The Irish Rovers plan to kick-start St. Patty’s Day in Ohio with a matinee performance at Lakewood Civic Auditorium on March 3rd.
Formed by Belfast natives George Millar and Jimmy Ferguson after emigrating to Toronto, Canada over fifty years ago, the Rovers have entertained generations with their feel-good traditional music. They’ve also notched a few chart hits in the process, including “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” “Wasn’t That a Party,” and kid favorite “The Unicorn Song.”
There have been numerous lineup changes over the years, but Millar’s been the resident anchorman. Accordionist Wilcil McDowell’s been aboard almost as long, and George’s brother Will and cousin Joe were mainstays until they retired. Ferguson passed away in 1997. Joining Millar and McDowell in Lakewood will be John Reynolds (vocals, whistle), Sean O’Driscoll (banjo), Fred Graham (bodhran), and Joe’s son, Ian Millar (bass, guitar, vocals), who stepped in to fill his dad’s shoes in 2005.
The Rovers released the acclaimed albums Gracehill Fair and Home in Ireland between 2010-11 along with a pair of enthralling DVDs—but it was a more recent video clip of their version of “Drunken Sailor” on You Tube that saw a huge uptick in the band’s popularity. Sensing they might have another hit on their hands, Millar and boys wrote yet another album for the song to have a home. The similarly-titled album Drunken Sailor may have a maritime theme, but there’s still as many jigs and reels as sea shanties. And band’s signature Irish wit is intact.
We were fortunate enough to speak with George on the eve on The Rovers’ 2013 American tour. The songwriter was keen to discuss his lengthy career, the latest album, and plans for the immediate future.
Hello, Mr. Millar! Are you calling from home?
Yes, I’m at Vancouver Island, which is about twenty-six miles across from Vancouver.
And the tour begins in Florida next week, yes?
Yes, we start in Clearwater next week.
That means you’ll get to enjoy a couple weeks of warm, sunny weather before gravitating up the East Coast into the cold.
I know, it’s hard to believe. And how do you pack? How the heck do you pack when you have five days of sunshine and then you’re in the snow and the ice? Should be exciting.
You’re certainly no stranger to touring. Do you recall first starting the band with Jimmy all those years ago? Did you ever think you’ll still be playing this far down the road?
All those years ago I met Jimmy Ferguson in Toronto. We’d just emigrated from Ireland. I was only sixteen years old when I started the band. And even then, it was strictly for a weekend thing. He was a bit older, he was twenty-four, so he could buy beer and cigarettes. So we’d play for a Friday or Saturday night in Toronto at a local folk club, and we thought we had it made! They’d give us twenty-five dollars. So no, we had absolutely no thoughts of this at all. We’re just having a bit of fun, and after about ten years we start saying, ‘Let’s give it another year and see how it goes.’ And I suppose after forty years we’re still saying the same thing! Give it another year and see how it goes. But it’s been a wonderful ride, I’ll tell you that.
Your brother and cousin were in the band for a long time, but you’ve still got a family connection with Ian on bass.
That’s correct. Will retired about eighteen years ago. My brother Will. My cousin, Joe, retired about seven years ago, and his son Ian Millar has taken his spot. And the other boys—John Reynolds, Sean O’Driscoll—they’ve been in the band for twenty-two years. And of course we still call them the rookies! But that’s the way it goes. Ian plays bass, guitar, and he sings. And he tells the odd gag now and again, a little joke.
One of your concert staples is “The Unicorn.” And although you’re a prolific songwriter, that particular tune—the one that essentially launched the band in 1963—was written by children’s author Shel Silverstein. How did your music get paired up with his words?
Well, he’d just put out an album. And it was a really funny album, with things on it like “Boa Constrictor” and “Bury Me in My Shades.” He was a real hippy, I think originally out of San Francisco, and then New York, and then he ended up writing for Playboy Magazine doing these twisted cartoons. So he was quite the character. And we heard this little song and learned it. He hadn’t had much of a tune around it, so we learned it and added to it. And it’s always gone over really well. We’d been playing it in Aspen and Vale to these skiers drinking their rums and their Cokes, and every time we played it everyone would stop and listen to the words. Everybody seems to love that song. So that’s how that came about. When it came time to do our album, we’d been hired by Universal Studios to do an Irish album for March 17th to go with the holiday; the only thing they’d had for that was Bing Crosby. They wanted something that was original Irish. So they hired us to do it, and at the last minute the producer asked if we had something different, because all the rest were Irish drinking songs. “Do you have something a wee bit different?” So we told him we had this one little song everyone seemed to like, and he said “Alright, we’ll record that tomorrow morning when you come in.” So we get in the next day, and there’s Glen Campbell with his guitar, waiting to do it with us. So there was Glen on lead guitar, myself on rhythm guitar, my cousin Joe on harmonica, and we had a bass player—a friend of ours played bass. So that was all we had on that song. And to slip that in the charts between The Beatles and Strawberry Alarm Clock was quite a feat! To this day I haven’t a clue how it happened.
