I still vividly remember the first time I heard Maura O’Connell sing. It was at the Wheatland Music Festival in 1981. I was walking through the woods behind the main stage, from the workshop lane to the dance stage, when I heard her. The sound literally stopped me in my tracks; her voice and singing was that arresting. I immediately changed my plans and my course and ran to the main stage. She was singing “Maggie,” one of her signature songs then, and still a favorite in her performances to this day. Her voice was exquisite–a rich alto, the way honey would sound if it could sing. But what struck me most was the emotional power her voice carried. “Maggie” is a melancholy love song, written from the vantage point of an elderly man still grieving for the loss of the love of his youth. When I heard O’Connell that day, more than thirty years ago, she was only in her early twenties, yet she imbued that song with all the authenticity and life experience of a much older person. Her rendition conveyed compelling pathos, yet no mawkish sentimentality or bathos.
O’Connell was then the lead singer with De Danann, one of the premier traditional Celtic bands of the time, and she, and the band, were on one of their early U.S. tours. In the course of those travels, O’Connell met many American musicians, including genre-blending pioneers such as banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and dobro master Jerry Douglas. In the next few years her musical horizons widened to include their music. By 1986 she was living in Nashville and recording with many of the top artists in country, newgrass, and beyond.
O’Connell is a bit of a rarity among folk musicians in that she’s not a songwriter, nor does she accompany herself on any instrument. (Though to call her “only” a singer is like calling Segovia “only” a guitar player.) Her most recent recording, the 2009 Grammy-nominated Naked With Friends, spotlights the purely vocal aspect of her work. Don’t let the slightly suggestive title mislead you–it contains no bawdy or party songs. Rather, the title refers to the fact that the album features only voices, no instruments. O’Connell’s instrument has aged beautifully. It is still a striking voice, retaining much of the loveliness and spectacular technique of her youth, while her ability to find and express the essence of any song she sings in a huge range of genres, from traditional Irish to contemporary country, has only grown over the years.
When she comes to the Ark on January 20 she, as convention and custom command, will be fully clothed and accompanied by a duo on bass and guitar. I’m sure they will be terrific, but I’m equally certain that it is O’Connell’s voice that will keep me riveted in my seat.