Q&A with Donegal X-Press’ Brad Dunnells

 

The Donegal (pronounced ‘dä-ne-gäl) X-Press has emerged as one of the premiere Irish-American roots rock groups in the country. This high-energy, six-piece outfit has gained praise and fans from New York to Ireland, Baltimore to Nashville and beyond. DXP blends a unique combination of traditional Irish music with American country and blues, folk and rock, rhythm and funk, which John O’Regan of Roots Magazine calls, “…creative ferocity not seen since The Clash’s London Calling period.”

Building on a core of traditional Irish pub songs, the Donegal X-Press added original songs and popular covers to their live set, creating a stage performance that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of audiences.


 

In the years since its formation, the group has gone from boozy bar crowds to sharing the stage with artists such as The Saw Doctors, Prodigals, Solas, Black 47 and the Wolfe Tones. DXP has also written and produced four albums of original music: Whiskey, Bars, A-Go-Go; Quinn’s Diaries; Translations; and Stand Alone. In 2000, the Irish Voice (NYC) named the group among their “Best of 2001” and eventually dubbed them “Artist of the Year.” In that same year, Brad Dunnells was the first American to the win the National Song Contest for Peace held in Cork, Ireland. The 1st place winner, “Omagh,” is featured on Quinn’s Diaries. In 2001, Donegal X-Press was named “Best Band” in the Baltimore City Paper’s Readers Poll.

In addition to performing with the Donegal X-Press, the multi-talented individuals who make up the group have many side projects. Jeff Malcom (bass) and Skye Sadowski (fiddle) co-founded and perform with the Baltimore-based group Man Down, while Jeff Trueman (drums) performs with the band Pale Stars, also native to Baltimore. Laura Hein (keyboard) is a solo pianist and accompanist who performs throughout Maryland. Along with singer/songwriter Laura Cosner, Dunnells and Tinney founded the folk trio The Wayfarers, while Tinney has published two books of short stories and poetry-prose (Hilliard & Harris Publishers).

 

Paid Off the Boom is your 6th album.  I don’t want to use the term “mature” but it certainly seems to be different in tone and themes than your earlier albums.  It seems at times a bit subdued and maybe melancholy.  It seems more folk influenced than your previous albums is that a fair assessment?

Paid Off The Boom is indeed our 6th album and certainly a departure from some of our previous ones. I think “mature” is a good adjective to describe it. We have certainly developed in our songwriting, adapted as a band, and progressed as musicians. The result is a change in our overall sound. While subdued or melancholy are certainly not the overall feelings we were looking to project, I suppose the material is certainly a lot less raucous than other records. We made a decision a few years ago to develop a sound that was primarily driven by roots, rock, and Americana – folk would be the pulse of all three of those genres. I suppose good storytelling and simple chord patters are at the heart of our songwriting and listening interests.

The title track recalls the “Oyster Wars” of the Chesapeake Bay.  Mind explaining what exactly “the Oyster Wars” are? 

 

Hard to believe, but there was a time, not too long ago, when fisherman on the Chesapeake Bay killed one another to stake access to fishing grounds on both the Maryland and Virginia sides. This feud was so bad that Maryland enacted our country’s first “Oyster Police” to quell the feud and enforce fishing laws. Years later that organizing would become the Department of Natural Resources. Along with this violent and competitive conflict came a host of other problems including slavery, and corruption.

“Take My Hand” is one of my favorite songs off the album.  It’s a bit of departure for you guys – its got a bluesy feel, especially with that harmonica.  How did that song come about?

 

Our fiddle player Skye Malcom actually wrote the lyrics to that song. I suppose she would have to give the background on what inspired her to write it. She brought the song to me with a simple melody and we hammered out the song that you have today. Jason does a great job playing harp on that tune. I also love what Ed Tetreault did with the arrangement on this one. The build during the bridge in particular. I think this one I’d love to hear Van Morrison sing – or maybe Grace Potter sing.

The Donegal X-Press is part what is called the “Irish/American Counter-culture” and the band always seems to draw big crowds.  What do you think attracts people to the style of music the band is playing?

 

I truly believe what we do is timeless and cross-generational as well as cross-cultural. There really are only three flavors of music: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. I think we do a great job of incorporating each into our live shows. If you tell a good story with your music and invite your audience to participate with you during the show you people will connect with you. That is what makes people remember you and keep coming back. Irish Americans, in particular, are very loyal fans for music that celebrates their heritage. I think we’ve been lucky in that we have been able to win over audiences of very diverse backgrounds.

How long did it take the band to make Paid off the Boom?

 

I would say way too long. However, if the end justify the means, than it took as long as it needed to, as we are very happy with how the album turned out.

The band is known for its energetic live performances.   Do you practice often when you’re not playing shows?

 

Unfortunately, no, we rarely practice. Sometimes if we’ve been off for a while we will do a quick “tune up”. But the only time we get together to practice is to develop new material. As far as our energy goes, that comes from have a really great band of entertainers who know how to “switch it on” when we hit the stage.

The band also plays a lot of covers as well – you’ve even included the Old Crowe Medicine Show/Dylan song “Wagon Wheel” on the new album.  Do the covers have to fix into a certain criteria for you to consider playing?

 

Funny, we started covering that song way before it became as popular as it has become with so many bands today. For years, people asked us to put it on a record. Now that we have done so, I hear that “Wagon Wheel” has become unpopular as a cover as it has been overdone the same way you aren’t suppose to play “Stairway to Heaven” in a music store. I suppose the only criteria for choosing covers is that everyone in the band enjoys playing them.

You guys have been around for almost 20 years now.  Did you expect to still be playing when you first started? 

 

Well, more like 15 years, … but whose counting. I can’t imagine we expected to be doing anything that we have all ended up doing since 1998. But I guess that’s life. As long as I am still standing there will be a Donegal X-Press. I can only hope and pray that I am blessed to continue to make music with these 5 extraordinary people who I love dearly and think the world of. It has been a wild ride to say the least.

 

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