Celtic music doesn't have to come from Irish- and Scottish-born musicians, as Mike Rimmer found when he met up with RIC BLAIR.
In downtown Nashville, I am waiting in a hotel lobby with two English friends for a man and his wife to pick us up and take us out for dinner. I've never met the man before although in the line of this business over the course of 10 years I've talked many times on the phone and swapped emails with him. He is very keen to take us out for dinner! That man is singer/songwriter Ric Blair and although we've never met, we immediately recognise each other in the lobby and big manly hugs occur!
I first came across Ric Blair back in 1997 when his debut album 'Always By My Side' was released through the now defunct Pamplin Records. 10 years on, its re-release as well as the release of Ric's other albums in the UK have meant that there's been a growing interest in his music. His occasional visits to these shores, particularly to play in Ireland and Scotland have also raised his profile.
When I first met Ric, he was living out on the west coast in Santa Monica but these days you'll find him residing in Nashville yet creating music with a strong Celtic vibe. And the music is definitely in his blood. "My father comes from a Scottish family and my mother comes from an Irish family," he explains. "I heard a statistic that something like 70 per cent of Americans have some kind of Celtic background, as far as their roots. The great thing about the music is that it's just happy, it's joyful and it's a great tool to present the Gospel because we as Christian believers have so much to be happy and joyful about. And plus, this age is so technical with computers. We're just so bogged down with distractions and television and cell phones and everything that creates such busyness in our lives. And this music takes us back-to-our-roots. I mean it's using mostly acoustic instruments. I remember going to visit my grandparents who didn't have a television and we would sit around the fire when we would have family reunions and I'd hear some of the greatest stories. And people would connect and would sing songs and would support each other. I think our culture is missing a lot of that. We're emailing each other instead of personally talking to each other. So this music also provides another way of connecting and to bring the best message of all - love through Christ - love and salvation through Christ."
Now, before you think that Ric's grandpappy would play the uileann pipes and dangle Ric on his knee, the young Master Blair was in fact having a completely different musical education which culminated with him studying classical and jazz music at the conservatory of music in Cincinnati. It was while he was a student that he first encountered Celtic music. Some fellow students dragged him down to an Irish pub where a band was playing and Ric was confronted for the first time with the sounds that would capture his soul. He remembers, "We walked in the door and I saw all these strange instruments; the bodhrán, the uilleann pipes. They were playing fiddle and mandolin and people were dancing on the tables, just having a great time because the music is so happy. It left such a lasting impression on me. I thought, my gosh, this music is so fun. Why can't this music be used to bring the Message, the best message of all - the truth of God and the redemption of Christ?"
Although 'Always By Your Side' is 10 years old, the album still holds true musically. Listening to some of Blair's more recent material, it is true that he has moved on from the blend of pop, acoustic and Celtic influences of his debut. "Our music has gotten just more and more Celtic," he confesses. "I've actually taken up the fiddle and a little bit of Irish whistle. My first album is my wife's favourite and when people ask about it, she says, 'This album, it's more meditative and it makes grown men cry.' That's how she describes it!"
He laughs, "It was an album that I was actually going through. I'd just finished composing music for a film, 'Bopha!' which was Morgan Freeman's first film that he directed with Danny Glover and Alfred Woodard. After doing the music for the film it allowed me the opportunity to record an album. I'd just written a number of songs for my own purposes and people kept on saying, 'You need to put this on an album.' So we ended up doing that. But I had been going through some losses in my life and so a lot of the songs have to do with suffering and with loss and the storms in life and how God refines us through those storms and how he would also call us to share in the suffering of Christ. A lot of times we forget that. We have the joy no matter what our circumstance is but we cannot be surprised when all of a sudden trial hits us. Sometimes our greatest growth as humans comes in our darkest moments. I think peace comes from accepting those moments and keeping our focus on Jesus. So even though it's an older album I feel that the message is a timeless one, and that God uses suffering to bring growth in us and to increase our faith to trust in him through those dark times."
