Andy Irvine: ‘Woody Guthrie sang along with my recordings of his songs’

The musician pays tribute to his boyhood idol in a special show in Dublin tonight. Here, he talks about getting back to live gigs, collaborating with rising Irish stars and why the crowd went wild for Planxty.

Andy Irvine pays tribute to his hero in The Woody Guthrie Project
Andy Irvine pays tribute to his hero in The Woody Guthrie Project

John Meagher  

October 02 2021 02:30 AM

It was love at first listen when Andy Irvine encountered the music of Woody Guthrie. It was 1957 and he was 15. The American troubadour’s stark folk songs took a fierce hold and wouldn’t let go. It’s a passion that still burns brightly

“It’s been a lifelong devotion,” Irvine says, speaking via Zoom from his home in Wexford. “When I first bought one of his records and played it I was hooked from the first bar of the first song — it was like, ‘Yes! I’ve found it — this is it.’ And I can’t quite explain why. There was an honesty about him and his music that I appreciated.

“He wasn’t all that good as a musician and sometimes when I play his music to people who don’t know him and I hear him through them, I think, ‘Hmm, it’s not all that great’. But I loved the way he played guitar and I loved his singing voice and I’d play the guitar in the same style that he did and I’d even try to copy his Oklahoma accent.” 

These were the songs that encouraged Irvine to pick up a guitar, and so began one of the great innings in Irish music history. He also picked up a pen and wrote to Guthrie himself. “The world was a much bigger place then and it could be hard just to get information — I didn’t know if he was alive or dead or how famous he was. I wrote a letter to ‘Woody Guthrie, USA’ and after about three weeks it came back.

“Then I found out he was in hospital so I wrote to him there. I found out later that the people who would take him out at weekends, Bob and Sidsel Gleason, would read the letters to him. And they wrote back to me. I made some recordings for Woody of his songs and in a letter that [the Gleasons] sent me, they said that he had sung along with me.”

He is still tickled by the memory more than 60 years later and he says he was greatly touched when on a visit to the Woody Guthrie Centre in Oklahoma, he discovered that the letters he had written as a teen were on display there. “They had found the letters at the hospital when it was being knocked down and they ended up in his archive. I photographed them all and it’s like a diary from when I was 16 and 17.”

Tonight, at Dublin’s National Concert Hall, Irvine plays tribute to Guthrie in a special show as part of the venue’s acclaimed Tradition Now series. He will be accompanied by his friend, the Dutch multi-instrumentalist Rens van der Zalm.

“Despite my devotion to Woody, this is out of my comfort zone.”

Still agile

Irvine turns 80 next year, but this genial man could pass for someone in his early 60s. Although he says his fingers can’t race around the fretboard like they once could, his body has not betrayed him and he is still able to play live — something he clearly loves to do.

“Sometimes, when I hear myself playing 20 years ago I think, ‘Wow, I don’t think I could play that piece now.’ It doesn’t bother me because I’m still agile enough to accompany myself in the way I want to. And over the course of this pandemic, I’ve changed the way I hold the plectrum and I think it’s an improvement.”

He greatly missed the business of playing live. “I didn’t enjoy those streaming performances,” he says, “especially the ones that weren’t live. There’s nothing like playing in front of actual people.”

Last weekend, he played at the inaugural Hibernacle festival at Claregalway Castle, Co Galway. “It was wonderful. Everything had been put together so well. Normally, you wouldn’t notice the organisation, but we were treated fantastically well. The collaborations were great and the music was fantastic.” Irvine was the elder statesman among a home-grown line-up that included Lisa Hannigan, Jape, Tolü Makay and Saint Sister. “In one of the collaborations, they sang all the harmonies in all my songs — I don’t know how they learned them so quickly!”

Irvine was born in London in 1942 to an Irish mother and Scottish father. He was drawn to acting at an early age and became something of a child star. He appeared in ITV and BBC productions and featured in the acclaimed 1958 film Room at the Top.