The latest record has a lot of nautical themes. There’s lots of sailing and drinking going on. Was it just a matter of time until The Rovers got ‘round to covering “Drunken Sailor?” Was a seafaring album inevitable?
It has! But because I come from Ireland—it’s an island, and now I live on another small island—it’s just that the sea is in our blood and in our veins. So what’s better than singing a sea song about sailors and what they do, or when they’re on shore? As some of the songs say, they don’t go to church too often, I’ll tell you that!
Video for “Drunken Sailor” available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGyPuey-1Jw
The seven-minute song “Titanic” focuses on the building of the legendary ship rather than its destruction. I think a lot of people forget the ship was made in Belfast. They hear the word Titanic and think iceberg rather than Ireland. What inspired that song?
Well, we first started doing the song on stage you would hear gasps, because people didn’t know it was built in Belfast. So that song’s been with us a long time. It also happens to be my birth date, when it hit the iceberg. So because of that, and because I knew that some of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers probably worked on the Titanic, it seemed like the right thing to do for the poor souls who perished. And that’s all it is; it’s not putting blame on anybody. It’s just a song. And when you have a song that people like, there’s not a feeling in the world like it. Or when people yell out for a song when they want to hear. Then again, they also yell out a lot for “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” so I’m not sure how you fit those two together! But that’s okay—we’ll sing that anyway. Just not in July!
Video for “Titanic” available here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Bs1dou3SDw
The disc has a couple songs like “Jolly Roving Tar” and “All for Me Grog” that reference drinking—not a new subject for the band. But for those unfamiliar with the vernacular, what exactly is a tar? And what is a grog?
Grog is the general name that sailors would use for their rum or their beer, or whatever they happened to have. That was called the grog. “I’ll have a glass of grog.” And tar is an old word for sailor. Because they used to take tar and put it on their pigtails to keep it in place, they were called tarry sailors. Then that got shortened to tar. And they’d have a lot of pitch on their hands.
The last disc, Home in Ireland, has a great ballad about the history of “Dunlace Castle.” Could you discuss that a little?
I wrote that song because that’s where I was born, right around that part of the country. And every time I go back there, it’s such a stark looking thing. As a matter of fact, my wife and I have in our living room a painting that was made of it that I had someone do of Dunlace Castle, and it sits above the fireplace. And it’s gorgeous. It’s such a great-looking old castle. And the song is true, because no one was every able to take the castle. The story goes it was a storm that overtook the castle and did it in, and blew down part of it. And a lot of people were lost—a lot of the kitchen help and staff were lost into the ocean. And the wife of the man who owned the castle at the time said, “I’m sorry, I could never live here again.” That was in the 1700s, and no one’s lived there since. So it’s a great story, and I always encourage people when they go to Ireland to go to Northern Island, too, because it’s safe and you’ll never have any trouble. And that’s sort of an untouched part of Ireland, so people don’t know about it.
The accompanying DVD for Home in Ireland has footage of the band playing at all these scenic outdoor places juxtaposed with the concert footage at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. Is that the actual castle, Dunlace, shown on the video?
That’s the ruins of the castle. And we were right in the castle as well. They have tours, too—it’s safe to go in it and around it. And if you get there around twilight there’s almost this feeling of ghosts in the walls. You can imagine the pageantry and great battles that went on there, and the hair on the back of your neck sort of stands up a wee bit.
Is it true you plan on retiring soon? Say it ain’t so.
We’re retiring in 2015, which will give us fifty years of roving. Which I think is enough for any band to do! But we’re not going to retire 100%. What we’re going to do is basically retire from the day-to-day traveling we’ve been doing all these years. We do about three or four tours per year, and the older you get, it’s hard on the back, it’s hard on the mind…. The two hours on stage is wonderful; I don’t mind that at all. But when you’re in a different bed every night for four weeks in a row it gets a bit tiring! So what we will do is retire from the road, but still do personal appearances at some of the fairs and the Irish fests and we’ll probably do a new CD every fourteen or fifteen months. There’s too much music inside us to stop completely!
It’s hard to imagine George Millar settling down after so many years of traveling and playing to the people.
Well, I’m not a golfer. I tried that, and retired from that, about five years ago! And I could never not do anything. I think no matter what age I might be or how long I might live, I’m always going to be doing something with songs, because they just come to me, and you have to say something about them. That’s just the way it is. And I’m sure a lot of men and women are like that, when they quit their jobs they’re at somewhat of a loss for a while. You can’t just work all those years and stop immediately.
Tickets for The Irish Rovers at Lakewood Civic Sunday, March 3, 2013 are on sale now, via the link below: