The BorderCollies
By Ronnie

In our effort to show more diversity, this month's non-rock feature is the BorderCollies, a Celtic band hailing from Atlanta. When most of us that were raised on rock and roll think of Celtic music, what comes to mind is either the music in the "Titanic" or "Riverdance". Well, the BorderCollies are neither, but they are unmistakably Celtic. And while they don't have a CD out yet, the tracks that they do have available free on the web, show great potential! There seems to be a renaissance of Celtic/roots music and the BorderCollies are a prime example of the exciting material that's out there.

E.C.: The BorderCollies is basically a new group, making their debut performance in September of 1999. How did the group come together?

BorderCollies: The BorderCollies were born in Swannanoa during Celtic week, July 1999. I was attending and taking Celtic guitar classes taught by Robin Bullock and Aiden Brennan. I was also taking an interesting contemporary Celtic composition class taught by Susan McKeown (fabulous Irish singer/songwriter - check out her URL) and would often bring my guitar to class, sometimes accompanying the class through a song. After class one day, I was approached by a beautiful young lady who introduced herself as Caeri Tomson. She asked if I would accompany her on a song for the student showcase that Friday. I said I'd be delighted - just what song did she have in mind? She suggested a song that we just learned in class that day called "Clohinne Hills" by Niamh Parsons. I came up with a guitar adaptation (the original had piano) and incorporated the new DADGAD tuning I had just learned in my guitar classes. Caeri and I just clicked. We found that we could work together and communicate as if we had done this forever. The performance came off very, very well. In attendance were all of our teachers, including Susan McKeown and Robin Bullock, both who commended us. Susan pulled me aside and told me to stick with Caeri - that we made a good pairing of talent. I found out to my surprise that Caeri lived in Atlanta, so plans were made to get together right after our return. We started writing material immediately. (I actually started writing and plotting while driving back from Swannanoa!) We got together and researched material and made a commitment to each other - to start a band that was solely based on contemporary Celtic material. I had the name BorderCollies in the back of my head and suggested it to Caeri, who loved it. That was it! The Collies emerged! We decided to remain as a duo for a long period of time in order to develop a true musical identity and to build a repertoire.

Our first performance was at a rather large private regional festival over Labor Day Weekend, 1999. I knew that my friend, Howard Williams was going to be there, so I called him up and asked him if he'd like to sit in with us on mandolin. Howard and I go back over 25 years in the Atlanta music scene. We were in the Rock Mountain Band, the Defendants and the Tornados together, as well as numerous other musical projects. We had recorded and toured together for years. Howard had just started tinkering with mandolin, and readily agreed. The night before our performance, Caeri and I met an amazing fiddler named Michael McCanless. We jammed for a couple of hours along with his girlfriend, Paula on bodhran. Michael was incredible - he could play anything in any key! He just ripped through the originals we showed him. (I later found out he is part of the Hank Williams III band and is touring with him in Europe as we speak). So we asked them to join us for our concert set the next day.

The show the next day was electrifying! We received three encores and have a marvelous live recording of the event stored away on minidisk. It was one of those magical moments!

Unfortunately, Michael McCanless and Paula lived far from Atlanta, and Michael had to get back to touring with Hank. Howard was living in Savannah at the time, so Caeri and I resolved to just keeping the Collies as a duo for the time being. It was kind of "If you build it, they will come" kind of thinking. We performed as a duo for six more months while writing and developing more and more material. We knew we wanted to add band members, but we weren't in a big hurry to do so, and wanted to select the players carefully.

As it turned out, Howard ended up moving back to Atlanta in January of 2000. He had really gotten the bug to play Celtic music. He started attending the sessions down at Fado (in Buckhead) and learning more traditional tunes. It was a natural progression to have him join us at that time. It's great to have him aboard! He's also a great singer (and great guitar player, harmonica player, etc.).

I started hanging out at the Fado sessions again and ran into my friend Lisa McCann. I met Lisa years ago at the Monday night sessions at Fado, and was quite impressed with her playing. She had punch; she had soul in what she played. Lisa had just left the Charms (local Atlanta Celtic/pop band) and was just hanging out. I invited her over to meet us and play and she's never left! She's also a great singer and has a very cool stage presence.

We had our eye out for a fiddler - this music really requires one. I had met Katherine Thomas about a year before at a Buddy O'Reilly gig. She sat in with us (the Buddies - did I mention I also play guitar for them?) and I liked her style. We asked to her to come and play with us and once again, things just clicked. Katherine has a pretty good background with Scottish fiddling and is really taking a liking to the Irish style. She also step dances and teaches orchestra in a Cobb county middle school.

What I think is so cool about the Collies is not only the musical direction and overall sound, but also the way that everyone gets along so well. It's like we're all very, very tight friends. It's a very cool thing. Although Caeri and I have penned almost all of the band originals up to now, we are starting to write collectively - as a band. We have been doing the collective arranging for some time. I love sharing ideas with others - it's so cool. The sum is usually greater that the parts and it makes everyone feel involved - like it's their band too; they're not just backup players.

E.C.: I know that you had played rock and roll before, how did you come to Celtic music?

BorderCollies: I've always enjoyed a good female vocal, and have spent most of my musical career accompanying them in either the rock, pop or country (yes, country) genres. I first heard a Celtic compilation album about five years ago. "Women of the World Celtic" on Putomayo Records. It just blew me away! It had Mary Black, Capercaillie, Maura O'Connell and Altan. Karen Matheson with Capercaillie just blew my socks off. Listen to their live version of "Waiting for the Wheel". It was just "pop" enough to sound familiar (i.e. great drums and bass) but had the whole traditional thing going as well. I loved the way they combined a reel into the song as a musical break at the end. Just fabulous stuff! I was hooked from there.