But music, which had been a central part of his life for as long as he can remember, started to take over after the Woody Guthrie discovery. He moved to Ireland aged 20 and never looked back. His first band, Sweeney’s Men, made waves in a country that could sometimes be hostile to anything that was considered ‘trad’. By the end of the 1960s, Irvine had earned a reputation as one who was keen to leave a distinct mark on culture. His mastery of the bouzouki, the traditional Greek stringed instrument, demonstrated a yen to try different things.

Irvine is revered for his gifts with several instruments, but two of them loom large in his affections. “The bouzouki looks like a guitar and I’m sure half the audience think it’s a guitar, but it’s got eight strings and it delivers a really
special sound,” he says. “And I love the mandola — it’s tuned a fifth below the mandolin. It’s still a bit on the high side, but it’s got a lovely plaintive quality about it and it’s great for slow songs.”

He brought both those instruments and more to his next band, Planxty — by any measure, one of the most significant groups to have emerged from this country in any genre. Right from the off, audiences sensed that this quartet — Irvine, Christy Moore, Dónal Lunny and Liam Óg O’Flynn — was special.

Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Liam Og O'Flynn and Christy Moore re-united as Planxty at Vicar Street in 2004
Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Liam Og O’Flynn and Christy Moore re-united as Planxty at Vicar Street in 2004

“We did a tour supporting Donovan in 1972,” Irvine recalls, “and the first gig was down in Galway in a ballroom called the Hanger. We’d never seen so many microphones or so many lights. We went on and we hadn’t done much of a soundcheck — about halfway though it, the audience made noises. Initially, I thought there was a fight going on but I looked at the others and they were smiling from ear to ear. At the end of it, as the crowd went berserk for more, I came to realise that we had pulled the house down.

“We brought into the band what we’d been doing solo. Dónal Lunny was very important in that he was really good at knitting the whole thing together. Basically, Christy, myself and Liam were soloists and, somehow, that gelled to the success we got. I’m not sure any of us were ever sure about how or why we were so popular.”

Although Irvine found great acclaim after Planxty finished — not least when he and Paul Brady joined forces for a classic album in 1976 — he often longed for the band to reform. After Leagues O’Toole’s book and documentary on the band restored interest in the early 2000s, Planxty reunited. “They were some of the best shows I’ve ever done,” he says. “I really believe we were better, musically, in our 60s, than we had been all those years before.”

He has no intention of calling time on life on the road. He’s itching to get back out there and the New Year will see him tour with Liam Brady. The gigs had to be postponed due to Covid.

“I craved audiences. And I missed it so much. I’d practice daily, but I came to find that I couldn’t play certain things, like the riff at the end of my song, O’Donoghue’s, and I thought, ‘This is the end, Andy. This is the slippery slope.’ But as soon as I was able to play in front of an audience — actual people — I found I could play it as well as ever.”



Live report: Up Close and Personal with Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny at The Grand Social

Hot Press presents Up Close & Personal with… Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine from PLANXTY at The Grand Social, Dublin.

Chelsea Henderson


Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny revisited their 1973 album Planxty on Tuesday night, as part of the Up Close and Personal series at the Grand Social. The Up Close and Personal series is run in partnership by Hot `Press and Aidan Shortall of Up Close and Personal promotions, and is supported by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.

In 1973, Irish folk group Planxty released their eponymous debut album. Musicians Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny, Christy Moore and Liam O’Flynn transformed the landscape of Irish music, representing a pivotal moment in the evolution of Irish traditional music.

As part of the Up Close and Personal series, Irvine and Lunny revisited their legendary album, speaking with Hot Press’ Pat Carty about their lives and careers leading up to – and beyond – the creation of Planxty. Donal Lunny, Pat Carty and Andy Irvine. Hot Press presents Up Close & Personal with… Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine from PLANXTY at The Grand Social, Dublin.

