Ashland's Celtic pride

Why wait until St. Patrick's Day to celebrate the culture and music of Ireland?

The Black Sheep in Ashland has been ground zero for Celtic jams every Sunday for close to eight years. The session is driven by a dedicated group of musicians armed with fiddles, penny whistles, mandolins, melodeons and a booming voice.

Eight years strong and it shows no signs of letting up, says fiddler William Greene.

"There's a strong core of people who keep it going," says Greene, who was among the first batch of musicians to gather at the Black Sheep. "There's an openness, an egalitarianism to the group that brings an accepting sensibility to the group."

Before the weekly jam session became rooted in The Black Sheep, Celtic-inspired musicians from across the Rogue Valley met in each other's homes and sometimes played on the deck of the Siskiyou Pub in Ashland.

"People who are into this music in this area just seemed to find each other," Greene says.

Black Sheep owner Susan Chester allowed the group to settle in on Sunday afternoons from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m., and has enjoyed the bump in business the players brought with them.

"We are busy on Sundays, which is great for the pub," she says. "I think the appeal is the music spans generations. We see grandparents with their children and their grandchildren showing up for the session."

Chester does not pay the musicians, though they do reap the benefits of free beer.

On average, between eight and nine players make it to the pub each Sunday. There's little structure heading into the session, and each musician is open to suggest a tune. The show basically flows in uncharted directions from there.

"There's no pressure to play if you show up," says singer and instrumentalist Jim Finnegan. "If the best thing I can do for the music is not play, that's what I do.

Mostly, I just enjoy the tunes and free beer."

Finnegan, a Chicago native whose voice easily fills the Black Sheep's large space, trades mostly in Irish ballads such as "Finnegan's Wake" and "In the Rare Old Times."

Dennis Dunleavy has been stopping by to listen to the Celtic session for around six years. He says he never tires of the music and has spoken to people on their way through Ashland who make it a point to stop by the Black Sheep on Sunday afternoons.

"It's gotten quite popular over the years," Dunleavy says. "It's nice to see Irish music reach people in the way the session has."

Brian Freeman, who plays a handful of instruments, including the guitar and tenor banjo, says the local Celtic music scene remains strong because of the dedicated fan base living in the area.

"A lot of people really enjoy the music, but not a lot of people know how to play it," Freeman says. "It takes a while to find musicians, but when you do, you sometimes end up playing with them a lot."

The toughest spot to fill in a Celtic band is the singer, Freeman says. There are not a lot of people readily available who understand the language of old Scotch or Irish.

"It can take someone with family experience or who has been around the language to get it," Freeman says. "It can be daunting when you're not used to it."

Freeman's appreciation of Celtic tunes blossomed during his time spent in Scotland, which he describes as his "comfort place."

Greene says the group welcomes musicians of all caliber.

"If anyone is interested in learning to play an instrument, then I would encourage them to show up," Greene says. "They might be able to point you in the direction of a teacher."

One thing the group agrees on is that St. Patrick's Day — as it's celebrated in the United States — bears little resemblance to the holiday in Ireland.

"It's certainly not as robust a celebration in Ireland," Greene says, laughing. "The Yanks might have been a good influence on them with that."

Finnegan says he knows people from Ireland who "are offended by the way we treat St. Patrick's Day" in America.

"You have to remember it is a religious holiday, and sometimes the drinking and parties here don't go over too well with the Irish," he says.

Greene says the holiday has grown in popularity over the years. He remembers living in Hawaii and seeing natives celebrating one of Ireland's patron saints with tourists in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

"It's the American touch that brings the celebratory tone to the event," Greene says. "I do like the way it can draw people of different cultures together."

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