Imagine old friends getting together to play one last session, nine days before one of their members passes on from cancer. Folks who have an ease of playing together that can only come with the years. This is that album, recorded in 1993 and assembled on disc in 1999. The Cullivoe Band, a country dance band playing in the Shetland style, consist of Willie Hunter on fiddle, Ivor Scollay on lead accordion, Gordon Jamieson on second accordion, Margaret Couper on Piano, Alan Scollay and Victor Jamieson sharing on bass guitar duties, and Ian Tulloch on drums. The album is straightforward with unembellished production that doesn’t seem to suffer from being recorded in one afternoon. The selections are mostly happy tunes, as befits a dance band and a final musical celebration for an old friend.
Perhaps it’s a bit too obvious to describe this music as a blend of Nordic and Scottish styles, although that’s a good place to start. I was reminded of some old-time music from the US, if you can somehow imagine it without the Appalachian twang. Some of these numbers would have done well on those stations in Wisconsin that played polkas and other accordion music. One might describe it as Cape Breton music with really prominent accordions. Shetland melodies favor pentatonic rhythms, with flowing accents provided by bowed open strings, suggesting a kinship with some Swedish fiddle music.
The album begins with a jolly set of “Shetland Reels,” all composed by Ronnie Cooper. The second and third sets, called “Norwegian waltzes” and “4/4 Marches,” respectively, would have been right at home in the repertoire of many old-time North American ensembles, particularly those from the upper Midwest. By the fourth set, entitled “Shetland Waltzes,” the very much prominent accordions reminded me that Lawrence Welk is still on the television here in the Toronto. This set also features a nice solo from Hunter. The fifth set returned to reels that again reminded me of old-time country again, although the tunes, “Jimmy Allan,” “The Airlie Bobbies” and “Angus MacLeod,” all hail from the Shetland region.
Next up is a short fiddle solo, composed by Hunter, a waltz with a sweet tune entitled “Ivor and Eleanor’s Wedding.” Two more bright sets of dance tunes follow, with fiddle and accordion carrying jaunty melodies. Among these I particularly liked “Miss Forbes’ Farewell to Banff” and “Billy Thom’s Reel.” The album slows down for another fiddle solo with an air called “Ove Joenson.” The two-step that follows, another Hunter composition called “Gutrom the Dane,” made me swear this last session was held in Wisconsin, out of doors during the summer with lemonade and lots of guests wearing pastels. It’s a bit uncanny how much this music seems to share a lot with old time North American traditions. I became convinced that Willie Hunter must have spent at least one lifetime in North America, back when people still played music and mixed the styles of the immigrant traditions in their small communities.
Some of the North American feel may be due to the selection of tunes, as well as the prominent accordions. Three sets carry the description “Canadian” in their titles, although oddly “The Snoring Miss Campbell” and “The Carousel Waltz” also seem the most typically Scottish to me. The last two sets feature brisk marches and reels. “The Balkan Hills” is a great tune, as is “Dick MacDougal’s Reel.”
Willie Hunter was a well-known fiddle player in the Shetlands and has brought this style of music to a wider audience outside the Islands as a solo performer. Yet he never dominates the ensemble or grabs the center stage in the ensemble. The astute reader may have observed that fiddles do not usually dominate ensembles with not one, but two accordions and a piano, and I would have to agree. But my sense is that Cullivoe probably could have put the fiddle out front, if he wanted to, but deferred because he enjoyed the sound of the ensemble.
Shetland’s traditional music has gone through something of a renaissance in the past decades thanks to the efforts of senior players who began to record the music and teach it to the young in the 1950’s, particularly the late Tom Anderson. My first exposure to this tradition was when I saw Anderson’s “Shetland’s Young Fiddlers” ensemble play here in Canada. Hearing Willie Hunter and the Cullivoe band makes it clear that young players draw from a rich and unique style of fiddle playing. The disc will appeal to fans of both the accordion and fiddle who are fond of both Celtic and old-time music.
This album is a testament to musicianship, a sense of friendship that comes through in the many cheerful numbers and relaxed renditions of songs, as well as to the legacy of a respected fiddle player. It has also given me a new theory of how Shetlands traditions might have influenced traditional North American music. If only I could work out how such small islands could have produced enough excess population to create this influence! Or perhaps the theory of Willie’s past lives is amore plausible explanation for the old time feel of this album.