Produced by Phil Coulter, who had a bit of a laissez-faire approach since the Planxty musicians had a clear-cut vision for their eponymous album, Planxty was a revolutionary album, sparking a wave of excitement in the Irish folk and trad community. As described by Carty, the work of Irvine and Lunny – and their Planxty cohorts – represented a “seismic shift” in the Irish folk idiom, due to their innovative mixing of ballads and tunes. For the musicians, however, the process was an organic one, driven by a love and passion for the music itself.

“I’m not sure that any of us really understood the success we acquired,” said Irvine. “It’s what we did.”

“It’s not that we had no control of it,” added Lunny, “but it’s what we loved.”

Throughout the night, Carty guided the musicians through their careers, talking about how they got to where they are now. For Lunny, he discovered music alongside fellow Irish folk icon (and Planxty man) Christy Moore. During sessions at Pat Downing’s, he found a like-minded community – and a new obsession.

“That’s really where I developed a passion for traditional music,” said Lunny about his times at Pat Downing’s.

Elsewhere, Irvine was an actor in London, where he was born and had spent much of his childhood.

“I was a child actor, and I was very good,” he admitted with a laugh. “I say that without conceit because all child actors are good.”

When he finally moved to Dublin, he said that he “found the niche in life [he] was looking for.”

After listening to the album’s opening track, ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’, Irvine and Lunny began their first live performance, ‘Arthur McBride’. From their seats on stage, the two men exuded a commanding presence and showcased their powerful musicianship. The song – by now an Irish folk standard – which expresses an anti-war sentiment, was greeted by huge applause from the crowd. Hot Press presents Up Close & Personal with… Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine from PLANXTY at The Grand Social, Dublin.

In between listens to ‘Planxty Irwin’, ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’ and ‘Junior Crehan’s Favourite – Corney Is Coming’, the musicians discussed their times on the road, the introduction of the bouzouki into Irish music, and where the name ‘Planxty’ came from – though it seems that both Irvine and Lunny were unsure of the origin of the latter word.

“It could have derived from the word ‘sláinte’,” Lunny started to explain. “You grow into the name, and the name becomes novel.”

‘The West Coast of Clare’ was the second track performed live, featuring delicate and precise backing on the musicians’ instruments. With the audience hanging on every note, the song’s deep emotions could be felt throughout the venue.

This was followed by the recorded versions of ‘The Jolly Beggar – Reel’, ‘Only Our Rivers’ and ‘Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór.’

Though Planxty’s ‘Follow Me Up To Carlow’ and ‘Merrily Kissed The Quaker’ went unplayed for time reasons – there was so much great conversation, the night flew! – the duo finished the evening with a performance of ‘The Blacksmith’. The Eastern European-influenced track is unique in its time signature and quirks, highlighting Irvine and Lunny’s incredible musicianship. Fingers were flying on both bouzouki and mandolin, the music filled with a passion that clearly hasn’t diminished since the original release of the album in 1973.

The final song was greeted by a standing ovation from a raucous crowd, who were whooping, hollering and cheering for the legendary musicians, capping off another excellent night of the Up Close and Personal series at The Grand Social. Hot Press presents Up Close & Personal with… Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine from PLANXTY at The Grand Social, Dublin.

See more pictures from Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny: Up Close and Personal here.


‘Once I got in front of an audience, I could play so much better than when I was at home’: Andy Irvine on returning to the stage at 79

Kate Brayden


Between the achievements of his solo, group work and collaborations; it’s no wonder festivals like Hibernacle are itching to see Andy Irvine return to the stage.

With his impressive repertoire of Irish traditional songs and dexterous Balkan dance tunes, Andy Irvine has a well-earned reputation for curating an exciting new fusion of Irish and World Music.

