Guitar man immersed in traditional music

By Niall O'Driscoll

There’s no doubt he’s best known for his work with Sharon Shannon and Seamus Begley, but to be honest the list of musicians that guitarist Jim Murray has worked with over the years is a bit of a who’s who – Sinead O’Connor, Steve Earl, Shane McGowan, Altan, Mary Black, Jerry Douglas – just a handful of the names that spring to mind.

Jim MurrayHailing from near Macroom, Jim has been immersed in Irish traditional music all his life. He could play melodies on the piano at the tender age of three and within a year, he had discovered his first love – the button accordion. ‘Well my dad had a céilí band, so he was out every weekend when I was growing up. I played the accordion for a few years myself – that was my first instrument, which came in very handy when I started accompanying tunes on the guitar because it meant that I knew a lot of them already.’

It is Jim’s talent as a guitar player, though, that has brought him to the world stage. ‘I had a great teacher in school, he was a science teacher who also happened to be a great guitar player and he taught me all the Beatles stuff and the James Taylor stuff. The more I listened to trad stuff, the more I got into the idea of accompanying it on guitar, and there wasn’t really that many doing it – maybe Arty McGlynn, Steve Cooney and an English guy by the name of Ian Carr. Those kinds of players turned me on to wanting to do it on guitar, because I had been doing it on piano for a good while. I had started a band with some mates called The Living Tradition, and in terms of gigs, after a while the piano got less and less and the guitar got more and more.’

Jim lives in Ardfield near Clonakilty with his wife Kathleen, two daughters Holly and Abbie, and son Finn, who at the time of writing is just a few weeks old. Bearing in mind that he is from near Macroom, Kathleen is Scottish and that they lived in New Zealand for a time, I was interested as to why the Murrays chose to set up home in Ardfield.

‘Well I suppose we had looked at Clonakilty, and we loved the idea of being by the sea. I was always a good swimmer – I’d jump into the water most times of the year. We lived in New Zealand for about a year, right near the water – which was absolutely gorgeous. When we decided to come back to Ireland then we said: ‘right, look, if we’re going back to live in Ireland, we want it to be somewhere by the sea, and Clon was always a good draw for me with the music. We liked Ardfield – we had been here a few times before we had gone to New Zealand so we got on the net before we came back and we saw this place – and we moved here. We love it.’

Jim’s first big foray into the world of the professional musician was with Seamus Begley. ‘Yeah, Seamus was playing with Steve Cooney at the time, and there were some gigs that Steve couldn’t do so I got asked to do them. It was mad really because I was doing gigs around Cork and the odd thing around the country when all of a sudden Seamus rang me – “Look, Steve can’t do a gig in May...” and I said, “Oh right, where is it?,” to which he replied “Japan”. I was only 18 or 19 or something so I was definitely thrown in at the deep end – playing in auditoriums in Tokyo and places. The Sharon Shannon thing came about, probably the following year, and I suppose I’ve been playing with her mainly since 1998.’

Sharon Shannon’s latest album Flying Circus, which is a collaboration with the RTE Concert Orchestra, is in itself a showcase of Jim’s talent not only as a player but as a composer and arranger. ‘Myself and Sharon wrote a lot of the stuff together, some I wrote, some she wrote, and we put them all together. I went through all the chords and all the bass lines with this guy Joe Csibi who was working with the orchestra and then he did orchestral arrangements based on my guitar parts.

‘We’ve done a couple of gigs with the orchestra and they were amazing. It’s a great thing when you’re up there on stage with a 50-piece orchestra playing your own composition. It‘s a great feeling – one of those things that even if you only did it once you’d remember forever. Having said that, it is more of a pressure gig when you are up there with them because you’re watching the conductor as well and if you go off in the wrong direction, they don’t go with you – there’s no room for error. It’s great though and it definitely gives the trad stuff a different dimension – a good crossover. There’s talk of doing a few more gigs with them – maybe even Boston and possibly Sydney.’

I asked Jim if he composes a lot of music. ‘Aaah I do I suppose. There’s always stuff coming into my head and I do write down bits and pieces. I haven’t been recording as much over the last couple of years outside of the project with the orchestra, but there are plenty of tunes there that I might use in the future.’

He has recently launched an innovative online tutorial website for students of Irish traditional guitar accompaniment (www.jimmurraymusic.com). ‘From years of touring and giving various workshops, I realised that there was always a bit of interest in the style of guitar playing that I was doing – be it in Australia or America, everywhere really – and people were always asking me if I had a book or anything because they were intrigued with how to accompany Irish music on the guitar. Even some of my mates, who are great jazzers and guitar players, they still wouldn’t know how to accompany a trad tune. So I just thought that there would probably be a market for the tutorial and as it turns out there is no other online Irish trad guitar tutorial. There is lots of blues guys and jazz guys doing it, but nothing for trad players. The idea is that no matter where you are in the world you can learn to play it – if you’re living in the middle of Idaho or somewhere the chances are you’re not going to find anyone who’s going to teach you how to do it.’

Jim believes in maintaining a healthy balance between ordinary day-to-day life and that of the travelling, working musician – something he achieves in fine style by running the family furniture business in Macroom when not on tour. ‘I love the shop and the day-to-day thing because I actually don’t really like touring that much to be honest. I mean I love being in places like Australia and so on, but as for heading off for long periods of time – I really don’t like that at all. I find it very disjointed and boring – all the hanging around. I did it for years but I had enough of it. I have no desire to go off on long tours. It can also be a bit lonely and I love being at home with my family. I’d rather be digging a hole out the back than off somewhere trying to pass the time.

The way it is now though with the shop, I really enjoy getting away for a couple of days to play music, but it is all about balance really. When I’m doing the furniture, I appreciate the music, and when I’m away at the music and I can’t wait to come back and get straight into the van!’

Given the myriad of musical situations that Jim has found himself in to date – be it performing with orchestras, taking to the stage in Japan with Seamus Begley or appearing on acclaimed TV show The Transatlantic Sessions with the likes of Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain, I asked what his favourite musical experience to date might be.

‘I remember when we made that Tunes album – Sharon, myself, Mike McGoldrick and Frankie Gavin. We made that album up in Galway I remember and we got in the best players that were around at the time. I don’t know what it is, but I still listen back to that album and I really like it. That was a great time, when we recorded that.’

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