May The Road Rise Up To Meet You: The Journey Of Irish Singer-Songwriter Jim Sharkey
For the past five years, singer-songwriter Jim Sharkey has taken the 200-year-old lilt of traditional Irish folk music and placed it in a 21st-century context (with contemporary references to Facebook, Whitney Houston and even the 2019 Women’s World Cup). On his 2019 full-length release "A Lovely Day," Sharkey sings to the theme of home: of finding home, of feeling at home with loved ones, of the nostalgia of remembering his home in Ireland and of making a new one here in North Carolina.
"What are people’s perceptions of Irish music? It could be so many different things. If I think of Irish music, I’m thinking of traditional Irish songs from Irish singer-songwriters. I’m not thinking of Irish vaudeville songs that were manufactured on a notion of what Ireland is and the 'pot-o-gold' thing. I think Irish music is closer to American music than a lot of people perceive.”
On growing up in Ireland:
My parents came over [to America] in the '50s. They did like what most Irish people did: they immigrated. They met each other in New Jersey, and then I was born. But they always wanted to go back [to Ireland], and when I was 5, we moved back. We grew up on a farm, and we had a lot of cows. There wasn’t much to do, so I thought singing a song would pass the time as you’re milking cows.
On being surrounded by American country music in Ireland:
You’d hear certain families driving a tractor, and you could hear them singing above the sound of the tractor as they drove away into the distance. And they’d usually be singing [American] country songs because country was huge in Ireland. I grew up on a lot of country music. A lot of Irish singers would re-record [American] hits over here.
I think [American country music’s] a lot like Irish traditional folk songs. Those things that they’re singing about -- love, heartbreak, hard times, perseverance -- that is what would have appealed to them. Some of the DNA of country music originated in the British Isles and Ireland. There’s still that connection.
We used to get a ride to dances when we were 15, and the [driver] who would take us had these big 8-track cartridges, and every one of them were country music. And they were all singing about a “truck-drivin’ woman,” which is funny because you don’t call it a “truck” in Ireland. It’s a lorry. [Laughing.]
On the power of music in encouraging travel and building perception:
I was talking to some lad [in Ireland], and he was telling me that he had never been over here [to America], but that he grew up with a myth of it by listening to James Taylor’s “Carolina In My Mind,” and he said, “I want to go to there. I feel like I know it from the songs.” Irish people have grown up on these mythical places. And the more I thought of it, the more I saw how it’s similar to Americans hearing songs about Ireland. It’s interesting how we build things up in our minds with songs and how stories build perceptions.
On making music after first leaving Ireland:
I did a little bit [of music], but not a lot. It was almost like I lost my voice that I had in Ireland. Singing, I think, is a very psychological thing. I was never a trained singer; I would just sing to the cows. [Laughing] But I would belt it out because you felt like no one was listening to you anyway. There’s a strange open feeling when you feel like you can belt it out … it’s effortless, transcendent, and you’re placed on another plane. When I came over to [America], those realizations and pressures of not letting people down or your family down after having come here … it just weighed on me. And I couldn’t sing like I used to. But slowly over the years, around 2013 or 2014, I thought, 'To heck with it.' I realized that I’m not going to be like I was when I was a teenager singing.
On his 2019 full-length release “A Lovely Day":
I really love the old Irish traditional songs, and I love to sing them too, but if there’s anything that I could contribute to [that canon], it’s to the niche of the immigrant’s experience and how Irish people have grown up over here [in America] and become citizens and have held onto memories that are dear to them.
Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:
Jim Sharkey - “The Old Piano”
Jim Sharkey - “The Highwayman”
Jim Sharkey - “I Have to be Someplace”
Jim Sharkey - “The State it has Me In and the Manchester Reel”
Jim Sharkey - “Beautiful Game”
Jim Sharkey - “My Home in Roscommon”
Jim Sharkey - “Mother Jones”
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