Having travelled the world with bands like Sweeney’s Men, Patrick Street, the globally successful Planxty, and more recently Mozaik; the London-born musician continues to pursue new combinations and styles of music. Broadening his musical horizons over the course of his forty-year career to encompass the musical styles of countries he visits, the highly revered troubadour of Irish music has since been announced to play Claregalway’s Hibernacle festival – ‘Meet Me At The Castle’.

The 79-year-old will be performing alongside acclaimed singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan and renowned Dublin electronic-rock act Jape. Hot Press spoke to Andy over the phone from his Wexford home about the forthcoming festival appearance, his lockdown experience and favourite memories from touring the world.

“We barely know what the outside world is looking like these days, but everything is beginning to come back into some kind of normality,” Andy laughs, always in good spirits. Himself and his wife have had a wealth of privacy over the last 18 months, spending lockdowns battling weeds in their garden and working on music – it seems he’ll never let himself stop. Preparing to hit the stage once again after more than 40 years of work as a performer seems like an easy task, but Irvine’s nerves are surprisingly potent.

“I get more and more frightened as I get older. I don’t know why that is. It’s just that I get nervous, but I’m not quite as bad as Ronnie Drew, who used to get sick before going on stage every evening!”

“The first solo gig I had was in Galway, and for a couple weeks beforehand, I’d have a shiver down my spine in fear. But as soon as we got on stage, after about the first number, it was as if I’d never been away. I was overjoyed by that, of course. I’m really looking forward to everything that’s coming up.”

Numerous creatives were forced to reckon with an uncertain future as the virus shut down venues, halted gigs for 18 months and removed nightlife and crowds from the equation.

“I had a very bad time during lockdown in terms of practicing – which I did copiously – but I began to feel like I was losing the ability to play as well as I used to be able to do,” Irvine adds, candidly.

“I’m an old man; there is going to come a time where I seriously can’t play as well as I could, but as soon as I got out in front of an audience, I was able to play so much better than I had been able to play just sitting at home. I think that was psychological. I’ve heard other people having the same problem. You feel like you can’t do it anymore until you get back and do it. Delight at being able to play as well as you had before the pandemic. But it’s not easy.”

During the various Covid-19 lockdowns in Ireland, the folk legend finally managed to compile the material together for his Woody Guthrie album and recorded the results.

“I’d been planning to do a Woody Guthrie album for four years now, care to remember. I got it together and I recorded everything, and now it awaits other people’s inputs. He’s my first and main influence,” Andy acknowledges, smiling. “I’ve kept it a bit quiet but I’m actually playing the album in the National Concert Hall in October, so that’ll be a bit scary. I’ll have to relearn all this material I’ve recorded, but I’m looking forward to it.”

Added to the ‘Meet Me At The Castle’ line-up alongside Saint Sister this week, Andy joins the likes of Tolü Makay, Wallis Bird and Nealo for the festival. Taking place September 25 and 26 at Claregalway Castle, Hibernacle is the brainchild of three experienced and diverse event organisers: Úna Molloy, Pearse Doherty and Peter Kelly. The first festival happened at the height of the pandemic in 2020, bringing together some of Ireland’s best and brightest talent in Doolin, Clare, for a restorative retreat and weekend of music. If the first edition is anything to go by, it’s not-to-be-missed.

“I played in Offaly a couple of weeks ago, and the main organiser was there from Hibernacle – which is the company that runs the gig in Birr and Claregalway – and the opportunity to play naturally presented itself from that meeting. ‘Hiberno’ is Latin for ‘winter court’. I think the name probably refers not just to Hibernia, Ireland but also to winter productions. Now I’m just showing off that I remember a bit of Latin!” Andy laughs.

“They’re all more or less fresh faces to play with. I believe I’m going to be playing with Lisa Hannigan and with Jape. I’ve done that kind of thing before; with festivals in Canada, often you’re playing on a small stage with two other acts and you’re encouraged to play along with them without any rehearsal at all. I remember Donal and I were playing in Edmonton at one of these Canadian festivals, and there was a band there from the West Indies or somewhere like that. They played lovely music. No sooner had we started counting in ‘My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland’ when they all played with us. They had no clue as to where the tune or the chord sequence was going, it was really funny. We pay a little bit more attention to detail when we rehearse in the next couple of weeks,” the trad veteran admits.

