here," the 44-year-old mother of two in the Chicago suburb of Round Lake succeeded in every way.
"I’ve composed about 170 tunes, all transcribed," she sheepishly admitted, "but I’ve only recorded a fraction of them. I know I should put out a book some day." Until then, fans can content themselves with the 13 originals she recorded on "Lost in the Loop." They’re the kind of tunes that soon seep into the session and recording repertoires of other musicians. (Quite a few of the Irish Echo’s top 20 trad albums feature
Like other composers, Carroll named many of her tunes for people she’s met and places she’s been. "Pat and Al’s" was for her two children, "On
the Boulevard" for Garfield Boulevard, where she grew up in Chicago’s South Side, "Fly and Dodger" for her husband, Charles, who loves fishing on Lake Michigan, and "The Ugly Duckling" for the cast — mentally handicapped adults in their 30s and 40s — at Chicago’s Association House, where she’s contributed original music for plays. "Lost in the Loop" also offered fresh, fascinating versions of established tunes, such as "The Cup of Tea" and "The Old Maid of Galway."
A slow air she wrote, "Lament of the First Generation," has a special poignancy for Carroll on the album. "I always feel that first-generation
Irish-Americans, like myself, are sentimental about this place we’re not from, Ireland, and it’s very hard to explain that to somebody. And for traditional players over here, it can be hard to feel you ‘belong’ in America because the music you play is often what people don’t want to hear, even on St. Patrick’s Day. I can remember someone in a pub saying to me, ‘Let’s play some of your music,’ and it’s ‘Turkey in the Straw.’ They really don’t get it."
With the encouragement of her husband and two adolescent kids ("They told me, ‘Go play, Mom.’ I’m being pushed out — that’s what’s happening," she said, laughing), Liz Carroll toured farther and further in 2000 than in recent years, often with former Solas guitarist John Doyle, a prominent presence on her solo album and a superb playing partner on stage. Carroll wowed audiences in New York City, Connecticut (one of the year’s best concerts), Washington, D.C. (as part of the Kennedy Center’s "Island: Arts From Ireland" festival), and Britain (a rare 10-date tour there).
During Labor Day weekend, Carroll gave a number of fine performances at the 24th annual Washington Irish Festival in Gaithersburg, Md. She also performed in Ireland, making quite a stir last November at the Ennis Traditional Festival and at the TG4 National Traditional Music Awards in Cork City.
Daughter of Irish immigrants (her father, Kevin, is from Brocca, Co. Offaly, and her mother, Eileen, is from Ballyhahill, West Limerick), Liz
Carroll has enriched and extended the Irish tradition in music through performing, composing, and teaching. Ireland recognized her exceptional talent in 1974 and 1975, when she won a junior and then the coveted senior All-Ireland fiddle title (second American to do so). America formally acknowledged her as one of its most cherished talents in 1994, the year she received a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest accolade in folk and traditional arts.
While recording "Lost in the Loop," Carroll, prone to perfectionism, recalled how her producer, Seamus Egan, would finally wean her away from a track he felt was finished. "It’s true I can get very critical, and I feel the end of the album could be the beginning of the album," she said. "If a take was really good, Seamus wouldn’t tell me, ‘That’s it.’ He’d say instead, ‘Well, there’s a lot to like about that one.’"
It’s a statement that applies to the entire year of music Liz Carroll gave us in 2000. May there be many more from this singular artist.