That's where Ric Blair started musically. Spiritually he was raised in the church by believing parents. He remembers, "I've been totally blessed to grow up in the church. The denomination was Baptist. Just pretty solid. It was a very loving church. I kind of grew up with this apple pie childhood. But in my first year in college my entire world just fell apart. Even though both of my parents were believers they ended up getting a divorce and then also in that same year I'd lost a couple of grandparents and two young cousins who were very close died in a freakish accident. They were only 18 years old. My first girlfriend that I dated, we had broken up. It just felt like everything was falling down."
He continues, "So I went through this phase in college where I started questioning whether I believed this stuff because I was 'programmed'? Or did I believe this stuff because I grew up in the church or have I truly made the decision to follow Christ? I went through this rebellious period of 'God, how can you allow this to happen?' I was in a rock and roll band and eventually I was trying marijuana, drinking.the whole thing. I was really just trying to anaesthetise myself. I was trying to numb myself from the pain of all the loss and I was going about it the wrong way. But eventually I saw that after a couple of years of living the rock and roll lifestyle of playing in clubs and all the partying and everything that goes with that, all that was happening was I got gradually more and more miserable. I saw that that was not providing joy in my life. I saw that we've got the choice. It's like life is on a continuum. We can go in the direction of God - truth and life, or we can go in the other direction which leads to destruction and it leads to more fear and more unhappiness. And when I got to the point I just decided, nope. I had checked out Hinduism and Buddhism. I had a friend who was a Hindu. But eventually I realised that Jesus is different to every religious leader ever in the world. Then I began looking at the prophecies. Very specific prophecies that were written over 300 years ago about Jesus that were fulfilled. Very specific. There are over 300 prophecies written at least 300 years before his birth! And some of them that he would come from the lineage of David. That he would be born in a little town in Bethlehem. That he would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver. That they would gamble for his clothes. There is no way that those prophecies occurred by an accident. It's impossible. Very specific. He truly is the Son of God. And so I came through three different ways. Looking at prophecies, looking at these other religions, trying drugs and alcohol. Trying all those things and realising that the only true life is trusting God so that's kind of where I'm at."
Ric first got involved in Christian music in 1985. He signed his first record deal with Frontline Records as the lead guitarist for The Willoughby Wilson Band. He worked as a session guitarist for Amy Grant, Rich Mullins and Margaret Becker to name a few. He has also opened up shows across the country for Petra, Randy Stonehill, Steve Camp, Phil Keaggy and Edie Brickell And The Bohemians. In 1987 Ric worked as a songwriter for Meadowgreen Publishing in Nashville. It was during this time that Ric wrote the song "Never For Nothing" which became a number one Christian radio hit for Margaret Becker.
After the release of 'Always By My Side' (1997) Ric recorded 'Break The Walls' (2000) which, like its predecessor, has now been re-released. With such musicians as Eric Rigler (Braveheart, Titanic) on uillean pipes, Cait Reed and Lovely Previn (daughter of London Philharmonic conductor Andre Previn) on Celtic fiddle, the album is a delightful mix of Irish and Scottish instrumentals along with some stirring original songs, pride of place going to "Scotland Ablaze", which looks forward to a glorious spiritual revival throughout Scotland, which Ric wrote while staying at a flat in Arbroath.
By 2005 when the next album arrived it was The Ric Blair Band getting the front sleeve billing. And what a spectacular aggregation Ric had assembled. Yun Blair, born in Seoul, Korea, is often introduced as being from "Far Eastern Ireland". Her penny whistle has been heard on many Nashville albums and she is also a classically trained pianist and an accomplished Irish dancer. Patrick D'Arcy hails from Dublin, graduated from the Royal Irish Academy Of Music and plays uillean pipes, penny whistle, bodhran and mandolin. Jeff Durham is the longest serving band member having been with Ric since 1995. he plays a unique hybrid djembe/percussion kit that he devised himself and is also an actor, comedian and film script writer. The newest addition to The Blair Band is fiddler Kim Haller. Kim has performed with such diverse acts as The Chieftains and the Nashville Symphony.