“It’s a little bit early to say what changes will come about in terms of Irish music. The one thing that does seem to have happened post-lockdown is the audiences are very keen to go to live concerts again, which is definitely encouraging. The fact that some of the gigs are restricted in numbers meant that all of the shows have sold out. That’s a really good sign, but we’ll see whether that urge for music is permanent.”

“I’ve booked Vicar Street in June to celebrate my 80th birthday, because 10 years ago I played two gigs there for my 70th birthday with a couple of bands,” Irvine adds. “Sweeney’s Man, Mosaik, and LAPD with Paddy Glackin and Liam O’Flynn. That gig was a great success. We put it together on a CD and on a DVD, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t do it again for my 80th. Then I’d be looking forward to my 90th!”

How vital is Irish music for the current socio-economic landscape, in Andy’s view?

“Hugely important. It’s also very hard to understand how you can fill Croke Park for a match and you have to be so much more careful at a musical event. That doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever. But no, I think it’s a kind of reawakening. People are suddenly keen to take up their lives as they were before, to some extent.”

“I had a strange experience recently. Last weekend I went to London, to visit my daughter – who lives in London – and my grandchildren, who I hadn’t seen for 19 months. Within about five minutes of going into the house, it was as if the last two years had completely disappeared. It was like being Rip Van Winkle, waking up after 20 years of being asleep. Time seemed to have been contracted so that within five minutes, it was as if we hadn’t been apart. It’s extraordinary.”

Given his wealth of experience when it comes to both Irish and world music, it comes as no surprise that Irvine is often asked for advice by up-and-coming performers.

“I have a friendly feeling for young musicians because I know how hard it is, how much harder it is now to make your own music profession than it was when I was a young man. I’ve got sympathy for them, and I like to help them as much as I can. I think it’s more difficult to stand out as a folk or trad musician these days. So many artists have now gone before these younger people that perform in a new way, which is still kind of acceptable traditionally.”

“I don’t actually play with anybody except Donal Lunny and Paul Brady – when it’s not cancelled once again – but I have a special fan called Macdara Ó Faoláin from Rinn in Co. Waterford,” Andy grins. “He’s been a follower of mine ever since he was a small boy, and he’s now probably 18 or 19. He makes bouzoukis and he plays the instrument as well. I saw him on television a couple weeks ago, and I was really impressed. He’s a lovely young man. And there’s of course the Ye Vagabonds who I like a lot. There’s serious originality in their music. They’re making good strides in the profession.”

Having carved out a name for himself as a traveller, the beloved musician is showing no signs of slowing down as he approaches his 80th birthday. Are there any countries that remain on his bucket list?

“All of them. I mean, the whole trouble with being a traveller is that you always want to get back to places you’ve been before, but you want to go to new places as well. It’s quite hard sometimes to do both. I’m still not planning any big trips yet, but I think that’ll have to wait until probably next spring and beyond. But I do look forward to getting back and the world again.”

“The first country that comes to mind in terms of how brilliant the reception was would be Italy,” Irvine notes, after a pause. “I’ve played there for over 40 years, and English is not a language that a lot of them speak – as it would be in Germany, for instance. I remember all those years ago playing in Italy with Arty McGlynn and Nollaig Casey, and in the middle of a song, they would shout ‘hooray!’ and ‘bravo!” It didn’t come at a moment where we just played fantastic solos, it came in the middle of a continuous piece of music. That’s called high spirits.”

Presumably, given his breadth of time in the industry and passion for new projects, Andy has been questioned before about the limits of his musical motivation.

