Cherish the Ladies: 35 Will Be A Very Good Year!
By Ryanne Gallagher Johnson
Joanie Madden and her 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). She and Ms. Ivers 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.”
The concerts were so successful, they recorded an album, which was chosen by the Library of Congress as the best folk album of the year, and through that, they received a grant to go on the road in America for two weeks. They received a second grant from the New York State Council of the Arts, with which they were able to play across New York. But after that, they were on their own.
“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!”
She was eventually able to get them enough work to keep them going, and it allowed her to quit her job to play music full time.
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.”
Those first couple of gigs turned into hundreds, and now they’re booked out years in advance. “We’re starting to book for 2023 right now.”
In three decades, they’ve released seventeen albums for Cherish the Ladies, and have performed as guests on the albums of many other artists.
Their most recent album, Heart of the Home, was released in 2018. “Musically, it’s just us and the band. We do have Donnchadh Gough on bodhrán , and we also have Trevor Hutchinson on bass. That’s it as far as the guests, we mostly stick to ourselves musically.”
Vocally speaking, the group hasn’t had a regular since Heidi Talbot left several years ago.
“We haven’t had a solid singer since then. We like mixing it up. So, what we did on this album is we brought in the singers that toured with us, and that’s Kate Purcell, she’s singing on one of the songs, Don Stiffe, he just did our Christmas tour with us, and our Ireland tour. He’s an incredible singer, I just love him. He’s from Galway. And then we have Molly O’Riordan, she’s this young girl from New York. She’s the first American to win the All-Ireland singing championship, and she’s just incredible, and it’s the first time she’s ever been in the studio. And then we have The Ennis Sisters from Newfoundland. They came up and did our March tour last year, and then we went up to Newfoundland in May and we toured with them. And we were in the studio over here in Ireland, and they called us up to ask us to play a song on their album, and i said yeah, We’ll do one for you if you’ll do one for us.
“And then finally, who’s singing the title track, he’s a fantastic singer. He’s the top entertainer in Ireland at the moment. His name is Nathan Carter, and we got to meet him in Killarney, doing a folk festival, and we hit it off, and he’s come to a bunch of our shows and I’ve played on his album and now he’s joined us on ours. I’m very proud of this, it’s our seventeenth album, 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 1800’s, 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.”
Although the permanent lineup for the group has changed over the years, they’ve managed to find solid, talented people to work with when one of them leaves.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.
When the time does come for one of the regular members to leave, Madden says that picking a replacement has less to do with raw talent and more to do with personality.
“In all sincerity, when someone leaves the band, I don’t go for the best player,” she explains. “I go for the most rounded player. You have to be on the road with somebody, and when you’re on the road and you’ve got to travel with somebody, and you’ve got to eat, sleep, and be on the road for a month with people, you really have to choose wisely, because you are getting into kind of a marriage. We get along… they’re like my sisters. We don’t fight, and that’s the truth, with this current lineup… When you’re picking people for a band, it’s more important that you like them than that they’re the best fiddle player.”
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.”
Joanie and Cherish the Ladies have thirty shows this March alone, and their Heart of the Home tour will continue through the year. But, 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.”
Although she spends much of her time in New York, Madden has also purchased a house in County Clare, where her mother grew up. She brings her mother with her when she visits, and her six siblings often travel over to stay there, too. “They all think they bought a house.”
The next Cherish the Ladies show in Chicago will be at Old Town School of Folk music on March 24th, and tickets are still available at oldtownschool.org. Madden and the group are excited to tour in the Midwest. “It’s always been good to us. It’s always been one of our strongest places to play, and really, I think the Midwest made us. This was our major market.”
For more information on Joanie Madden, Cherish the Ladies, or the Irish folk cruise, you can visit the following pages: