Cherish the Ladies: Music for All Ireland, All America, All the World
By Ryanne Gallagher Johnson
Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies band are on metaphorical fire. Coming up on thirty-five years of performances, the all-female traditional Irish music group is stronger than ever, releasing a new album just last year and having shows booked out for the next three years already. What started as a way to play music for fun has become an extremely successful way of life for the New York-born flute player and her ridiculously talented musician friends.
Raised by Irish parents in the Bronx, Ms. Madden was brought up in a household full of traditional Irish music. Her mother hails from County Clare, and her father, Joe Madden, an All-Ireland Champion accordion player, was from County Galway. From an early age, she was exposed to the tunes of her father and his friends, and she began taking lessons from legendary flutist and National Heritage Award winner Jack Coen.
She initially went to school for accounting, but found that it didn’t feed her soul the way she needed, much to the chagrin of her father. “I was miserable,” she admits. “I went to college for one year, and I came home, and I said ‘listen, I wanna switch my major to music’…. And my father said, ‘Joanie, over my dead body are you being a musician.’ So, a lot of good that did.”
Although the chances of her becoming a success in music were remote, she nevertheless persisted. As a teenager and young adult, she gained experience playing with her father’s band, as well as with classmate and now-famous fiddle player Eileen Ivers; Ivers was also born to Irish parents in the Bronx.
Joanie and Eileen went on to compete in the All-Ireland at the same time, and both placed well in the competition. It was also a turning point for Madden, as the door to perform as part of a group was opened to her during that time.
“Myself and Eileen and a bunch of others had gotten lucky… in 1983, I went over to Ireland… and we got second in the céilí band, and Eileen won the fiddle competition. And the Céilí band, it was a ten-piece Céilí band, and nine of us were women. And Mick (Moloney, also a traditional Irish musician) called me up to say, ‘you know, you realize you’re all women’… this is unbelievable because for hundreds of years, it was passed down from father to son, and now it’s being passed down from father to daughter… most of us are daughters of very well-known musicians. He said, ‘you know, this is unprecedented, and I think we should do a concert series to celebrate this’.”
Madden didn’t think anybody would come, but agreed to give it a try. She helped organize the group, and put the people together from all over the country. The group did a three-concert series to sold out audiences. “That was the beginning of Cherish the Ladies. We sold out every show.”
“Nothing happened for a few months after that. Then I called the girls up and I asked them if they wanted me to see if I could get a few gigs lined up. So I did… I started getting gigs. I used to sit home on the phone and mail out packages and call everybody and their mother and sit there for hours and hours on end, on the phone, and I’d say ‘this is Joanie Madden from Cherish the Ladies’, and they’d say ‘what church are you with, I’m sorry?’,” she laughs. “People thought we were a marketing ploy… When we went out and we played our shows, people were like ‘Oh, my God, you guys can play! You’re not just a marketing ploy, you really can do it!”
The first inclination that they had staying power as a musical group came when they did a tour in Ireland. “The first time we went to Ireland and we saw the band so respected and so well-received. That was a scary part for all of us because we’re all Irish-American, and to come back to Ireland and see the crowd… standing ovations, so thrilled to see (us). I think that was kind of the turning point.”
I’m very proud of [our new album], Heart of the Home. It’s our seventeenth, and it’s collaborative, but it’s still the band and it’s all our music. I wrote six tunes on the album, and then our piano player wrote a tune, and our fiddle player wrote a tune, and the guitar player wrote a tune, and we still love to dig back into the old tunes… we love to find jams from the 1800s, we have a lot of music from the 1800s on there, and 1700s, and tunes that we learned from our fathers as well, because we’re very proud of where our music came from… hopefully anything we’ve played over the years, we’ve always added to the music and never taken away.”
The current group consists of Madden on the flute; Mary Coogan, also New York born, and the only other founding member still with the group, on the guitar; Mirella Murray from County Galway on piano accordion; Glasgow native Kathleen Boyle on piano and accordion; and Nollaig Casey on fiddle.
As for the doubts that her father harbored in the beginning, seeing the success that his daughter created for herself and the band set aside his fears. “He got to see my success (before he passed away). I was playing with the Boston Pops, they asked me to come up as a soloist, and I brought my parents to the show. Keith Lockhart, the conductor, he gave me an incredible buildup, and I looked out and I saw my father when I was playing with the hundred-piece orchestra behind me, and I looked down and tears were rolling down his face, and I had never seen my father cry before… All my life, I was Joe Madden’s daughter, and he said, ‘Now I’m (known as) Joanie Madden’s father!’. That was huge.”
If you’re looking for more time with Irish folk music and Joanie’s brand of entertainment and fun, you can check out her cruise, Joanie Madden’s Folk ‘N Irish Cruise, which sails from May 12th-19th this year.The 7-day trip aboard The Norwegian Escape will travel from New York to Bermuda and back again, with ‘Walzing, Jiving, Céilí and Set Dancing, Sing-A-Longs, Concerts, Workshops, Sessions, & More.’
“We’ve got 900 people booked for the folk cruise this year. It’s our tenth year… It’s been so successful, beyond my wildest dreams.”