return of the tannies

the tannahill weavers: colin melville, phil smillie, roy gullane, john martin, les wilson

scotland's tannahill weavers: colin melville, phil smillie, roy gullane, john martin and les wilson.

There is a Dutch saying Roy Gullane is fond of evoking when discussing the 40-plus year career of the Tannahall Weavers: lekker in je vel.

Loosely translated, that means “sitting comfortably in one’s skin.” That is precisely how he views the current state of the veteran Scottish folk ensemble that performs in Lexington on Monday for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. It will be the band’s first local performance in nearly 18 years.

Fads come and go. And, to be sure, many Scottish and Celtic-inclined ensembles have taken to modernizing their music. Even the Tannahills attempted an electric update on a 1984 recording called Passage. Gullane, the Tannahills’ guitarist, principal vocalist and co-founder, now views that album as “a mistake.”

But for the bulk of its four decade career, the band has embraced tunes that honor Scotland’s history, its poetic and sentimental fancy and even the land itself. And outside of occasional keyboard flourishes, the music is propelled by the strings of guitar, fiddle and bouzouki, the accents of flute and tin whistle and the modest percussion of the hand held drum known as the bodhran.

Oh, yes, there is also the added presence of that beast known as the Scottish Highland bagpipes. Now there’s a sound that knows how to make an entrance without knocking.

“There is always another way to do things, I know,” Gullane said. “But I think we have reached a point now where we have discovered what we do best. Experimentation is exciting. But it can also fall on its face. We realize now what we can do and what we cannot do. We just strive to do what we can do as well as we can.”

Named for Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (and, yes, he was born into a family of weavers), the band has nonetheless brought invention to traditional music. Perhaps its boldest accomplishment has been in finding a role within a folk ensemble for the Highland bagpipes, an instrument usually played alone or in civilian or military pipe bands.

On the Tannahills’ most recent album, 2007’s Live and In Session (a sampler of concert recordings made during a United States tour in 2005 and studio works recorded a year later in the council area of Scotland known formally as the Kingdom of Fife), the pipes initiate a live instrumental medley called The Log Splitter Set but also retreat to support the more studied folk sweep of Dumbarton’s Drums.

“What was difficult in first working with the pipes was just getting everything in tune,” Gullane said. “The Scottish bagpipes play a semitone higher than normal concert instruments. So everything in the band had to be tuned to that.

“Surprisingly, the least of the problems was the infamous bagpipes volume. They’re really not as loud as people think. In fact, we ended up being able to practice in the house at first because we weren’t really bothering the neighbors that much with the sound of the pipes.”

Over a dozen players have passed through the Tannahills during its 40 year history. The one constant remains flutist Phil Smillie, who Gullane knew before they ever began their working lives as Weavers.

“Phil and I were actually working together in the same Glasgow supermarket at one time. So we’ve actually known each other for, oh, 45 years. You just become like brothers after that much time. I consider Phil family. There is no other way to put it.”

Family, yes. But the members currently reside on different shores. Though Gullane remains the voice of the steadfast Tannahills, he left Scotland nearly 23 years ago. For this interview, he spoke by phone from his home in Groningen, in the northern region of The Netherlands.

“Well, I met a Dutch girl a long time ago…”

So now we know why a Scotsman is using a Dutch saying to sum up the current state of his band. But perhaps the real curiosity isn’t how the Tannahills continue to fashion authentic Scottish music while being geographically separated, but how Gullane and Smillie have kept the band afloat for 40 years.

“Do you mean, ‘Why haven’t we disappeared into the mists of time?’ Well, I can’t really put my finger on that,” Gullane said. “We never have put a time frame on what we do. I always hoped I would be playing music for the rest of my life in some shape or form. But it’s like we woke up one morning and, lo and behold, we’ve been on the road for 40 years.

“It’s not a thing you notice until you actually stop and think about it. I don’t even begin to know what happened to the 40 years. Where did they go? I have no idea.”

The Tannahill Weavers and Lambchop perform at 7 tonight for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main. Tickets are $10. Call (859) 252-8888.

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