Interview by Casey Bowers
Photo by Harry Acosta
Spending 50 years in one trade seems insane to most of us. Especially the youngest of us who can’t fathom a future spent in the same profession for more than 5 years, let alone a whopping 50.
That said, what if that trade was the thing that was the most fun for you, brought you the most joy and success without compromising your integrity and you were able to stick (mostly) to your tried and true traditions?
For George Millar of The Irish Rovers, this is clearly the case.
You have previously stated that the song “The Unicorn” and its success has been the key to your longevity or staying power as a band of musicians. Shel Silverstein was a friend of yours and gave you the song, correct?
He was. Shel was a dear friend and back in those days, he was a cartoonist for a magazine, but he was a talented writer. He was writing these great, silly poems.
The first song he wrote, “The Unicorn,” he gave to us and it ended up becoming a hit. Later, he wrote “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash and lots of songs for other artists. He was a dear friend and having come up together, we were both amazed at the success.
What is your relationship with streaming services and what do you make of their role in music discovery and creating 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th generation Irish Rovers fans?
I think it’s great. It lets us, and other musicians be out and open – It opens us up to the world. After the TV show, we played Christmas shows with traditional Irish and some older English christmas songs. But, I really must give kudos to the Riverdance folk. That really opened Irish music and culture up to the young people.
It was the dancing that was a big part of that resurgence.
Many people who’ve heard your music and love it, typically hear it first this time of year around or on St. Patrick’s Day.
15-20 years ago, it wasn’t as big as it is now. There was a parade and a bit of celebration, because you know, it’s a religious holiday.
It’s become massive. America has the green beer and Russia has green vodka for St. Patrick’s Day! It’s celebrated all over the world.
Can you talk a little about starting out and how things changed with “The Unicorn?”
Back then, every town on our tour had folk clubs.
Our first five years as a band was developing a work ethic and playing those clubs. Once we had the hit song, we started playing on larger stages around the world and sharing those stages with rock n roll. Which was great fun, because we all loved it, too.
When we had the tv show, we had Johnny Cash, who we loved, and he brought The entire Carter Family, and Carl Perkins – who was a boyhood hero of mine. Johnny Cash was the nicest man in show business. They all were. All gentlemen.
And before your CBC tv show, you had already guest starred on the popular TV western, The Virginian, correct?
We had the best time on The Virginian. You can find clips of it on YouTube now. Us and the main character, Trampett singing a couple of Irish songs in the jail.
We’d play in a fight scene, a barroom brawl and the director would have to cut and tell us to stop laughing. We were having such a mad time. The stuntmen were shouting “Hit us harder!” It was great fun and a dream come true. We were treated as royalty in Hollywood.
With the Golden Anniversary of The Unicorn, you wrote and recorded a follow-up to the song, which tells the fate of the legendary animal. How did that come about? Why now?
It took us 50 years to do. All the kids were sad because they thought the unicorn were swept away. This song was an attempt to put them at ease. Dry your tears. The unicorn didn’t die. They’re just fishes in the sea.
The inuits have a myth about what happened. And that’s what the Narwhal song is about. There had to have been unicorn. Norway, Scotland, and Ireland all have stories about it.
I’d like to talk about one of my favorite songs you perform, “The Orange and The Green.” Written by Anthony Murphy, the lesson/moral/message of the song is just as relevant today as it was when you first performed and recorded it.
Though it takes a comical approach,and is upbeat, it’s about a person caught in the middle of having both Catholic and Protestant background, and wanting nothing to do with either side. What was the initial reception to this one and how has that reaction changed over time?
It provided a release. Like our family, everyone had a story and the song gave them a chuckle to say “Isn’t it silly?” Those divides in mixed families. Now, it’s the young people – young catholics and protestants coming together, falling in love and saying “this is our family.”Life is too damned short to be concerned over such things. It’s a happy tune.
What do you make of the state of traditional Irish Music and Irish Folk Music? Who will carry the flag? What group from the next generation makes you proud?
There are great musicians making music and performing Irish Music. We’re dinosaurs now. (Laughter) At First Light with John McSherry and Michael McGoldrick (both founding members of Lunasa) and Donal O’ Connor are phenomenal. O’Connor is a Belfast fiddler who joined the band.
Wee Banjo 3 play next level country/hillbilly music with Irish and Celtic. It’s a great mix. You know, in the 1800’s when the Irish immigrated, they brought with them the music. The five-string banjo is a direct result of the fiddle.
In Canada, there’s Great Big Sea from Newfoundland. Sadly, they’re not together anymore, but they’re wonderful. On the rock side, Boston’s Dropkick Murphys are bringing a lot of people to Irish music, with that energy.
During a day off in Saskatoon, I caught Mark Knopfler and he had two traditional irish players. The modern instruments with Irish pipes and fiddle. Mick Jagger used Irish players on one of his solo albums. Everyone does now. It’s integrated into all music. Except rap. At least, not yet – I can’t wait for that one! That’s how it’s done, you know? Through the music. It brings people together.
Music calms the senses and makes you smile. Takes away the agony and grants a reprieve. Without music, what would you have? Where would we be?
Irish music is full of uplifting folk music for forgetting your cares, dancing, clapping, having a pint. Whether you’re 5 or 100, toes will start tapping.