The two albums 2005's 'Fields Of Freedom: Celtic Hymns And Meditations' and 2006's 'Celtic Sessions' are two more spirit-lifting examples of Celtic worship, 'Fields' featuring special guests Sheila Walsh and Phil Keaggy. It contains a version of "Be Thou My Vision". Ric admits it was quite an obvious choice. "It's like 'Amazing Grace'. He explains, "We've all heard it 10 million times but they're both just timeless songs and you can never hear them enough. You never really get tired of it and the lyrics of 'Be Thou My Vision' are really powerful. It's a prayer to God that we can live our lives truly looking to him. I was playing around in the studio and I didn't want to do it the way it's always been done a thousand times. It was really just experimenting. My good friend Phil Keaggy, who's a neighbour out here in Nashville, contributed to the vocals and when he comes in on the harmony of that song, it just gave me chills! He's got such an amazing voice."
It never hurts to have Phil Keaggy on an album but the connection between the two men runs deeper than recording sessions. Ric shares, "After all those losses that I had experienced years ago in college, Phil was really instrumental in bringing me back to the Lord. A couple of friends that knew that I was going through difficult times in college told me about a new artist called Phil Keaggy. They said, 'He's an incredible guitar player so you're gonna appreciate that and he sounds like Paul McCartney and you're gonna appreciate that!' My friends came to pick me up and took me to a concert. Well, Phil Keaggy comes out. He was this little short guy that carries a big guitar! A big Les Paul. And he comes out in this huge, massive catholic church. I go and sit up in the balcony and there were two crosses on each side of the stage. Phil comes out and was centre of the stage and he sings this song, 'Love Broke Through'. At that moment all my troubles, all my losses.love broke through to my heart when I heard that song."
Remembers Ric, "So that moment was when I started changing. I decided to start following Christ again. Because I had grown up in the church but I'd fallen back. God's love just spoke to me through Phil's music. And so what an incredible thing many, many years later to be friends with Phil! I honour and respect him not just as a musician, but as a guy who has an incredible heart. And the music industry is, honestly, trying to put him aside because he's older. He's not a 19 year-old doing alternative music. He's out there still doing it. He's out there ministering to people every month. So I just think he's one of those guys who's a living legend."
The all-instrumental 'Celtic Sessions' is an evocation of Celtic music roots. On its release Ric wrote, "In ancient days friends and family would gather in thatched roof homes with flagstone floors and play music, sing, dance, tell stories through the night. This home was often called a Ceili house. Friends would congregate by the fireplace or in the kitchen and would spend time supporting each other. This tradition helped the town people to forget about the sometimes harsh life conditions and to celebrate life. I believe 'Celtic Sessions' captures the warmth and gaiety of that tradition."
During my latest link up with Ric, he and Yun insist that my friends and I go to a curry house which Ric loves in Nashville. We Brits are not convinced by this plan since we live in a country where chicken tikka masala is the most popular dish and for me personally, I live in Birmingham - the balti capital of the world. In the end the car finds itself parked outside the curry house and we step inside and order our meals. I sit opposite Yun who explains that Ric has told her that I am one of the funniest people he's ever met. No pressure there then! The dinner is pleasant. We all chat and swap stories and decide the food really isn't doing it for us. Ric insists that normally it's better!
Ric's life these days is busy. As a hard travelling musicianary he is working non-stop to get his music out there and he is playing live to appreciative audiences. He says, "Here in America the resurgence in Celtic music is kind of a new thing. And there's the different instrumentation and the fact that we're all acoustic. There's nothing electric in what we do. So it's getting back to really rootsy music in this technological world. So I think that's what makes it attractive."
The meal is over and we're returning to the hotel and I'm wondering when we'll next see Ric in the UK. Now that all his albums are available over here and there is definitely an appreciation of Celtic music here, it seems that the Ric Blair Band should make another appearance on our shores soon. One thing is for sure, when he does, there's a certain balti house in Birmingham that Ric and Yun have to visit!The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.