Sharon Shannon’s latest is an album that cries out for a whole new kind of warning label: “Caution: contents may cause cardiac arrest in Irish traditional music purists.” Libertango (Compass) is as lovely and lively as any of her releases since her 1991 eponymous debut, but the “liberty” hinted at in the title is immediately apparent as the tracks breeze by: a waltz here, a Fleetwood Mac cover there, even what may be a first: a hip-hop tune that bounces along to the sweet whistle of a button accordion.
If the album is somewhat of a surprise to some, it shouldn’t be to those who have followed Shannon’s unique trajectory through Irish music. Born and raised in County Clare, Shannon said she was raised by parents who were “mad for music” and encouraged their children to pick up instruments. Shannon recalled playing to get her parents dancing and at 12 years old, the dimpled cute-as-a-button accordionist was playing at local ceilidh dances.
As she hit 20, Shannon was earning a living as a musician in Doolin, a scant string of buildings that passes as a village in western Ireland, but which has a reputation for great music sessions in its pubs. One of the few female instrumentalists, Shannon met the members of the Irish rockers the Waterboys and was eventually asked to first record and then tour with the band.
Though she had 24 tracks down for what she hoped to be her debut album, she put them on the shelf while she toured the world with “the lads.” For two years, she lived the life a rock star, staying in plush hotels, riding in limos, playing for huge crowds. But more importantly, the experience exposed her to a new world. She played with what was for her new instruments—Hammond organ, electric bass—and heard music from around the world.
When she again turned her attention to her own solo album, only two tunes made it onto the final version. “I had a new and completely different idea of what I wanted the album to sound like the second time around after the experience of playing with the Waterboys,” she said.
The first album didn’t sound revolutionary, but it did include tunes that fell outside the traditional bounds of Celtic music. What was surprising though was that the album became ubiquitous in Ireland, though she snuck on Portuguese, Cajun and French Canadian tunes. Shannon said the legions of Waterboys fans helped propel the album up the charts. But it also got a boost from her two tracks on a compilation of Irish female musicians called A Woman’s Heart. Shannon had the only two instrumental tracks on the album, which sold 500,000 copies, an all-time record for Ireland.
While her subsequent albums were similarly eclectic, Shannon’s albums with the Nashville-based Compass label have seen her truly declare her independence. The Diamond Mountain Sessions saw S