Musicians rarely cite their grandmothers as their inspiration.
But Teague Alexy can credit his grandmother Nora for Irish American, a new collaboration between the folk/roots artist and Trampled by Turtles mandolinist Erik Berry. The album, out Dec. 1, features nine traditional Irish tunes like “Whiskey in the Jar” and “The Wild Colonial Boy” as well as two new original songs.
Alexy’s grandmother was born in Ireland and came to the United States when she was in her early 20s. “She was one of those people who would sing all the time around the house,” Alexy recalls. “She was a real songbird. And she never sang anything besides Irish music.” She learned those songs around the neighborhood, at parties, and at dances. They were passed down not from recordings but person to person, unfiltered.
Alexy absorbed those songs growing up in Philadelphia, but took an interest in hip-hop as a young man. When he moved to Minnesota 15 years ago, he got turned on to roots music and formed Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank with his brother, Ian Alexy. Their sound was influenced by artists like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and Muddy Waters.
“It was a common ground for me and my brother, musically, but it also served as a type of music education,” says Alexy, who never went to music school or had any kind of musical mentor. Hobo Nephews toured the country for a decade, but in the last couple of years, Irish music began to tempt Alexy again, in part because he missed his out-of-state extended family.
In January 2016, Alexy noticed an opportunity to play Irish music at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Duluth and called his “musical brother” Berry to see if he’d want to join in. Alexy couldn’t have picked a better sidekick. Ever since Berry caught a rootsy Irish show during his freshman year at Luther College in Iowa, he was fascinated by that music.
“Some cultures are more known for music than others. Irish and Celtic culture is definitely one of them,” Berry says. He amassed a collection of Irish music CDs via mail-order. When he learned to play mandolin, it was with Irish music in mind. “That was my little secret, I suppose,” Berry says. “I’d play it for other people, but no one seemed to get it like I got it.”
So in 2016, when Alexy asked if Berry wanted to play Irish tunes together, Berry was all in. Though it was meant to be a casual project, Alexy fell back in love with the storytelling and clever rhyme schemes of traditional Irish songs. “They’re beautiful, poetic. There’s almost Biblical power to these songs,” Alexy says.
Many of the songs are crafted to be sing-alongs, ideal for rowdy celebrations or drinking at the pub. Others are wedding songs. All of them encourage listeners to get up on their feet and do a little jig. Don’t even try to sit still.
Because of the communal nature of these songs, Alexy and Berry recruited fellow Minnesotan musicians Ian Alexy, Nicholas David, Jillian Rae, and the band Pert Near Sandstone as featured vocalists. “Some of them are Irish. Not everybody is, but we figured some people have such a high level of musical talent we’d let them pass,” Alexy jokes. “These songs really come directly from the soil. They’re not meant to be sung plainly. They need that energy and whoop and holler.”
Irish American was recorded at producer Ryan Young’s home and named to reflect the influence that Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank and Trampled by Turtles had on its sound.
While Berry doesn’t have the familial memories associated with these traditional songs that Alexy does, he experiences a powerful response to the sounds. “I love the note choices those writers made back when. I love how you can tap into it as a player,” he says.
“These songs weren’t written to make money. They’re not written to be hit songs,” Alexy adds. “They’re written to invoke happiness. They seem to tap into what makes the human spirit joyful.”
Teague Alexy and Erik Berry
When: 7 p.m. Fri. Dec. 15
Where: Dakota Jazz Club
Tickets: $25/$20/$15; more info here