Sharon Shannon is at the head of a list of Irish musicians spearheading a broadening of the traditional music horizons. Thoroughly versed in Irish music, she has not been afraid to mix her playing on accordion and fiddle (she's a double threat) with all manner of different styles -- from reggae to country. Growing up in North County Clare, long a hotbed of traditional music, she was encouraged by local music teacher Frank Custy -- her siblings Garry and Mary both played, too. By the time she was eight, Shannon was already performing in local group Disirt Tola, who released an album in 1984.
That music seemed to be Shannon's real focus became evident when she participated in the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eirann tours of the mid-'80s, which brought her in contact with piano accordion player Karen Tweed, from whom she learned a great deal about style. The next stop was a brief apprenticeship with traditional group Arcady, after which her friendship with Steve Wickham led to an invitation to join the Fisherman's Blues-era Waterboys. Being on the world tour for that album exposed Shannon to plenty she'd never imagined in music. But after 18 months and with the Waterboys becoming more rock-oriented, she took the plunge and quit to begin a solo career.
While she'd appeared alone on the compilation Ceol Tigh Neachtain in 1989, the big step was her self-titled debut, recorded in 1990, with help from Hothouse Flowers member Liam O'Maonlai and U2's Adam Clayton. While largely in the more meditative County Clare style, it did offer a glimpse of the Shannon to come, with pieces from Louisiana and Portugal sneaking into the spare mix. A year later, she appeared on the best-selling compilation A Woman's Heart, which brought her much wider renown and precipitated widespread touring. But she didn't issue another disc until 1995's Out the Gap, which had several tracks produced by British reggae man Dennis Bovell and offered a completely fresh perspective on Irish music, with bits of dub, reggae, calypso, and more fitting organically into the sound. It was adventurous and highlighted Shannon's continually increasing skills on the accordion -- her main instrument -- and fiddle.
Her musical maturity was cemented with Each Little Thing two years later, where she deftly moved between styles, ranging from a cover of "Libertango," an Astor Piazzolla adaptation popularized by Grace Jones, to "Kids," which paired a traditional piece with a Lindsay Buckingham song, and "El Mercado Testaccio," where she musically went to Chile to cover Inti-Illimani. The sheer variety could have made it awkward, but her playing glued it all together. It was followed two years later by the typical contract-fulfilling The Best of Sharon Shannon, a 21-track compilation of her two prior releases, with an added a live cut and some previously unreleased material, making for a holding action while she decided where to go next. The answer came in 2001 and it was go west, young woman, both geographically and physically.
Recorded in Galway on Ireland's west coast, The Diamond Mountain Sessions owed a great deal to American alt-country, as well as Celtic music, which had gone triple platinum in Ireland by the time it was released in the U.S. and helped bring Shannon two Irish awards for Folk Artist of the Year and Best Traditional Female. Featuring a host of guest stars (Steve Earle, John Prine, Jackson Browne, Carlos Nuñez, and Hothouse Flowers), it was a very relaxed affair of songs and sets, in contrast to the more formal Irish Gala, Live from the Kennedy Center, a TV special featuring Shannon. She seemed perfectly at home in both settings, but never more so than on a club stage as she toured America behind the record in spring 2001.
In 2004 she released the album Libertango with guest spots from Sinéad O'Connor and the late Kirsty MacColl. She appeared on Tunes in 2005, a collaboration with Frankie Gavin, Michael McGoldrick, and Judy Murray, and celebrated 15 years of recording with The Sharon Shannon Collection 1990-2005 in 2006. The following year, she teamed up with Mike McGoldrick to record her first studio record since 2003. Renegade was released in August of 2007. Shannon released another compilation in 2008 called Galway Girl: The Best of Sharon Shannon, followed in 2010 by Saints & Scoundrels, an all-new studio collection of genre-bending tunes with an eclectic cast of collaborators including Shane MacGowan, Imelda May, Jerry Fish, Carol Keogh, Justin Adams, the Cartoon Thieves, and the Waterboys. ~ Chris Nickson