All-female, Irish-American group Cherish the Ladies gets jiggy with Oklahoma City Philharmonic 

Cherish the Ladies with the
Oklahoma City Philharmonic
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker

There's a reason it's called "folk" music.

Even as record execs wander the country in search of the next big sound, the tried and true persists, passed across generations and even cultures. Whether it's Americana artists rediscovering the charms of bluegrass, or the recent reemergence of traditional Celtic folk, there's something about the spirit and unpretentious tone that connects with people of all ages and backgrounds.



Perhaps no movement has been bigger or more surprising than the rise of Irish music, heralded in part by the arrival of Cherish the Ladies. Initially born as an Irish-American, all-female sextet 25 years ago this week, the act has become a worldwide phenomenon, opening the door for Broadway musicals such as "Riverdance" and "Lord of the Dance," and even in some small way for successful rock acts like Flogging Molly and The Pogues. While it shares similar instrumentation and style with much indigenous folk music, there's something about ballads, reels, jigs, airs and hornpipes of Celtic folk that sparks both the heart and the imagination.

"It never ceases to amaze me as we travel across this country playing these sold-out shows," said group leader Joanie Madden. "I've shaken hands with Arabs and Jews. It's been, 'I'm Swedish,' 'I'm Mexican,' 'I'm Puerto Rican.' Every nationality in the world, and there's something they love about the music. I think it's because the music is so hauntingly beautiful and the dance so lively. You're breaking your heart one minute and you're dancing on the tables the next second."

The act began when Mick Moloney of the Ethnic Folk Arts Center in New York conceived a series of concerts highlighting the increasing role of women in what had been the largely male world of traditional Irish music. He contacted Madden, who was the only American to win the Senior All-Ireland Championship on the whistle. She quipped that the series should be called "Cherish the Ladies," taking the name from an old Irish jig. A quarter century later, they're still going strong, sharing these age-old traditions.

"All our music was handed down to us from our parents," said Madden, whose father was a Senior All-Irelan championship accordion player. "I can trace the music back in my family seven generations. It's music that's been passed and handed down, and every one of us, all of our fathers were musicians."

They are not only sharing the music, but also the lively dance that's become inseparable for many. From the very beginning " even before the aforementioned theatrical shows gained acclaim" the Ladies have featured step dancers, and it's central to their performance.

"You can play the ballads, sing the songs, and play the tunes, but when the step dancing begins " and we have four dancers joining us " the whole place goes crazy and nuts," Madden said. "It's just an element that sets the whole place on fire. They're our secret weapon."

But it's hardly their only one. All the musicians are fine players in their own right. Indeed, if there's anything that distinguishes Celtic folk, it's the amazing level of craftsmanship and virtuosity that emanates from this little country half the size of Oklahoma. Nurtured by the fathers who learned the craft from their fathers, these women have developed great skill with their instruments.

Although Madden and guitar/mandolin/banjo player Mary Coogan (who have also released successful solo albums) have been with the band its entire tenure, there has been turnover as some members got married and had children, while others sought to stretch their wings on their own. But they stay in touch " a product of the close friendships forged by a heavy touring schedule.

"You spend almost half the year with these people. There's nothing that goes on in your life they're not privy or party to, and you form a really close bond," Madden said. "It's hard, but change when you have a group this long is inevitable."

The last few years have featured more shows backed by local orchestras and symphonies, such as Friday and Saturday's performances with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. The Ladies have written and adapted their own arrangements for this bigger scale, and the response has been overwhelming.

Many of these shows occur in the lead up to the holiday, and the Ladies recently released their second Christmas-themed album, "A Star in the East," whose string-laden arrangements were used as a basis for full-symphony treatments. But that's hardly all the Ladies are up to, preparing their 12th studio release for spring, to celebrate their 25th anniversary.

"It's just a matter of having the time to record the album," Madden said. "It's a lot of new compositions, and new arrangements. We're about ready to go. We're hoping to get some guest artists on there with us as well."

Meanwhile, Madden's enjoying the ride that's taken her all over the world, including a visit to the White House. This year, they plan their first-ever trip to China. Although the touring can be overwhelming at times, it's all been worth it.

"As a folk musician, it's a dream come true to have this opportunity. When I hear my little pennywhistle with a huge orchestra " for a girl who learned her music at the kitchen table" it's just so phenomenal," she said. "At the end of the day, when I get on the stage, I might be so tired, I don't know where I'm going to get the energy from, but when I walk onto that stage, and I get that applause, it's all worth it. That's what keeps me going."

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