When Paddy Moloney put together the original lineup of the Chieftains in 1962 to record the group's self-titled debut, the realist in him told him not to have any great expectations.
"I'll tell you what, it was such a small market in those days," Moloney said. "The opportunity was, you'd never make a living on it or anything like that. We all had our daily jobs -- for 10 years in fact. When I did the first album, to be honest, I didn't see it going past one more. I put everything I had into that first one."
That's not to say that Moloney wasn't already dreaming on a much grander scale and envisioning a much larger impact for the Chieftains' brand of traditional Irish music.
"When I saw the Clancy Brothers making a huge success of the Irish sounds abroad, I was saying to myself, this should happen for the [traditional] music. I [wanted] it to happen for the music," Moloney said. "And I had that dream there all the time that we would play Carnegie Hall and we would play the Albert Hall in London, you know."
Today it's 40 years after those humble beginnings and not only have the Chieftains played Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London, the group's achievements have dwarfed anything Moloney could have imagined in those early years.
The Chieftain's are now firmly entrenched as the world's pre-eminent practitioners of Irish music. They've toured the world numerous times, recorded more than 30 albums, won six Grammy awards and collaborated with a who's who of popular music royalty (including the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Tom Jones and John Williams). Given their many accomplishments it's no surprise that the Chieftain's 40th anniversary will not pass without fanfare.
This spring, RCA Victor will celebrate the group's career with a CD tentatively titled Wide World Over that will spotlight key tracks from many of the group's albums and also include some new and previously unreleased material.
One of the most unusual new tracks is a version of "Morning Is Broken," featuring guest appearances from Art Garfunkel and Diana Krall.
"I know Cat Stevens has done it, but it is a very old, traditional hymn, and recorded, for the new millennium, on New Year's Eve down in the Antarctic," Moloney said. "We were on a ship and [actor] Dan Aykroyd was with us, Art and Diana and quite a bunch of people. It was [going to be] a morning song, because it was the first light of day and the first light of the millennium. But it was too cold, so I had to go down into the bowels of the ship and record in a room down in the ship ... I later put strings onto it. It turned out beautiful."
Another somewhat less ambitious CD, The Best Of The Chieftains, arrives in January. This 12-track collection is culled from three CDs released between 1977 and 1979, while the group was on Columbia Records -- The Chieftains 7, The Chieftains 8 and The Chieftains 9: Boil the Breakfast Early.
The Best Of The Chieftains captures the group at a turning point in its career. Following the recording of The Chieftains 8, two founding members, Mick Tubridy (flute, tin whistle and concertina) and Sean Potts (tin whistle) left the lineup. Matt Molloy (flute) replaced the two departing members.
Molloy joined Moloney (uilleann pipes, tin whistle), Sean Keane (fiddle), Kevin Conneff (bodhran, vocals), Martin Fay (fiddle) and Derek Bell (harp, timpan, oboe) in a lineup that has remained intact ever since. Soon after Molloy joined, the Chieftains' career accelerated with a host of memorable -- and even historic -- projects, including becoming the first group to play at the Great Wall of China during a 1983 tour of that country and being named Ireland's Musical Ambassadors by the Irish government in 1989.
But the 1990s saw the Chieftains rise to even greater heights of popularity as the group recorded several albums with all-star casts. The 1995 album, The Long Black Veil, in particular, raised the Chieftains' profile. That CD found rock stars such as Mick Jagger, Sting and Mark Knopfler performing Irish songs with the Chieftains. With sales of more than 600,000 it remains the group's most popular album.
Even with such accomplishments Moloney is hardly ready to slow down.
"I can't see any sort of end to this at all," Moloney said. "I think it's just going to go on. And ideas and things, I have bunches of them coming up. I have done quite a few recordings with symphony orchestras all over the world that would merit an album ... . I've always wanted to go back and do another country album. That's an obvious one, too.
"We've been asked several times to perform live at the Vatican at Christmas," he said. "One of these days, we'll get around to it. Ideas are just popping all the time, and people are coming forward, and it's a wonderful world out there still for us."
The Chieftains come to our part of the world this Monday, and sassy fiddler Natalie MacMaster will open the evening. Be prepared for a foot- tapping, knee-slapping good time.