This is the American debut on Pinecastle for one of music’s great stories. Niall Toner is an excellent, 68-year-old American country and bluegrass composer and singer who happens to be Irish. His fourth CD, Onwards & Upwards is Toner’s first recorded in the U.S. On Airplay Direct, a four-year-old promo download service for radio, Onwards & Upwards already stands as the 15th most downloaded release of all time of any genre of music with more than 6,000, and third for November 2012 when it appeared.
Onwards & Upwards contains only four indisputably bluegrass pieces. “The Pride And Joy Of Shelby,” in honor of Earl Scruggs, resembles a John Hartford song in lyrics, arrangement, and topic. “William Smith Monroe,” on the other hand, sounds original, dark, and slowly burning—a great song. Toner delivers a bluegrass arrangement of a terrific country novelty in “Million Dollar Bill,” a song I can easily imagine the late Del Reeves or Roy Acuff adapting. “Burren Backstep” concludes the album with a kicking instrumental.
Playing mandolin and singing lead, Toner waxed the album at Loud Studios in Nashville with Keith Sewell producing and playing guitar, electric guitar, piano, mandolin, and fiddle. The pickers include Rob Ickes on resonator, bass great Viktor Krauss, and Ashby Frank on mandolin. One can hear the elevated level of musicianship and production quality compared to Toner’s quite substantial earlier recordings.
Niall Toner discovered the music of Bill Monroe as a small boy in Dublin and later drew inspiration from American old-time revivalists such as the Fuzzy Mountain and Highwoods String Bands. As a national radio host since the 1970s and writer, he became Ireland’s best known authority on American country music. Meanwhile, his vocation of songwriting opened doors with even Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman recording one of his pieces, as have the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Barry & Holly Tashian, Albert Lee, and Special Consensus. Perhaps most heard of his compositions is “Nuns Island Reel,” featured in the video game smash hit, Grand Theft Auto IV. Another made it on to the new ABC TV series, Nashville. He formed the Niall Toner Band, with which he still tours, in County Carrow in 2001. Previously, he belonged to the Lee Valley String Band in Cork, the Sackville String Band in Dublin, and Hank Halfhead & the Rambling Turkeys.
Toner wrote or co-wrote all 11 titles on Onwards & Upwards. “Judge And Jury,” the lead-off track, is a classic American country song, driven by mandolin and reso-guitar with the memorable line: Nothing concentrates the mind like a hanging they say. “Bling” shows his ability to comment on current trends in the clever lyrics to a traditional honky-tonk song. “Tomorrow” is a duet that compares well to Gram Parsons and Emmylou, while the tremendous “Way Of A Wanderer” occupies the lovely acoustic, but not exactly bluegrass space most often associated with the late Kate Wolf.
Toner is the real deal, producing an excellent album for his U.S. debut that attempts to show his full range. That may be a bit too broad a task for any one CD. “Lock And Key,” a fine Americana song, has enough of a bluegrass flavor to fit in, but the Irish singer-songwriter piece, “Sweet Bunclody Girl,” seems too much of a stretch. (Pinecastle Records, 2881 NC Hwy. 106., Columbus, NC 28722, www.pinecastlemusic.com.)AM