“One of these days I’m not going to be able to keep performing. I do wonder what will be the first sign, you know?” he says, pensively.

“Will it be fingers not being able to get up and down the fingerboard, or will it be voice deteriorating? I can’t say. I mean, when you get to 90, you really wouldn’t expect to be as good as you were when you were 79. We’ll see…all these factors are quite natural. If one day I can’t really do this anymore or I’m not good enough, I’ll just quietly retire and do other things.”

Photo credit: Béla Kasa.


The Irish Bouzouki, Explained by Andy Irvine

Published July 22, 2021 by Tony Bacon

Andy Irvine first recorded with an Irish bouzouki in 1968 on the debut album of his band Sweeney’s Men. It was an exotic and unusual instrument back then, an adaptation of the traditional Greek bouzouki and something like a large mandolin. Since those pioneering days, the bouzouki has established a secure place in Irish music and has been adopted by many players outside that field. And for Andy, it has long been his main instrument.

Back at the end of the ‘60s, Andy travelled in the Balkans, and soon after his return to Ireland in 1970, he founded the great Irish folk band Planxty alongside Christy Moore, Dónal Lunny, and Liam O’Flynn, with subsequent personnel changes, breakups, and reformations. He’s had a long solo career, too, as well as a successful duo with Paul Brady and a number of other bands including Patrick Street, Usher’s Island, and Mozaik.

Andy Irvine plays an Irish bouzouki in this 1976 performance of “The Blind Harper”

He first saw a bouzouki in 1966, when he and Galway Joe Dolan were residents in a hotel and planning the formation of Sweeney’s Men. Johnny Moynihan, who became the third member, would come at weekends, and on one occasion he turned up with an instrument that a friend had brought back from Greece as a souvenir. It wasn’t much of an instrument, but it pointed to the musical potential of a bouzouki.

Next, Johnny happened to visit the London-based instrument maker John Bailey, who had made a flat-back bouzouki—the bowl-shaped back of Greek bouzoukis could make them hard to hold. It was reputedly made for the guitarist John Pearse, best-known for his early British TV show on which he taught budding guitarists how to play. “John Bailey told Johnny that the person he’d made the bouzouki for never came back for it, and so Johnny bought it,” Andy says. “And that was the first flat-back Irish bouzouki.”

The John Bailey zouk was a six-string converted to eight strings. Some Greek versions have six paired strings, but the Irish version would be based on the more popular Greek variety with eight strings in four pairs—the kind of layout a 12-string guitarist would be familiar with.

This early converted instrument had its drawbacks. “It was almost impossible for anybody else to play,” Andy adds with a smile. “Eight strings on a six-string neck were kind of tight. But it did become one of the first bouzoukis used in Irish music.” It was the instrument that Johnny and Andy used among the mandolin, harmonica, guitar, tin whistle, banjo, concertina, and vocals on the Sweeney’s Men album in ’68.

The following year, Andy acquired his own bouzouki in Greece. “It was during the time the fascist Colonels ruled there, and I didn’t really want to enhance the economy in any way. I was traveling in Bulgaria at the time, and I hitchhiked down to Thessaloniki. I sold my blood and bought the bouzouki with some money from that, then hitched back to Bulgaria, kind of congratulating myself that I had not spent one penny in Greece.”

In 1971, just prior to the formation of Planxty, Dónal Lunny came over to Andy’s place and started playing the blood-money bouzouki Andy had brought back from Greece. “Dónal had never played a bouzouki before, but he got the hang of it so quickly, and I said, ‘Take it, take it!’ And Dónal had a lot to do with popularizing the so-called Irish bouzouki.”

Andy began to develop the bouzouki’s potential for song accompaniment. Up to this point, his main instrument was guitar. “As far as I remember, we always tuned the guitars in the normal Spanish style then,” he says. “There were too many thirds available on a guitar, but the bouzouki cut that out—you could play just ones and fives if you wanted to. And the bouzouki really took over for me in 1977, when I had a car crash.”

