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News Maryland Baltimore County Catonsville

Celtic music alive and kicking in Catonsville

For some area residents, St. Patrick's Day's means a time to wear green, eat green dyed food and drink green beer.

But at Appalachian Bluegrass on Frederick Road, the time for Celtic music is not limited to a day in March.

Evenings at the store include Andy Thurston teaching Celtic guitar music Wednesdays at 5 p.m. and Drew Vervan leading Irish "sessions" Mondays at 7:30 p.m.

According to Thurston, an Irish session is basically a group jam during which musicians get together to play and improvise upon traditional Irish song.

"It's a really important idea of the culture," said Thurston, a Westgate resident who has been playing Celtic and Irish music since the 1970s..

While Thurston doesn't participate in many sessions, he is familiar with the Irish music scene.

After studying classical guitar at Towson University, he started playing in a band called No. 1 Dog with friends, and woman who would eventually become Celeste Thurston, his wife,.

"When I got out of that group (No. 1 Dog), a friend of mine gave me a kind of emergency phone call," said Thurston, who was teaching at what was then Catonsville Community College at the time.

"He was playing in an Irish ballad band. They had a regular job then at the Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point and he said that his guitar player had screwed up on his visa and had to go back to Ireland," he said.

"They had a big gig coming up in a week and it was like, 'We need somebody to play and I don't know anybody else who can learn the material as quick as you could.' so I was like 'OK,' " Thurston said.

"It kind of sucked me in," he said.

"Stuff that you were playing in your school band was more major minor," he said. "Celtic is based more on medevial and renaissance modal type of sound, with droning type accompaniment."

The well-known English ballad, "Greensleeves," and "Scarborough Fair," another ballad made popular by the duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle, are songs that resemble Celtic tunes, he said.

Emory Knode, Appalachian Bluegrass owner, said Thurston has been teaching at the store for about 25 years.

In addition to Celtic guitar, Thurston teaches classic guitar, mandolin and occasionally bass guitar at Appalachian Bluegrass.

The instruments fit in nicely with the store's acoustic-only mission.

"What a great guy," Knode said. "Andy's always been a good, loyal, dependable teacher (and) employee.

"He's taught lots of people to play guitar," Knode said.

Knode said that while the store's name says "Bluegrass," he is glad Celtic music has found at home there, since there are many similarities between bluegrass and Celtic music.

"People that came to America were Irish immigrants," Knode said.

"They're finding their way here in this country and a lot of them went West into the hills and South into the hills and that's where the folks were playing bluegrass," he said.

"Somehow or another, the bluegrass and the Celtic kind of amalgamated in certain fashions but still had a clean, dividing line," Knode said.

"They've been influenced by one another," he said.

Vervan began teaching Irish sessions at Appalachian Bluegrass about a year ago.

He said he was a loyal customer long before he began leading Irish sessions and teaching classic violin.

"I was a loyal fan of the store and Emory," said Vervan, who lives in western Maryland.

So confident was Vervan in Appalachian Bluegrass' ability to provide the best product, he would order strings and equipment and have it shipped overseas while he was working as a musician in Germany and Ireland.

Though he is more well known at the store for his classic violin classes, he really enjoys teaching the Irish sessions that prepare beginners for the more experienced sessions that typically take place in a bar or pub.

"We play a variety of instrumental Irish music and we play slowly so that people have a chance to learn and also so people get a chance to experience what it's like to play a session," Vervan said.

Knode said the music taught by Thurston and Vervan is not only a lesson in Irish culture, but also in history.

"The musical tunes, the songs that Andy's playing on his guitar and his Celtic bands, go back generations," Knode said.

"The same tune played in the same way for years and years and years and years," he said.

"I call it a musical time machine. You can truly travel back in time and hear how music was played 200 years ago if you want, and it hasn't changed," Knode said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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