The 19th Street Band’s Long Road Home | Interview
Open House Festival, Bangor • 05/06 August ’17
By Cara Gibney
Meghan and Caolaidhe (Cally) Davis of the 19th String Band were enjoying the sun as they sat at the wooden table outside the Dirty Duck in Holywood. Now professional musicians, both had spent years waiting on tables while they gradually gathered together the members of their band – and the skills they have honed over those years came in handy as the skies suddenly opened on us while we talked, and had to run for shelter. Cally grabbed plates and coffee cups, seemingly balancing them all on the side of his hand as he dashed inside. Not a drop spilt or splashed.
The (mostly) American four-piece, the 19th String Band, have brought their own brand of country-folk-rock and roll to Northern Ireland for shows in Belfast, and as part of this year’s Open House Festival in Bangor. They took time out from sound checks and chasing up converters to talk to CultureHub about where they came from and what they have in store.
Cally left his hometown of Holywood Co. Down for America back in 2005. He had taken part in a programme in which he was sponsored to stay and work in the U.S. by an Irish bar “just outside DC in Marilyn.” A programme that offered a job and some grounding for a 25 year old musician who travelled the Atlantic to follow his dream. “I got friendly with a guy from Derry over there” he told me, explaining the paths and pitfalls of forging his musical career. It’s a story of long hard graft, risks, mistakes, successes, and never, ever, giving up.
It is also the story of a marriage made in music. Cally’s new band needed a fiddle player. “I knew a person who worked with Meghan who worked in a bar in Chinatown,” so they auditioned her. It seems that by the time she had finished the audition, he was smitten. “Yes he auditioned me to be his wife” Meghan chuckled. “Everybody in that band said Cally don’t do it, you’re going to mess up the band,” he interjected. They were both laughing as they told the tale. “They could see our attraction to each other right away. The chemistry was right there.” It still is.
Roll forward several months and Cally “moved in with Meghan in 19th Street, North Arlington. The other band broke up and we started a new one. We had this gig and we didn’t know what to call ourselves. So we thought hey! We live on 19th Street let’s just call ourselves the 19th Street Band, that sounds good enough for now. We can always change it …”
The name has stuck, and the band has progressed from a part-time two-piece to the professional set- up we see today with Cally on guitar, kick drum and occasional harmonica while Meghan plays mandolin, “tambourine and the kazoo; that’s important!”
Meghan’s key instrument of choice however is the fiddle, which she started to play when she was just six years old after seeing older children in school playing the violin. Starting on the Suzuki method (which she did all through college) she took weekly lessons with a private teacher, and played in a youth orchestra. But she was interested in playing the violin beyond being in an orchestra and this veered her onto a different path, with its own specific influences. She learned some Irish fiddle tunes, then started listening to music like the Dixie Chicks “because there is a fiddle player in the band, and she was a girl, and she was awesome.”
The discipline of learning classical violin has helped her new career in many ways, but has also made things tricky. “When I first went for the audition they started to play a tune I hadn’t heard before,” she explained. “I said OK give me the [sheets of] music and I’ll play, because I was always taught to read music. Cally said there is no music to read, you just play, just make it up, it’s in the key of D. But it was difficult to use my imagination.” Her formal teaching helped her with chords, with orchestration. It helped her to “hear harmonies and to find them and to play, but I was fearful to play at first without [sheets of] music because I was scared of playing something wrong. In classical music that is how you feel. You have to play what is there.”
Despite all this though (and perhaps slightly because her future husband was on the interview panel), Meghan passed that band audition, and the rest is history. The 19th String Band now also boasts Brian White on bass and Patty Dougherty on drums, offering a repertoire ranging from Hank Williams to Jungle Book, Johnny Cash to their own original material.
However it has taken time, risks, and losses to get here. Cally gradually cut down his shifts “bartending” as he slowly made the transition over. Meghan, who was working as a high school teacher, needed to think long hard about shifting career, but as often happens – time made the decision for her. “It was just too much to do gigs at night” she explained, “and then I was getting up at 6 a.m. and teaching high school students all day long. So I thought if we’re going to do this we need to go 100%.”
That was three years ago and they haven’t looked back. With around 230 shows a year including residencies, private parties, and a growing fan base in DC, Meghan and Cally Davis are a tight team. “I think the pair of us hold each other up like bookends. If I was doing this on my own I wouldn’t be able to do it 230 times a year” Cally admitted.
In March they released The Things That Matter, their first album of original material. “Some of them are old songs and some of them are new,” Cally told me. “I get home from some of the shows and I’m all wound up. I press record on my iPhone and I play whatever comes out of me. Often there will be little riffs that are quite catchy, and little songs, and I let them be and then I come back to them later on.”
It is an album of hopes, dreams, and the extremely personal. Take title track ‘The Things That Matter’ for example. “I really think it was channelled,” Cally told me of the deeply personal song he wrote for Meghan. “I got back into the house and Meghan was still teaching at the time. This was after a show and I got back in about 2am in the morning. Meghan said write me a song so I don’t have to teach anymore.”
As Cally was explaining this, Meghan started to nod her head, then started to repeat to me what she had said to him that night. “Write me a song so I don’t have to do it anymore. I’m too tired, I need you to make a hit song so that we can make money.” They were laughing as they remembered the scene. “So I pushed play on the iPhone” Cally continued. “I didn’t even know what I was going to play, I was just kind of playing these three chords over and over … I put a rhythm to it and all of a sudden the melody came to me. I started singing this melody … about 30 seconds into this recording the words came to me all of a sudden. It’s probably one of the most personal things I’ve written in my life. It’s about Meghan. It’s a love song really.” Meghan was still laughing. “Yeah, we were married about three years already.”
19th Street Band has already played two shows in Belfast, but if you haven’t managed to catch either of those they are playing three more shows at the Open House Festival in Bangor. “Expect fun. Expect a lot of energy” they told me. There will be a mix of covers and their own material, and don’t be surprised if they jump out into the audience to get everyone dancing.
August 5 @ 8:00 pm – 8:30 pm Moondance Event – Open House Festival
August 5 @ 10:00 pm – 1:00 am The Goat’s Toe – Open House Festival
August 6 @ 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm Bangor’s Ward Park – Open House Festival