This week’s Grandfather Mountain Highland Games is full of parades, clan tents as the center of reunions and the making of new friends, and an array of competitions that include dancing, sports and bagpipes.
But there is also a cultural side to the event that makes it fun.
Celtic music will be well-represented at the 2019 Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. For almost a decade now, musician and music director EJ Jones has put together a wonderful lineup of traditional Celtic music as well as Celtic rock that keeps the festivities lively.
One aspect of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games that brings in the best Celtic music talent is the sheer size of the festival, one of the biggest in the U.S. The other reason is that just an hour or so away from Grandfather Mountain is a unique music workshop camp called the Swannanoa Gathering located at Warren Wilson College near Asheville.
Throughout the summer months, the Swannanoa Gathering hosts musicians of all levels who come to get better at playing their instruments in various styles of music. In late June and early July there is Mandolin Week, Banjo Week and Fiddle Week. That is followed by Traditional Song Week, and later on there is the Old-Time Week and Contemporary Folk Music Week and Guitar Week.
In the middle of all of that at the Swannanoa Gathering is Celtic Week. In a great move, Celtic Week always takes place in the week that follows the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. That means that great Celtic musicians who also teach at the Swannanoa Gathering can also be booked to perform at the Games.
One of the Celtic musicians who will be performing at this week’s Grandfather Mountain Highland Games is an Asheville local named Andrew Finn Magill — one who did not grow up in Scotland or Ireland, yet is viewed as one of the best Celtic fiddlers in the business.
Andrew Finn Magill not only was raised in Asheville, his father, Jim Magill, is the long-time director of the Swannanoa Gathering. While the young Magill was influenced by his father’s involvement in music, his musical journey became his own.
“My Dad has been the director of Swannanoa Gathering for 28 years now,” said Andrew Finn Magill. “My parents moved here to Western North Carolina in the 1980s because they liked to hike, but then he got this dream job of directing the gathering. My dad is also a mandolin player and a guitar player, and was even a full-time mandolin player in the ‘80s with a band called Hot Shandy, which had a motto of ‘Music and Goofy Stuff.’ They played in a lot of student unions at colleges all across the country and were the house band at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, Fla., for a long time as well. My Mom plays the wooden flute and both of them are passionate about Irish music.”
Magill followed his parents around as a kid when they did Celtic music gigs around Asheville. But, one day he picked up an instrument and fell in love with it on his own.
“My parents would play Irish music records all of the time when I was a kid,” said Magill. “Then, when I was 10, I decided that I wanted to learn how to play the fiddle and I started to learn Irish music. They gave me as much exposure to music as possible and then hoped for the best. They never pressured me. After my first fiddle lesson, I was hooked and became obsessed with the fiddle. I think it was the challenge of it. It is a challenging instrument to learn and I’ve always liked to unlock hard stuff, and I don’t know why.”
Magill would go on to be proficient in many genres, learning to play bluegrass, old-time, country and even the samba music of Brazil, where he lived for a time. But his love for Celtic music never left him.
“When it comes to Celtic music, I like a healthy mixture of both jigs and reels,” said Magill. “They are like meat and potatoes as you got to have both. I really like hornpipes though, more than most people. A jig is in 6/8 time, a reel is in 4/4 time, and they are both good for dance tunes. A hornpipe is much slower and it is more of a bouncy, lilty kind of tune. And, unlike jigs or reels, hornpipes can be played in flat keys like B-flat. Hornpipes can be a bit more virtuosic and show-offy, and I like them because they are so unique and distinct.”
Magill will be performing at 12:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games with fellow musician Will MacMorran.
“Will MacMorran is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist who used to play for the band Seven Nations, who will also be playing at the Games, and he also plays with The Chieftains so he is a very talented guy,” said Magill. “With me, he will be playing the guitar, accordion and whistles. It is so cool to have the Highland Games in our own backyard. I think EJ Jones has done an amazing job in booking the entertainment. They are bringing in really strong traditional Celtic acts and developing a stronger fan base for it.”
Other acts to perform at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games at the many outdoor stages found on the grounds include Loch and Keys, Alasdair White, Ed Miller, Brother Angus, Brothers McLeod, Chambless and Muse, Mari Black and more.
Separate from the daytime performances yet on the same grounds on McRae Meadow, Friday night will feature the raucous and fun Celtic Rock Night featuring Seven Nations, the Piper Jones Band and more going from 6:30 to 11 p.m. Saturday evening will feature the Traditional Celtic Jam, which also turns into a big dance party on the mountain. Both shows are only $15.