He knew a woman who had a music shop in Dublin, and she gave him a bouzouki built by the English maker Andy Manson. “As a result of the crash, I had to cancel a tour in Germany, and I was unable to actually go out and play for about two months. That’s where I began to really get the hang of the bouzouki. Dónal Lunny and others would use it very much as a percussive accompanying instrument, a rhythm instrument, whereas I used it to accompany songs—and I’m delighted that I did, because it’s meant a lot to me ever since then. Dónal in bands would play mainly chords, sometimes with connecting runs in the chords, whereas my style of playing it was more complicated, I think, than his.”Trinity College TM-375 Irish BouzoukiTrinity College TM-375 Irish Bouzouki. Photo by Jake Wildwood.

He reflects on some of the musical situations he’s experienced in his long and varied career and points, for example, to the choice he made to never or very seldom to play a note on a bass string to match the note he was singing. “I played a lot of harmony and counter-melody, and I had this ability to play one thing and sing another, where you have to not concentrate on either and do a kind of trigonometry in your head, you know? That would take a deal of practice, but then I could do things that made people go Wow, how do you do that? And I would beam with joy at my success,” he says, beaming with joy at the memory.

Andy and some of the other pioneering Irish bouzouki players tuned their instruments to GDAD. “That comes from the way that people like Johnny Moynihan and myself would sometimes tune mandolins to GDAD. I think a lot of my early input into mandolin playing was based on American Old-Time music, where I’m sure GDAD is a well-known fiddle tuning.”

The D as the top string also presented advantages. “It’s amazing how many chords can be enhanced by having a D at the top,” he says. “All the way from A-minor to C, they’re all plus 9s and plus 4s, which are always acceptable to me. So not having to necessarily think about the top string, which you’d have to do if it was tuned to an E and you were playing in G or D, almost gave you the feeling of the fifth string of a five-string banjo.”

Any tips for someone aiming to try an Irish bouzouki, Andy? “You should really start with a good one,” he says. “When I started playing the guitar, for instance, when I was 13, my brother-in-law knew Julian Bream, and I went to Julian’s with my first guitar. The first thing he said was, ‘Well, I think you’re going to have to buy a better guitar.’ So I agree with that entirely. And I would suggest looking up a Facebook group called The Irish Bouzouki. It’s run by Seanie McGrath and extremely good. That would be the place to find locally a good maker who wouldn’t cost the earth.”

Since the ‘70s, Andy’s prime bouzoukis have been made for him by the English maker Stefan Sobell—and his current mainstay has a guitar-shape body and is fitted with a Highlander under-bridge pickup, though Andy often adds an LR Baggs M1A pickup in the soundhole when necessary. He also likes a bouzouki made for him by the Japanese firm K. Yairi, and sometimes he reaches for his bass bouzouki by the New Zealand maker Davy Stuart, tuned down to CGDG and with a Sunrise pickup.

On electric gigs he goes direct, usually with a combination of pickup and mic, while on acoustic outings he has a Fender Champion 30 amp, though you might not notice. “I set it at volume 1 or less, just to bolster the bass bouzouki, and I put it under the chair I’m sitting on—so I don’t think people notice that the instrument is amplified.”

Andy is drawn daily to playing bouzouki, and also his Fylde mandola, a similar but slightly smaller instrument. “I’ve been practicing daily for the last 18 months,” he says, adding with a lockdown-weary sigh: “And even with that daily practicing, I don’t feel confident. I haven’t enjoyed any kind of live streaming I’ve done, which is not much, but I have not enjoyed that at all. Something psychological, maybe. But I’m hoping an audience will give me back the confidence I’m lacking at the moment.”

