Cathie Ryan is an Irish singer from Detroit, which, at first blush, sounds a little like salsa from New York City.
Listen to her sing, and the blush immediately fades.
The first-generation Irish-American, daughter of two Irish immigrants, Ryan grew up steeped in the music and culture of her ancestral homeland at home and spent plenty of time with her grandparents and extended family in the Emerald Isle.
“The roots to Ireland within me are strong, but everything that has grown from them has mostly happened here in America,” Ryan told New York Irish Arts in 2012. “So both forces flow through my singing and through every song I choose to sing.”
Ryan joins the Grand Rapids Pops for a St. Patrick’s Day Celebration this week opening on St. Patrick’s Day itself. Associate conductor John Varineau leads the Fox Motors Pops concerts at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 17-18, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 19, in DeVos Performance Hall.
Tickets, still available, start at $18 adults, $5 students. Call Grand Rapids Symphony box office at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or go online to GRSymphony.org.
The Cathie Ryan Band, with traditional musicians Patsy O’Brien on guitar and vocals, Patrick Mangan on fiddle, and Brian Melick on percussion, perform Ryan’s original songs such as Carrick-a-Rede plus a blend of Irish traditional music mixed with rafter-raising jigs, reels and rousing Irish step dancing with special guest dancers, West Michigan’s own Scoil Rince Ní Bhraonáin.
Ryan’s father, Tim, was her first teacher who taught her, not only what to sing and how to sing, but how to “honor” the songs.
“The Old Bog Road” by Teresa Brayton was one of the first songs her father taught her, beginning with the lyrics first.”
“He made me read the lyrics, so I could understand the Great Hunger, what it meant and how it affected Ireland,” Ryan told Boston Irish Reporter in 2012.
“It was very important to him that I understand the background of why that song came to be, why it meant so much to the Irish,” she said. “And he would teach me the phrasing, because that was important, too: ‘This is where you put the pause.’”
Ryan’s father was her first teacher but also her toughest critic.
“He didn’t compliment my singing until I was over 30 –‘You did a good job.’ Even when I was singing professionally, he’d tell me something like ‘You’re over singing.’”
“‘Dad,’ I’d say, ‘there were no monitors on the stage,’” she recalled in the Boston Irish Reporter interview.
“‘Doesn’t matter,’” he replied. ‘You need to find a way to sing quietly.’”
Though Ryan grew up surrounded by the music of Motown in Detroit, her father sang tenor and her grandmother was a fiddler and a singer.
Ryan’s family’s musical legacy, coupled with the early influences while growing up as a member of The Gaelic League and Irish-American Club of Detroit, nurtured Ryan’s love of her heritage.
In the 1980s, she left Detroit to go to college in New York City, eventually earning a degree in English literature and secondary education at City University of New York. In the Big Apple, Ryan sang in a band, married a musician, became a mother, and set aside her own musical career. Then she got divorced and started over.
In 1987, Ryan became the lead vocalist for Cherish the Ladies, which broke ground and found success as an all-female Irish band writing songs including the title track for Cherish the Ladies’ 1992 album, The Back Door.
Cherish the Ladies, which has performed previously with the Grand Rapids Symphony, was a game changer not only for Ryan but for Celtic music and its fans.
“It wasn’t a bunch of girls in ball gowns looking all dainty, but a group of women up there who were playing the songs and the tunes,” she told Boston Irish Reporter. “This definitely had an impact on how Irish music was perceived; it wasn’t just a man’s show any more.”
A 1995 appearance on a PBS-TV special, A Christmas Tradition with Tommy Makem, starring the Irish folk musician and storyteller, gave Ryan the break she needed to launch a solo career. Cathie Ryan has been in the vanguard of Irish music ever since.
Twice she’s been named Irish Female Vocalist of the Decade by LiveIreland and honored as one of the Top 100 Irish Americans by Irish Music Magazine. Together with Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford, former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelly and others, Ryan was one of the first people inducted into the Michigan Irish Hall of Fame.
Ryan lived in Ireland for nine years, moving back to the United States in 2012. Today, when she’s not on the road, she teaches Irish myth and folklore and regularly leads tours of Ireland.
Her most recent album, Through Wind and Rain, is bringing her music to a much wider audience. A desire to pay special attention to music of women has remained with her. Most of the songs on the CD released in 2012 were written by women. Four songs from it will be part of her show with the Grand Rapids Pops.
“Women have a hand in every single song on the CD,” she said to New York Irish Arts. “I love that, and it makes a difference. You can hear it.”