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The Tannahill Weavers

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Biography

One of Scotland's premier traditional bands, the Tannahill Weavers distinguished themselves from their contemporaries with a tight, hard-driven Celtic sound that used highland bagpipes, guitar, flute, bouzouki, and fiddle as its melodic core while also boasting a rich vocal blend based around primary members Roy Gullane and Phil Smillie. Named after Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (the "Weaver Poet"), the group spent the 1970s establishing themselves throughout the U.K. and Europe, performing with an almost rock & roll intensity, and releasing a strong trio of independent albums, including their eponymous 1979 third LP. Turning their sights on America, the Tannahills found a lasting home on Green Linnet Records, where they released key albums like 1984's Passage, 1987's Dancing Feet, and 1990's Cullen Bay. In spite of a rotating staff of bagpipers, a lean unit emerged in the 1990s that would become the band's defining lineup throughout their next two decades and was responsible for later studio highlights like 1998's Epona and 2004's Arnish Light. After a period of downtime, the Tannahills reemerged in 2018 to celebrate their 50th anniversary with Òrach, their first album in fifteen years. The Tannahills' original members came together in 1968 in the town of Paisley, just outside of Glasgow. In the process of establishing themselves in Scotland's traditional-music circuit, the founding lineup turned over a handful of times, eventually settling on Gullane (vocals, guitar), Smillie (flute, whistles, bodhran, vocals), Hudson Swan (bouzouki, fiddle), and Dougie MacLean (fiddle, mandolin, guitar), the quartet responsible for the band's first LP, 1976's Are Ye Sleeping Maggie. By this point they were folk festival mainstays around the U.K. and Europe with a repertoire that skewed mostly in favor of traditional material native to Scotland. Over the coming decade, the personnel continued to shift, often from album to album, with Gullane and Smillie acting as helmsmen of an ever-changing, though musically consistent ship. The addition of highland bagpiper Alan MacLeod on 1978's The Old Woman's Dance introduced a signature element that immediately set the band apart from other traditional Scottish groups, like Silly Wizard and the Battlefield Band, and would remain a pillar of their sound for the duration of their career. The use of organ foot pedals to add a heavier bass dimension also made its first appearance in the group around this time, adding further distinction and a rock-infused energy to their formula. 1981's IV, the Tannahills' fourth LP, was one of their strongest and yielded a number of songs that became signatures of their live shows, especially the fiery "Johnnie Cope/The Atholl Highlanders" set. It also marked the debut of Les Wilson in the bouzouki/bass pedal role. He sat out the rest of the '80s but became a mainstay of their lineup from the '90s onward. Having successfully toured Canada a number of times as a still independent band, the Tannahills soon made inroads into the U.S. market and, with 1984's Passage, settled in for a lengthy tenure on the Celtic-oriented American label Green Linnet Records (Altan, Patrick Street, Capercaillie), where they quickly became a dominant force. Original piper MacLeod soon departed, and his replacement, Iain MacInnes, made his debut on 1986's Land of Light, as did Ross Kennedy in the rotating bouzouki/bass pedal slot. With the addition of fiddler Stuart Morison, this same lineup recorded another Tannahills classic, Dancing Feet, the following year. The group ended the decade with their first greatest hits compilation, Best of the Tannahill Weavers 1979-1989, which included key tracks from their pre-Green Linnet era. By 1990, they had become a widely established international touring act, logging hundreds of shows a year and a lengthy repertoire of traditional songs and tasteful originals courtesy of Gullane and Smillie. For their first outing of the decade, Cullen Bay, they enlisted fiddler John Martin who, along with the returning Les Wilson, comprised the durable core of the Tannahills' lineup in the '90s and '00s. Kenny Forsyth replaced MacInnes as the piper for The Mermaid's Song (1992) and Capernaum (1994) and then was replaced himself by Duncan J. Nicholson on Leaving St. Kilda (1996), Epona (1998), and Alchemy (2000). Released in 2003, Arnish Light introduced yet another piper in Colin Melville and also proved to be the Tannahills' last proper studio album for fifteen years. By 2006, Green Linnet had fallen on hard times and its catalog was shuffled around to various parent companies, eventually ending up as part of Compass Records. The Tannahill Weavers followed suit, and their next release, the half-live, half-studio Live and In Session album, was issued by Compass in 2006. During the decade that followed, the band's activity slowed significantly, with members exploring solo and side projects including Smillie's 2013 release Sound of Taransay and Gullane's 2014 collaboration with Dutch accordionist Erik De Jong, Jink and Diddle. Along the way, they were inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame and welcomed another piper, Lorne MacDougall, into their midst. In 2018, to honor their 50th anniversary, the Tannahills released their 19th studio album, Òrach, and embarked upon a lengthy tour. ~ Timothy Monger
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