I have to say, I’m not too educated about Ireland. I took an Irish Lit class in college and so accustomed myself to some authors, but my knowledge is still not far above nothing. Since my last name has English roots, I was often asked my opinion about inclement Irish issues, being the evil enemy that the British Empire was, and I took it upon myself to further be immersed in Irish experiences and attended the second largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the world in Savannah, GA.
Although I learned a little, I still lacked a lot. Although I have interviewed The Keltic Cowboys, my knowledge is still next to null. The class then offered a true Irish experience: a trip to Ireland! Despite my teacher telling people that I partook, I am sad to say I had to decline the destination, but am glad and also somewhat concerned that she thinks I went with her.
Finally, one cold day at an environmental education fair, I found an Irish folk band. Matt Smith was sitting behind a booth selling candles that he himself created. After getting to know him better I realized that not only did we both believe in the healing power of elements and tried to be environmental educators, but we both lived the night-shift lifestyle and found much meaning in music.
Founded by Matt Smith and Matt Heusel of The Trainjumpers, Black Slaney has seen its share of snares, but has been resilient and has found a consistent conclusion with current members: Matt Smith on tenor banjo, guitar and vocals, Erin Huffman on guitar and vocals, Greg Miller on fiddle, and Jim Simpson on mandolin. Black Slaney plays traditional Irish folk music mixed with acoustic roots that makes it authentic and all their own. Their music tells troubled tales and tempts you with its tune. It beckons you to boogie, calls on you to cavort and frolic in its fun. I am happy to have a helping of indigenous Irish music, brought to us by Black Slaney.
Sara Fincham: Are any members of the band Irish? Black Slaney is a traditional Irish folk band. Do you worry that people will question your legitimacy?
Matt Smith: My ancestors were originally from Ireland. They moved into Scotland and then into the United States generations ago. I have always felt a close connection with Ireland but it wasn’t until I met my wife that Ireland played such an important role in my life. My wife’s maiden name is Daugherty and she comes from the great O’Dochartaigh clan of Donegal Co. Ireland.
I learned about her family’s rich history when we traveled there together in 2005. Her family can trace their history back thousands of years. It’s truly amazing. Jenny’s father, Bill Daugherty, also played a big role in my interest of Irish culture. He was a wonderful poet and writer in the tradition of the Irish bard.
I’m not concerned at all about seeming legitimate. To be honest with you, I am at a point in my life where I play music to have fun. I love Irish culture and history and I play this music because I love it. We’re not out to win any competitions or get a record deal. Our only objective is to have a good time and we want our audience to have fun as well.
SF: Obviously you’re a fan of this music as you perform it. How familiar are you with Ireland, with Irish music? What about it drew your interest?
MS: Ireland’s history is extensive. I am no expert but I am fascinated by it. The music of Ireland is a reflection of the joys and sorrows of its people. Ireland has had some tough times but the Irish people are strong. If you ever go to Ireland you will find the people warm and inviting. Joy seems to emanate from them. I feel that music captures that joy. That is why I’m so drawn to it.
SF: What inspired you to pick up a banjo and how important is it to Irish music?
MS: The type of banjo that I play is a four string Irish tenor banjo. It’s a completely different animal than you hear in American Bluegrass. Regardless of the type, the banjo is one of those instruments that you have to be a little bit crazy to play. I believe there’s something in the DNA of every banjo player that predisposes him or her to play the instrument. It’s like the bagpipes, who would play such an instrument?
People like me are drawn to such despised instruments. You have to have a sense of humor when you play the banjo. The tenor banjo is actually fairly new to Irish folk music. It’s one of those rare instances when an instrument is imported into Ireland from America. You first see it around the early 1900’s but it was popularized by Barney McKenna of the Dubliners in the 1960s. Now it is standard in most traditional Irish folk bands.
SF: Did Erin have to audition, or was that a meeting of the musical minds? How did the group get together?
MS: I’ve known Erin for very long time. I worked at CA House Music from around 1996 to 2003. She used come into the store all the time and we got to know each other pretty well. Black Slaney played for about a year when I felt we were missing something. I was looking for someone with a pure, high voice and instantly thought of Erin. She definitely did not have to audition. I was happy she agreed to join us. At this point she is critical to the band and I couldn’t imagine playing without her.
Black Slaney has gone through a few changes over the last couple years. Matt Heusel and I actually formed the band when we found ourselves with a gig for a St. Patrick’s Day festival at St. Michael’s church. We scrambled to put together a set list of Irish tunes and I fell in love with the idea. I felt it was something that I wanted to do all the time. Adrian Niles actually played that show with us. Matt, Adrian and I have played together in various bands over the years including Rev. Smitty and the Backsliders, Humble Sacrifice (with the fabulous Brianna Litman) and AM63. The three of us were actually the founding members of The Trainjumpers as well. We all have different projects going on now, but Matt still plays with Black Slaney from time to time and he writes all of the original music for the band.
Sometimes Erin and I perform smaller shows as a duo; for larger gigs we get a full band together. My longtime friend and Rev Smitty band mate, Greg Miller, plays fiddle for Black Slaney and Jim Simpson sits in on mandolin when he’s available. Sarah Sigmon also joins us on fiddle from time to time.
SF: You provide another alternative to the local music scene. What does this city offer you, and what, in turn, do you offer it?
MS: I’ve been very fortunate over the past 20 years. As a bass player in the Ohio Valley I have been given the opportunity to play with people like Matt Heusel, Adrian Niles, Roger Hoard, Erin Huffman, Greg Miller, Ed and Robin Mahonen… the list just goes on and on. Wheeling has been a very friendly environment for musicians to get together for a long time. I have made lasting friendships and have had experiences I’ll never forget playing here. That’s what I feel Wheeling has offered me.
In return I offer it my deepest gratitude. I also genuinely want people to have a good time when they come to see us. That’s really the only purpose of Black Slaney. I think we offer a fun, laid back atmosphere for people to enjoy themselves. That is what I want to offer the friendly city.
We have occasionally played a late night bar gig, but more often than that we can be found at outdoor festivals. The band has played some really great small intimate gatherings, parties and even at the local libraries. It’s a versatile mix of music that can fit well into a variety of settings – from the drinkin’ songs to the soul-wrenching ballads, Irish music strikes a chord within many.
SF: Is there any kind of meaning/story behind the Black Slaney name?
MS: Matt Heusel came up with the name. The Slaney (Abhainn na Sláine, meaning “river of health”) River runs in the southeast of Ireland, emptying into the Irish Sea. This river is said to be very dark and in Gaelic, the ancient Irish language, the river is called Dubh Slaney, which translates into Black Slaney.
SF: I know you work and you have a beautiful family, so those things take up a lot of your time, but do you have any shows we can see soon?
MS: Thank you. My wife and girls are wonderful! We do have some shows coming up. The first is one that I am very excited about. We are opening the 16th annual Wheeling Celtic Festival this year. The festival is March 3 and we play from 11 to 11:45am. We have many other gigs the week of St. Patrick’s Day. You can find a complete list at http://www.blackslaney.com. You can check out some videos of past performances at http://www.youtube.com/blackslaney.