With two traditions,he makes a modern sound
By Scott Alarik, Globe Correspondent  |  January 7, 2005<./P>

Eric Merrill has spent years trying to figure out if he is an Irish musician who was born in America or an American musician who plays Irish music. It may seem like a distinction without a difference, but in the world of traditional music, where authenticity is prized, finding the right answer became a defining quest for the 29-year-old Boston fiddler, banjo player, and singer.

The results of that search are heard on his vibrant, eloquent, and entirely lovely debut CD, ''The Western Star: Irish Music From America" (Yodel-Ay-Hee). In his fluid mix of Celtic and Appalachian folk music, a new kind of authenticity can be felt, true to the ancient aesthetics of tradition but unmistakably modern in its groove and sensibility.

Over pulsing acoustic soundscapes, he will begin playing a wild Irish reel. Then his bow strokes fatten, single notes becoming thick, dark chords, before bursting into an eerie, windswept Appalachian tune. But what he is doing is not fusion; he never tries to Americanize the Celtic music, nor to make the American music more Celtic. He is simply playing both as he feels them, set to arrangements that allow each to retain its essence.

Merrill performs at Jimmy Tingle's in Davis Square, Somerville, tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. as part of the Boston Celtic Music Festival. The weekend event features more than 160 local Celtic musicians performing in concerts, intimate song swaps, instrumental seisiuns, and dances at several locations in Davis Square; Harvard Square, Cambridge; and Watertown.

Dirk Powell is among the most influential stars in the burgeoning neotraditional revival and wrote the liner notes to Merrill's CD. From his Louisiana home, he said he was intrigued by Merrill before he met him, because he heard him praised with equal fervor by both Irish and Appalachian musicians.

''When I finally got to hear Eric," he says, ''I thought his playing was eloquent and profound, but not trying to prove anything. When people come to a tradition from outside, they often focus too much on technique. They get caught up in the vocabulary but don't really have anything meaningful to say. Eric seems to have all the technique only because he has so much he wants to say."

Merrill grew up in Seattle and was exposed to traditional music through his uncle, whose band played old-time Appalachian music. At 9, Merrill was studying classical violin but resisting its rigid focus on technique and individual virtuosity. His uncle's band just seemed to be having more fun.

''I'd sit in with them, and they'd show me tunes," Merrill recalls. ''They really emphasized the social aspect of the music, and I loved that. Then I was drawn to the history and culture of the music. It's so grounded in people's real lives, which felt very good to me."

He fell in love with Irish music while attending Indiana University. He went there because it had a good instrument-making school, and he wanted to not just play fiddles but build them. Today, in addition to performing in Celtic-rock accordionist John Whelan's group and several local folk dance bands, he is a violin maker at Reuning & Son Violins in Boston.

After studying music for a year in Ireland, he moved to Boston in 1999 because he heard there were bustling scenes for both Celtic and Appalachian music. He stopped trying to reconcile his two musical passions and sought arrangement ideas that allowed him to play each distinctively.

To that end, he found the tradition itself a wonderful teacher. He stuffs his iPod full of archival Appalachian and Celtic recordings, sets it on random, and finds much food for modern musical thought.

''There's so much weird, crazy stuff in those old recordings," he says. ''When later musicians learned the tunes from them, they'd smooth out the weird bits and then write new tunes if they wanted something a little funky. But when you really listen to the old versions of the tunes, there's some wild stuff, weird rhythms, odd modes. A lot of the stuff I do that people think is the strangest comes right out of the tradition."

Powell thinks Merrill's desire to cull modern ideas from tradition puts him in the vanguard of a new generation that is redefining what it means to be authentic.

''There's the old standard of authenticity, that this guy was born straight up a holler and never had a radio," he says. ''With all this mass culture, that definition is over. Now you have people like Eric, who have the whole world at their fingertips but are looking for something real, and they immerse themselves in it. That's an authenticity of the soul."

Merrill says, ''The balance you have to find is between the preservation and the personal, but that tension has always existed within the music. And the great guardian of tradition is the music itself. Why would you want to change it? I don't think there's anything particularly character-building in putting yourself through listening to all those scratchy old records if all you want to do is turn it into something else. The fact is, there's no reason to play traditional music if you don't love it the way it is."

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