OK, granted, Randal Bays already was a serious musician before he took up Irish fiddle. He started on trumpet when he was 8, and went on to make his mark as a classical guitarist.
All the same, Randal Bays’ subsequent accomplishments as a fiddler, universally hailed as one of the most expressive and creative of his generation, is all the more remarkable in light of these facts: a.) He stumbled into the Irish musical tradition completely by accident, and b.) He is self-taught.
Among Irish musicians, the story of Bays’ introduction to traditional music has passed into legend. The story goes like this: One night in 1978, while accompanying a couple of friends to the Medieval Inn in his Portland, Oregon, stomping grounds, Bays witnessed the glorious spontaneity of a traditional Irish music session for the very first time.
He recalls that fateful evening.
“It was raining hard,” he says. “I had some friends who were involved in Irish music. I didn’t know anything about it, really. I’d heard some Chieftain albums. These friends, I thought they were really pretentious, going around wearing their caps and drinking Guinness. But they took me to hear this music, and that’s what did it. This was the first time I’d heard really great traditional music played in a session atmosphere and it really got to me.”
Bays remembers being impressed by both the music itself and the camaraderie of the musicians. In short, the same things most Irish musicians love about a session.
“There’s this combination of the potency of the music coupled with the intensity of good feeling that goes on in a good session,” Bays says. “If not unique to Irish music, it’s something that I love. Another thing that really thrilled me was the discovery of a whole room full of people focused on melody. We are all melody, all the time.”
That he gravitated to fiddle of all instruments, he says, is not surprising, given the makeup of sessions in Portland in the 1970s. Sessions back then were 80 percent fiddle, if not more, he says.
Too, Portland had no shortage of truly fine fiddlers to learn from and emulate, such as the virtuoso Kevin Burke.
As an already gifted musician, Bays wasn’t all that daunted by the prospect of self-instruction, and he set about learning by listening. Only later did he realize that, in teaching himself, he picked up many good techniques—but also a few that did not serve him as well.
“There were people around who were very good players,” he says. “I spent a lot of time with Kevin. With the fiddle, I learned, it’s all in the bowing. Someone at some point has to show you how the bow might work. It’s not intuitive. But basically for me, I was into it several years, and I realized I wasn’t going to progress unless I took it apart and started all over again.”
Did he ever. Not only has he become one of most the creative and expressive Irish fiddlers in America, reknowned for the delicacy and precision of his bow work, but he has also become a much sought-after teacher, sharing what he knows at the prestigious Willie Clancy Summer School and Festival, Catskills Irish Arts Week in New York, the Swannanoa Gathering, among many others. Of course, Bays would also include the Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp in Roche Harbor, Washington, which he co-founded with with Dan Paulson. Bays is equally well-known as a fingerstyle guitarist who has accompanied many of the finest Irish musicians in the world.
He long ago moved up to a fiddle worthy of his mettle, as well. The fiddle he now plays was custom crafted for him by Andranik Gaybaryan, now living and plying his trade in Amherst, Massachusetts. The award-winning Morgan Andersen of Rosalia, Washington, made the bow.
“I love this fiddle. Gaybaryan trained in Russia and he is also a great player. He is one of a handful in people in North America who understand the sound production of these instruments,” Bays says. “The trouble with the fiddle and the bow now is, I can never blame my equipment. If there’s anything wrong, it’s all my fault.”
See if you can catch him in a mistake (good luck) when he appears in concert with guitarist Davey Mathias at the Coatesville Traditional Irish Music Series, 143 East Lincoln Highway, on Saturday, April 30 at 8 p.m. For details, visit: http://www.ctims.info/