Andy is 79 years old, and I venture the opinion that some musicians at that age might feel like slowing down, enforced or otherwise. “I think I’ll only get slowed down once I begin to not be able to do it. And god knows when that will be. Hopefully it hasn’t arrived yet.” So your song “Never Tire Of The Road” is accurate? “Oh absolutely, yeah,” our bouzouki pioneer replies with another laugh. “I’m forced by the pin of my collar not to get tired of the road now, having written that song. No choice.”

Keep up to date with Andy at his official website here.

About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Electric Guitars: Design & Invention and Rickenbacker Electric 12-String. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at


Andy Irvine celebrates Woody Guthrie at the NCH

Updated / Friday, 1 Oct 2021 18:21

On 2nd October, Andy Irvine presents his Woody Guthrie Project at the National Concert Hall with Rens van der Zalm. Below, Andy talks about the influence of Woody, his correspondence with the folk icon and what people can expect from his NCH show.

I spent my early youth searching for the music I knew existed somewhere, the music that would lift my soul. I didn’t find it in my mother’s cracked and scratched collection of musical comedy 78s and I didn’t find it when Bill Haley & the Comets came to Europe in 1956. I nearly found it in the early 45 rpm singles of Rhythm & Blues recorded by the likes of Fats Domino. But…not quite. I found it for a short time with Lonnie Donegan and the Skiffle bands that proliferated a little later and on the sleeve of one of Lonnie’s early EPs I first saw the name that was to motivate me through my life—Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie, pictured in 1940

I found an album, oddly titled More Songs by Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston as it was the only one available. At home I placed the stylus on the first track and as the needle picked up the very first sound of Columbus Stockade a tingle went down my spine. The instrumental intro was followed by an Oklahoman voice, singing, “Way down in Columbus Stockade, want to be back in Tennessee”. And I knew I had found my treasure!

The notes on the back of the album gave nothing away as to who these two men were; I knew they were American, but the world was a much larger place in those days, and I could find no further information. Were they alive or dead?

The notes on the back of the album gave nothing away as to who these two men were; I knew they were American, but the world was a much larger place in those days, and I could find no further information. Were they alive or dead?

Not long after that, somebody introduced me to Pete Seeger and he told me about Woody being incarcerated in Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey. Finally, I was able to make contact. Unfortunately, Woody was unable to hold a pen by this time as he had inherited, full blown, from his mother, the genetic disease which was at that time called Huntingdon’s Chorea and had little or no control over his limbs.

Letters were written on his behalf by a lady who would take him out of the hospital at weekends to be entertained by his friends and admirers.

I’ve always been so proud of the fact that Woody and I were friends in this fashion. I began to record songs on tape for Woody and one letter from Sid Gleason, told me how he would sing along with me.

As the years rolled by and Woody died in 1967, I discovered traditional Irish Music and also started writing my own songs, a lot of them very much in Woody’s style.

It has been one of the plus moments of this pandemic that I have had a lot of time to come back to Woody’s songs and in the last year, I have begun to record an album of his songs with the help of a grant from the Arts Council.

Watch: Never Tire of the Road – Andy Irvine salutes Woody Guthrie

I’m delighted to showcase some of these songs at the NCH with my old friend and brilliant musician, Rens van der Zalm. The repertoire that we will be presenting is largely less well-known songs of Woody’s and will represent some historic moments in American history that may well be new to the audience.

Songs about Tom Mooney, whose parents were Irish, and who was wickedly and wrongly convicted of setting off a bomb at a parade in San Francisco, Henry Wallace, who was nearly President of the USA after FDR died in 1945 and who stood for President in 1948, a song about Charles Lindbergh and “The America First” committee who wanted to keep US out of the second World War – until Pearl Harbour intervened.

Andy Irvine presents his Woody Guthrie Project at the National Concert Hall, Dublin with Rens van der Zalm On 2nd October, as part of the Tradition Now festival – find out more here.

Andy Irvine presents his Woody Guthrie Project at the National Concert Hall, Dublin with Rens van der Zalm On 2nd October, as part of the Tradition Now festival – find out more here.