A few years ago, Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney briefly considered assembling the numerous tracks the group had recorded with various guests and releasing them in a single compilation album.
Then it hit him: Why not call up a few friends, go into the studio and do it right? At the very least, it'd be an excuse for one fine party.
As the band that never missed any excuse for a party, the Chieftains turned that one into "Long Black Veil," the new album featuring Ireland's preeminent traditional-music band backing Mick Jagger, all of the Rolling Stones, Sting, Sinead O'Connor, Van Morrison, Ry Cooder, Mark Knopfler, Marianne Faithfull and, last but hardly least, Tom Jones, with a full-throttle performance of the "Tennessee Waltz."
The album has met with rave reviews and has become the Chieftains' biggest seller ever, topping 500,000 copies, enough to be certified gold, and stands at No. 26 on Billboard's pop album chart in the six weeks since it was released.
Yet to Moloney, "it was just another project," not all that different from "Another Country," the 1992 album of collaborations with country singers that earned the Chieftains a Grammy for best traditional folk album, one of three Grammys the band has won.
The matchups of singer to song in "Long Black Veil" were largely Moloney's idea. Ry Cooder, for instance, had come to play guitar on a couple of tracks, but when Moloney heard him sing during a break, he thought his voice would be ideal for "The Coast of Malabar," a lilting calypso-flavored song Moloney's grandmother used to sing.
The idea of pairing Marianne Faithfull's voice with the melancholy "I Wish I Were a Maid Again" stretches back almost 30 years, Moloney said. She commented to him how much she liked it after hearing the Chieftains play it at a concert she went to in the mid-'60s with Mick Jagger. ("They were, shall we say, holding hands at the time?" Moloney said with the elfin grin that rarely leaves his angular face.)
As for Jagger singing the classic American folk tragedy "Long Black Veil," Moloney said: " 'The Long Black Veil' to me has a complete Irish feel about it. It's a typical Irish subject, and the air isn't very much removed from an Irish ballad. So it was very easy for me to get into it, to play and arrange some Irish music to go with it."
The only rule the Chieftains have observed in hooking up with everyone from Irish classical flutist James Galway to American country guitar great Chet Atkins to a Chinese folk orchestra is this:
"We never like to get into any situation that doesn't fit. There are a lot of big superstars who if you take them away from behind a guitar and away from their bands, put them in a room and ask them to sing a song, they find it very difficult," Moloney said. "That was not the case with this group."
All of the tracks were done with the guest and the Chieftains all sitting in a circle in the studio playing simultaneously--no cross-country, dubbed-in duets.
One of the few gripes about the album in the press came from the Irish Times. At the end of a generally favorable review, the writer asked: "When are we going to get a pure drop of the Chieftains, without all the extra starry stuff mixed in?"
To that, Moloney laughed and said, "We're an island of begrudgers."
He then one-upped the Irish Times, begrudgingly noting that the Chieftains' previous album was "The Celtic Harp," a collection of 17th- and 18th-Century Irish-harp tunes. "You can't get any more traditional--and they never bothered a barney to review it!"
On the other hand, Moloney acknowledges the numerous high-concept projects the Chieftains have done in recent years. Their next one, coming on the heels of the Famine Symphony album to be released in the fall, is a collection of songs from the Celtic-influenced Galicia region of northwestern Spain.
Moloney offers no apologies. Since its first album in 1964, the group has done 28 out-and-out Chieftains albums.
"After all that and three Grammys, it's sort of a license to dabble a bit," Moloney said. "Hopefully the fans won't think we are selling out in any way. We're still very much a traditional band. That's our forte--traditional Irish music. We'd be mad to try anything else.
"And who on earth would want to see me dressed up in tights like Mick Jagger, prancing around the stage? I think I'll leave all that to Mick."