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Fallon embraces Americana

Orla Fallon’s “Sweet By and By” is a remarkable musical accomplishment.

By Colleen Taylor

Most people associate singer Orla Fallon with a big green ball gown and the high-pitched harmonies of the supergroup Celtic Woman. As an original member of Celtic Woman, Orla Fallon began her career on the global stage, turning Irish music into a large-scale dramatic production.

In 2009, Fallon left Celtic Woman to concentrate on her family and work on a solo career. In 2010, she released “Music In Ireland,” followed by two Christmas albums and another solo, “My Land.” These releases carried the themes and styles of her work with Celtic Woman. In 2011, however, Fallon attempted something different with “Lullaby Time,” a collection of ballads and lullabies. Her most recent release, “Sweet By and By,” out in 2017, is her most interesting, most different and most individualistic yet. Fallon’s latest album breaks off from the stylistic bonds of her past career with Celtic Woman and embraces a new genre altogether: Americana.

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Fallon’s love for American folk and Country came from two Irish sources—her father and the Chieftains. She told me some of her earliest memories are sitting in the back of her dad’s car, listening to Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, as well as Irish country singers. That music imprinted in her memory—literally: she told me she can recall the covers of every single cassette to which they would listen. Her father first taught her to love American music, but the Chieftains taught her to play it. “Another Country” marks one of the Chieftains famous collaborations with several famous American country music musicians, including Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, and Willie Nelson. In the 1990s, Fallon would listen to the album over and over then teach herself the songs on the harp. Now, following in the footsteps of the Chieftains, and many other great Irish bands, like Cherish the Ladies, the Whileaways, and We Banjo 3, she joins in the project of “Eirecana”—that is, traditional Irish musicians playing American bluegrass and country music.

Given her history with “Another Country” and American Country musicians, it’s no surprise that during her own burgeoning music career, Fallon found herself in Nashville. After leaving Celtic Woman, she spent a lot of time in “Music City, USA.” Fallon’s energy immediately surged when she talked about her time there: “music on every corner, people live and breathe the songs and tunes.” Her most cherished memory is recording “Little Drummer Boy” with Vince Gill: “He has been an idol of mine since I was a kid, and to get the opportunity record with him in his home was incredible! We were all in awe at his amazing harmonizing on the spot!” Although a Wicklow native, Fallon said she felt “at home” in Tennessee, a place she called “Music Heaven.”

“Sweet By and By” is, in many ways, then, the sound of Orla’s story after leaving Celtic Woman—her fond memories of Nashville, of growing up with Country music, and the biggest personal challenge she has faced since she began her solo career: her father’s passing. Her music has always been inspired by her family, so when her dad died four years ago, Fallon found herself unable to sing. “After my Dad died, I couldn't physically sing. Eventually I came back to thinking about how much he loved the songs and stories, and I found my voice again by revisiting songs that he and my Mother loved.” “Sweet By and By” is the result of Fallon finding her voice again, working toward a remembrance of her father cherished with fondness, even happiness, rather than sorrow alone.

For me, “Sweet By and By” is Fallon’s best album yet, for two reasons. First, the album combines the natural sweetness of Fallon’s voice with simple, scaled-down instrumentation. No doubt Fallon was a star with Celtic Woman, but “Sweet By and By” has me thinking she should have been singing country and folk all along. This is how her voice was always meant to sound—solo, alone, backed by a couple quiet instruments. Have a listen to “Feet of a Dancer” or “Sonny” (some of the standouts on the album) and you’ll see what I mean. All the skilled, controlled intonations of her voice pop in these songs and in the album as a whole. Secondly, this is Fallon’s best yet because it’s all her own. Celtic Woman is a successful, impressive music powerhouse, but it is a production of directors, companies, showmanship, and lots of flashing lights. Up until this album, the Celtic Woman amalgamation has ghosted Fallon’s solo work. This time, however, it’s just Fallon, her band, and her dad. This is her vision alone—one she made lovingly and emotionally for her family. It’s authentic, genuine, heartfelt, and for that reason, it’s a remarkable musical accomplishment.

Fallon seems aware of her own transformation. When planning the album after a long break from singing and recording, she said, “it was like a light went off.” The light has indeed gone off for Orla Fallon. A new genre, a new branding, but her newest, best music yet. She explained her pride in the album thus: “someone told me they could hear my dad all over the album, and that’s now I knew I had done a good job.” I couldn’t agree more.