Cherish the ladies 2

Madden’s work ethic is awe-inspiring

Joanie Madden, second from left: “What I love is that I’m running a trad cruise and that it’s successful."

Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely

If Joanie Madden isn’t the hardest working person in Irish music, I’m not sure who is. Being Cherish the Ladies’s flute and whistle player comes with a fairly heavy burden, but add to that her activities as the group’s on-stage face and all around general manager and you’re looking at something far more substantial. “You’re talking to the manager, chief cook, bottle washer,” she joked during our recent conversation over Facetime. And it’s true, she does indeed run the show on all levels: we talked about things like the coming together of Cherish’s new album “Heart of the Home,” the group’s upcoming tour, and the cruise she’ll be running in May. It’s an awe-inducing schedule and she’s in complete control of it all.

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“Heart of the Home” is the 17th album in Cherish’s remarkable 34-year run. The group’s lineup also includes Mary Coogan (guitar, banjo, mandolin), Mirella Murray (accordion), and Kathleen Boyle (piano), and on the album they’re joined by several singers (see below) and guest musicians (Nollaig Casey, fiddle; Trevor Hutchinson, bass & production; Donnchadh Gough, bodhrán; and Peter McKinney, percussion), all of whom bring something noteworthy to the core group’s sound. Top rate musicianship and inventive arrangements are the name of the game here, but it’s the clear chemistry, developed over years, that really remind one why this group has had such an enduring appeal for so long.

The album might not have come about the way it did were it not for a bit of unfortunate serendipity. “We were booked to go do a tour of China,” Madden explained, “and with China you never know you’re actually going until you’re on that plane.” She refers, of course, to the notorious uncertainties of international touring. “That left us over here [in Ireland] with this two-week window blocked, and the girls go ‘maybe we should make the new record.’ I really, really didn’t feel like we were ready. I mean we had a good few tracks, but I didn’t think we were ready. But they pushed me, so I said ‘all right, let’s see what happens’ and the next thing you know the creative juices are really flowing, and we wind up writing six tunes for the album, KT wrote a tune, Nollaig wrote a tune, Mary wrote a tune. And then we had all these songs together….”

The album has five songs in total, with each featuring a different vocalist. “We don’t have an ‘official’ singer anymore,” Madden told me, “but we love mixing it up and changing it up, so we brought on people we’ve been touring with recently, like Molly O’Riordan, who’d never been in the recording studio, the Ennis sisters from Newfoundland – we recorded on their record, and they recorded on ours – and then we had Don Stiffe, who’s been doing a lot of stuff with us. Then we had Kate Purcell, and Kate’s been touring a lot with us, and last but not least we had Nathan Carter (who takes the lead on the Andy Stewart-penned “Heart of the Home”) who’s a huge star over here.” Each singer adds something important in their own right, but the overall approach brings a strong sense of variety to the album. There’s a lot to hear on the journey, from beginning to end.

The fruit of Cherish’s recent labor has been rewarded with great audience turnout on their recent tours. “We did a couple lovely gigs here [in Ireland] and then we went over to Glasgow, Celtic Connections. That was unbelievable, we had over 2,500 people out on a Wednesday night.” They’ll be bringing that energy to an upcoming 30-date tour of the United States in February and March that will take them through Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Missiouri, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kentucky. The trip will also include several dates in the tri-state area, including stops in at the Stockton University Performing Arts Center in Golloway, NJ on Feb. 17, the Irish American Center in Mineola, N.Y. on Feb. 22, the Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center on Old Saybrook, Conn., on Feb. 27, the Berrie Center for the Performing Arts at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J. on March 2, and the Town Crier in Beacon, N.Y. on March 29. As you might expect, it’s a very busy schedule in tune with the demands of the St. Patrick’s Day season.

And speaking of entertainment and great turnouts that keep Madden incredibly busy, she’s running another of her “Folk’N Irish Cruises,” May 12-19 ( I understand this will be her 10th cruise and they’ve all been wildly successful. Miles of smiles all around! This time should prove no different, as her guests comprise another who’s-who of Irish music. She has Lunasa coming, Sharon Shannon, Billy McComiskey, Dylan Foley and Josh Dukes, the great singer Daoiri Farrell for the first time, singer/songwriter Matthew Byrne from Newfoundland, and Cormac DeBarra, just to name a few. There will also be a number of world champion step dancers to complement set and céilí dances, and there’ll workshops on every instrument to suit those who come to play. Finally, Madden’s managed to secure comedian Pat Shortt (D’Unbelievables), which will add a great, new facet to an already packed event.

“What I love is that I’m running a trad cruise and that it’s successful,” she told me. “People said to me it couldn’t be done, that people won’t come to see fiddles and flutes, they said, but here we are. My next one is going to be October 2020 out of Barcelona. Doing the Mediterranean, I’m gonna try it. Barcelona, Naples, Rome, Cannes, Mallorca.” That should make for a very special event, indeed. (And a logistical nightmare that only the hardest working person in Irish music could possibly manage!)

The amount Madden is able to do is awe-inspiring. It’s hard enough to keep a band going, but to do it for as long and as well as she has is a true accomplishment. And between the tours, the cruises and the bottle washing, Madden and crew were still able to release “Heart of the Home,” a brilliant album that will charm every Cherish fan out there. Again, remarkable. Pick up your copy at one of Cherish’s many gigs, or perhaps even on the cruise in May. Highly recommended! For more information, visit