It took me a while to find other players. I finally discovered the Monday night sessions at Fado. That turned out to be "Celtic 101" for me. I attended every Monday night for an entire year, only missing two. It's run by an extraordinary fiddler, flautist named Mike Simpson. He was my mentor for the first year in many ways. The session was my classroom. I got to meet and play with many experienced players. It still is lots of fun, and I try to attend whenever I can. Jim Pogge and I have also set up another session here in Norcross at the Olde Peculiar Public House. It's an open session that is on the second Wednesday of every month. Jim's a flute, whistle and piper, also from the Monday night Fado crowd. He's also chairman of the Southeast regional CCE.

E.C.: Who came up with the band's name and what does it mean?

BorderCollies: I did. The first time I heard the name "BorderCollies" I thought it would make a great band name! I researched it via the net and was truly surprised to find that it hadn't already been used! There such tenacious little mongrels too!

E.C.: Your band has 5 tracks available on, are there any plans for a full-length CD? I know that the dilemma that faces most new bands that aren't Full-time musicians is the prospect of coming up with funding for that CD.

BorderCollies: Yes, we're talking to a couple of studios right now, trying to find a way on a shoestring budget. We talked about releasing a live CD using takes from our show at the Atlanta Celtic Festival (most of which is up on either or but have decided that we can do better. We sound so much tighter now.

We will have live cuts placed on several compilation CD's coming out this fall, most notably the Music of the Rivers two CD set.

E.C.: Who picks the material? I know a lot of the songs are traditional tunes, such as Wyld Mountain Thyme - which I was familiar with the Byrds version.

BorderCollies: Caeri and I initially selected all of the material. Gradually Lisa and Katherine and Howard have added a few tunes, but basically Caeri and I have either written the songs or picked the covers and traditional pieces we do.

E.C.: You also do original songs, how many of these do you have? With a rock and roll background, do you find it difficult to get into a mindset to write songs in the Celtic genre?

BorderCollies: We have about seven originals currently and about seven more "in the can". Really, I don't play very much Pop/Rock these days; most of what I play in Celtic or Celtic styled, so that's reflected in my writing. The influence is still there, and I find myself thinking, "Ok, this sounds like Celtic music meets Pete Townshend", but it still turns out sounding more Celtic.

A lot of the Celtic feel has to do with the tuning I use. I use Drop-D guitar tuning almost 99% of the time. I will play any piece, in any key, but with Drop-D tuning! I can play "Free Bird" in Drop-D and it will come out sounding Celtic! I'm also using DADGAD for a couple of tunes as well. Both tunings tend to incorporate open string droning, which is common in Irish guitar styles these days.

One key difference between Rock/Pop/Jazz and Celtic music is this. In traditional Celtic music, the melody IS the song. It's very simple. There's no improvisation on the melody, and that melody is played by a lead instrument (fiddle, flute, pipes, whistle accordion, etc.). The guitar just accompanies that melody for the most part, and gets to do all sorts of creative improvisations. I do chord substitutions, inversions, weird fragments, counter-melodies, stop rhythms, etc. It's just the opposite of Rock/Pop/Jazz where the melody instrument gets to solo and improvise, and the rhythm guitar (and everyone else) holds down the song. That's the cool part to me, being able to be creative in accompanying those simple melodies. And some times, they're not so simple! The timings also go beyond just 4/4, and there's plenty of 6/8, 7/8 and polyrhythms as well. Believe it or not, the hardest pieces for the rhythm section to accompany in traditional Irish music is the polka! I hate polkas! They're a bitch to keep up with! You'll notice the BorderCollies don't perform any polkas!

E.C.: Speaking of your tracks on, I really like the fact that they are ALL live recordings. It really shows your ability to put across the songs without overdubs. Is a live CD a possibility? In my opinion, Celtic music comes across better in the live environment.

BorderCollies: Yes, we will be releasing a live CD in the future, and (as mentioned) will have live tracks on several compilations later this year.

E.C.: How far do you want to take the BorderCollies? Again, I know you all probably have day jobs/careers, etc. How does that limit you when it comes to live gigs and such.

BorderCollies: Where are you going?" "To the top!" While we haven't quit our jobs as yet, I think we can still accomplish quite a bit. Altan has players that are teachers and haven't quit their day jobs (they just don't tour and have replacements). We're taking it one day at a time. I would like nothing more that to be able to write, play, record and tour. I just have to keep the child support and mortgage checks coming.

E.C.: I'm pretty new to Celtic music, how does the BorderCollies fit into the grand scheme? Do you consider your group more contemporary? A lot of "Celtic" groups add electric guitar and heavy drums.

BorderCollies: We are contemporary, but pay much respect to traditional Irish (and Scottish) music. I don't want to be a Celtic rock band. I like listening to the Corrs, the Cranberries, Seven Nations, Great Big Sea, even my fav - Capercaillie, but don't want to go that far back to pop and rock. That's just it - it would be going BACK. I want to go FORWARD to another place. I'd rather IMPLY a heavy backbeat than have one hitting people over the head! (Although there are some people who deserve getting hit over the head!)

I know that we run the risk of displeasing everyone, you know, not loud and rock enough for the hip 99X crowd and too contemporary for the true traditionalist crowd. I think people are going to have to accept us for what we are and what we do. From where I stand, it is a risk well worth taking.

Click here to visit the official BorderCollies website