Dylan Foley just won the Senior Competition in fiddle at the Comhaltas Ceóltorí Éireann Mid–Atlantic Fleadh in May, and will be competing in Cavan this summer. And the 20–year–old
is a force to be reckoned with. He has already been an All–Ireland champion three times in different categories. In 2004, in the under–12, in 2005, from 12–15, and in 2008, under-18. 2012 could be Dylan’s year to take it all. He recently resend his first album, Hup! at the encouragement, he said, of accordion player John Whelan.
He’s planning a CD release in Ireland this summer. Pianist, Brendan Dolan (Pride of New York) and guitarist John Dukes (Old Bay Céilí Band) play on it also. And at 20, in America, he’s not even drinking–age yet, and has not finished college. He’s played Irish music seriously since he was 11, after studying the Suzuki. For Dylan, that nine years feels like a long time.
Dylan is part of a younger wave of musicians coming up through the ranks. He’s played with accordionist Dan Gurney (profiled recently here), and as a duet competed in Ireland last year. Originally, Dylan had considered making a duet album with Dan, and hearing Dan was making a solo album encouraged him to make his own. He’s from Highland, New York, the same part of the world as Dan.
“There was always a fiddle player. Maybe an old–timey fiddle player or a contra dance fiddle player. It seemed like such an act, this bow going across the fiddle, it was like wow, what is that thing and how can I learn it? One day I went to my mom and asked if I could take some lessons.”
“But my mom was great. She made practicing fun. She would write all my tunes on popsicle sticks and throw them up in the air and I would choose one with my eyes closed. It made things more interesting.”
He describes his style as strongly rooted in the Sligo tradition, because that is the style used by his first teacher Rose Conway Flanagan (the original fiddler of Cherish the Ladies), and sometimes with her brother Brian. At one point he studied with them both, and laughs recalling how they used to bicker through him.
“I would go to Rose and she’d teach me a tune, and then I would go to Brian with that same tune and he’d say oh, why are you doing this? And I’d take it back to Rose who would say why is he telling you to do that? That’s totally wrong!”
After four years, Rose said she couldn’t teach him anymore. He continued with Brian for another year after that, and has been on his own ever since. “I’m not done learning, I learn every day,” he said,
“but they really gave me such a great foundation for the music. They showed me how to pass it down when the time comes.”
He’ll be doing that this summer at Augusta Heritage Center in its Irish/Celtic week. Dan Neely, who Dylan describes as a “great mind,” who writes for the Irish Echo and leads the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, is running the Elkins week for the first time. Dylan will be teaching beginning fiddle.
Today, Dylan says, his style is also somewhat gritty, a little dark. He plays loud, but he credits that to his fiddle. Volume is also probably related to his being a big guy. Dylan is 6’5” and about 270 pounds. In high school, his friends encouraged him to go out for football, but he didn’t like tackling people, so he played basketball instead, juggling sports with playing professional gigs from eighth grade (12–13) on. “It was funny trying to explain it to kids, that I was going off to play in a pub,” he laughs.
Because he’s so big, people sometimes forget he’s young. In Ireland, people sometimes ask if he has any children yet, when in reality, he’s not even drinking age back home, and is still a student at SUNY New Paltz. Choosing tunes for Hup! was a journey into self–discovery. “Listening to what people thought about things, but not overriding your own thoughts” was a challenge. “It’s about what you want, what sounds best to you.”
His favourite set on the CD is the reel set that begins with “Humours of Castlefinn,” which he learned from Patrick Ourceau, that continues through “High Road to Glin” and “Cavan Reel.” The first track, too, that begins with “Kilteery Pie,” is also special to him.
“That set kind of happened by accident. We didn’t really mean to record it, but I thought of that first tune by Brendan McGlinchy and then had to figure something out to go with it…”
That was all in a studio in the Catskills, mostly on two hours of sleep. He recorded the album after playing a céilí and session. But the polished, confident tunes suggest that the urgency only helped his playing. Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham has been a part of Dylan’s life since he was 4 years old, before he even played. He attended the children’s workshops while his Scottish mother, Ann took tin whistle lessons and his father, Tom studied guitar. Later on, he studied with Patrick Ourceau, Willie Kelly and Liz Carroll.
“It’s always great craic up there,” says Dylan.
“I know there’s a lot of people that go into states of depression after that week, it’s so happy and just so much fun. I think it’s one of the best weeks in the US today.”
He and Dan Gurney will play in the Catskills this summer for a series of concerts at the Blackthorne Hotel that begin at midnight.
He’s come a long way since he first saw the Contra fiddlers and knew that was for him. Sometimes he thinks he might experiment with jazz, but then again, 95% of his iPod is filled with trad, he says. And fiddling is a release for him.
“The physical part of it brings me back to something good,” Dylan says. There’s something about the wood instrument, the vibrations and the tunes, that combines to express his emotions, he explains.
“It’s a gateway for me to express what I’m feeling. Some people write in a diary. Some people have to speak but I feel like this is how I express things.”
Whatever he does, he’d never stop playing. “It’s like my left leg. It’s just part of me.”