For those looking to get their shamrocks on this St. Patty’s Day, look no further than The Kerry Boys, Connecticut’s own Irish balladeers.
Prospect resident Pierce Campbell and his partner Mark James of Cheshire comprise The Kerry Boys, and the duo will be plucking out traditional Irish tunes all over the area over the next few weeks.
The pair’s venture into Irish music began on separate paths and a chance encounter brought the two together.
Campbell’s path to Irish folk music began years ago, when his rock band, the Xtras, was asked to play a St. Patrick’s Day show at Doody’s in North Branford. Not one to turn down a gig, Campbell started learning Irish songs.
Later, James was playing a private party in Naugatuck where Campbell was a guest.
The host introduced them, Campbell brought up his guitar, and that was that.
James asked Campbell to play backup on James’ solo album.
“We sort of hit it off and we said, ‘Hey let’s do a little group,’” Campbell recalled.
Campbell, who was a guitar player, taught himself the mandolin to help add some texture to their sound.
“Acoustic music is really where my forte has always been,” Campbell said.
The two got dubbed the Kerry Boys because James is from Kerry County, Ireland.
That was 20 years ago. They’re still going strong today.
Campbell described the duo’s music as traditional vocal-based Irish music in the Clancy Brother’s style.
The Kerry Boys weave tight harmonies over the guitar and mandolin, with humorous, crowd-pleasing lyrics. The group started out with a few standards. However, their repertoire grew as more people began requesting songs.
The one type of song they avoid is anything political, so as not to offend anyone in the audience.
“You can go out all night long and not play one Republican song or one Rebellious song,” James said. “To me that’s not what Irish music is about anyways.”
Campbell said their most popular songs are always about beer.
“One pint of porter is always a crowd pleaser,” Campbell said.
The duo often finds inspiration for their music from their surroundings.
On his last trip to Ireland, Campbell wrote “Penny for the Boatman.”
Campbell explained he had nightmares after picking up a penny in a church graveyard, only to later realize that it was probably used in a wake to keep someone’s eyes closed. He put the penny back, but was inspired to write about the myth that the dead must have a penny to pay the boatman to cross the River Styx into the afterlife.
“You never know what’s going to inspire you,” Campbell said.
The two bring their own strengths to the group.
James does research and brings in traditional tunes, while Campbell writes songs in traditional style.
“He has a much deeper knowledge of traditional Irish music, being from Ireland, than I do,” Campbell said.
James, an Ireland native, grew up with Irish records.
“It just becomes more of who you are,” James said. “They’re beautiful songs, they’re great songs, and they never get tiring.”
James started playing guitar when he was 15, and came over to the United States to play when he was 23.
“It was nice to be out on my own playing,” he said.
In Ireland, he played in a seven-member band, which could lead to conflicts in personalities and goals.
“When I started to play solo, I felt like I could control the song then,” he said.
In Ireland, James had trained as a tool and die maker, but by the time he was ready to get a job, unemployment was high and there were no jobs in the trade.
So, he decided to take a chance at music.
Although James’ focus is on music, he still takes advantage of his tool-making skills to craft guitars.
“I always wanted to find a guitar that was perfect for me,” James said.
So he did what any perfectionist would do—he made his own. Soon, his friends wanted guitars too, and he honed his skills to start selling them to area musicians.
Campbell also has one of James’ guitars.
“We go out and play them and that’s a good way to advertise,” James said. “For me it’s a challenge to always make the ultimate guitar for somebody.”
Besides their work together, the two also do a lot of solo work.
Campbell fronts the Pierce Campbell jazz group, and plays in the Funky Butt Jazz Band, a New Orleans style group.
The Dixieland jazz was a style Campbell inherited from his parents, who were both musicians themselves.
“[Other musicians] would usually stay at our house, so there was always music and jam sessions going on. So it has always been a part of my life,” said Campbell, who started playing guitar in third grade.
As a solo artist, Campbell plays pop music from the 60s to the 80s.
“As a full-time musician, you have to be versatile,” Campbell said. “It’s fun to be able to play many different kinds of music and it also keeps you from getting bored with one kind of music.”
In 2007 and 2008, Campbell was Connecticut’s state troubadour, a position similar to the poet laureate, and unique to the state.
To apply for position, a musician must write a song about Connecticut and submit a live concert video. A panel reviews applicants’ credentials and selects their candidate.
The state troubadour represents the state musically and plays at state functions, promotes Commission on Culture and Tourism, and works as a music ambassador for the state, according to Campbell.
For the contest, Campbell wrote “River of Dreams,” a song about a house near water company land in Prospect. There, he found a bunch of buttons on the ground, but nothing else was left from factory.
The sight made him think about how about how important water has been to the state, he explained, and still is.
Upcoming performances of The Kerry Boys include “A Celebration of Irish Music with The Kerry Boys,” presented by the Hamden Arts Commission March 20.
For more information about The Kerry Boys’ upcoming shows and music, visit www.thekerryboys.com.