Ronn McFarlane Returns to His Roots with "The Celtic Lute"

For the latest album in his already rich discography, Ronn McFarlane takes us on a musical journey to Ireland and Scotland, highlighting both the vivacity and delicacy of the lute - and it's WCRB's CD of the Week.

When the lute evolved in the 15th century into its elegant pear shape with an added sixth pair of rich and resonant low strings, a musical craze began. For 150 years, a wild affection for the instrument’s delicate, expressive sound put the lute in practically everyone’s hands. Much cheaper than keyboards, it was used for dance music, song accompaniments and arrangements of tunes that were normally sung.

Ronn McFarlane began his musical life by teaching himself to play a “cranky, sixteen-dollar steel-string guitar.” Rock and blues lived along beside his study of the classical guitar and, as he once said in an interview, he enjoyed a “double life, connecting to his rock band roots.” But after studying at the Shenandoah and Peabody Conservatories, he turned his whole heart and mind toward the expressive possibilities that he, like so many in the 16th century, found he could conjure from the lute.

That was in the 1970s. Now, 35 recordings later, Ronn McFarlane is the founder of the ensemble Ayreheart, co-founder of the Baltimore Consort, a GRAMMY nominee, and a constant seeker of new music that builds on the tradition of the lutenist/composers of the past.

The Celtic Lute is Ronn’s first solo album in over a decade, and he’s chosen to take a deep dive into the music of his ancestors: folk music of Scotland and Ireland. It’s a loving project that required plenty of research. There were plenty of revelations: with very few Irish sources to go to, he discovered that the famous blind harpist Turlough O’Carolan’s music lends itself so well to the lute. Despite the cross-pollination between the two nations, they’ve produced distinctive music. The liner notes are wonderfully evocative in their reverence for the depth and the history in the Celtic sound world.

The album is laid out with incredible care. You’ll hear the touching sadness in “The Lone Vale” (track 14), a traditional Scottish tune that McFarlane plays with such a soft insistence, you could fall into a melancholy trance. Then comes “Flee Over the Water,” another Scottish traditional tune, but with such a spirit of happiness and a sense of recovery, it seems to offer the courage to look up and out at the horizon. Irish tracks, like “The Monaghan Jig” (track 21) and “The Kid on the Mountain” (track 22) are irresistible. They seem to be over far too quickly!

And what a beautiful way to end the CD: a traditional Irish piece called “The Butterfly” will make you fall hard for the magic of Ronn McFarlane’s lute.

Listen to a track from The Celtic Lute:

For more information and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.