There are musical families, and then there are musical families.
The Leahys -- whose collective stage incarnation goes by the singular “Leahy” -- are definitely in the latter category.
Comprising eight siblings, Leahy’s down-home roots are not only in the semirural Canada of their birth, but in the rich Scots-Irish musical heritage that informs so much of Canada’s musical tradition.
The Leahy clan’s parents -- fiddle champion Frank and stepdancing champion Julie -- raised every one of their 11 children in Lakefield, Ontario, to be able to dance and play an instrument. The resulting chemistry led not only to a rousing, even ferocious stage show, but also to stardom for the troupe when they were chosen to open for Shania Twain during a Canadian tour. Leahy is now the largest-selling act on the Virgin Canada label, with their eponymous debut CD having gone double platinum.
Leahy comes to the Lucas Theatre 8 p.m. March 15 as the opening concert of this year’s Savannah Music Festival.
Fiddler Doug Leahy -- brother Donnell also plays the fiddle and is a former Canadian champion himself -- spoke to us last week from the family’s recording studio, The Farm, which is located right next to -- you guessed it -- the Leahy family farm.
Tell us about The Farm and why it’s so important to Leahy.
Doug Leahy: We grew up on a farm, as farmers, and we still kind of do a small bit of it. I find it’s a great release of stress to get away with the animals and be out in the field. We’re getting ready to go out on tour right now, so that’s even more important.
How do you explain the continuing appeal of the Celtic tradition that Leahy is a part of?
Doug Leahy: A lot of it has to do with how people grow up and listen to different styles. It’s amazing how many styles are connected to roots music. It’s funny how people come back to it or put a twist on it.
I think for us, we’re of Irish and Scottish backgrounds, and we grew up in an Irish settlement. So this music was always around. You may not notice it, but anytime you go to church or to a dance, or dance function really, you’re hearing these tunes.
For us, because of our parents playing music it’s engrained in us. It’s what we love, and it’s a part of us now, it’s in our blood. When we’re onstage it’s an event for us, it’s a celebration, because we enjoy what we play so much. That produces energy, which in turn produces emotion. Anything you enjoy you’ll do well.
I’m obliged to ask this question even though I know the answer: Did Leahy take up step-dancing because of the whole Riverdance/Lord of the Dance phenomenon?
Doug Leahy: (laughs) No. Our dancing is what’s called French-Canadian stepdancing. It originated years ago when different men from different nationalities would come to northern Ontario and northern Quebec to work in the woods. They came in the winter because the ground and the lakes were frozen and they could get to places. They’d come for six months or so and work in logging camps, and of course the days were short and the nights long. So you had all these different nationalities all together in one place, and they had to come up with some way to entertain themselves.
This form of dancing originated or came from that. It’s known as French-Canadian stepdancing, and it’s a huge dance in Ontario and Quebec, mainly in the Ottawa Valley. In the summer there’s a contest every weekend, also for fiddle playing. Our mother taught the oldest girls how to dance, and they’d routinely drive three hours to performances in the late ‘70s.
The dancing is a huge part of our show. We’ve been doing it long before Riverdance was ever heard of or thought of.
How in the world do you keep a performing family that large together for a whole tour?
Doug Leahy: We used to tour mainly in summertime. Then we got to the age where some of us were in college and some in high school, so it was difficult to get everyone together just because of school. Our teachers were great -- they allowed us to go and perform. But of course when you go to college you have to be more committed. We ended up taking a break for a bit.
After everyone started graduating from school, we found out people wanted to play music still. So in 1995 a few people started playing in a few clubs in Toronto, because we loved it so much. At these gigs people would ask if we had a CD, and of course at first we had to say no. So in two weekends we recorded our first CD, Leahy. After recording it, it was soon picked up by Virgin Records and everything took off from there.
Concert crowds in America are strange lately, with everyone text messaging and talking on cellphones and generally acting like they’d rather be anyplace but the concert they bought tickets to. Celtic music audiences seem to be an exception to that. How do you rate audiences in the United States as compared to Canada and elsewhere?
Doug Leahy: We really really enjoy playing in the States. We have a big tour this spring and also a big tour beginning in February of 2008. We find crowds in the States are really really expressive. We have never experienced anyone text messaging or anything like that.
What we find is that people get up and start dancing. We have a real intense, high-energy show. People come up to us afterward and say, “I’m exhausted from just watching you.”
What’s the difference between Scots/Irish fiddling and Canadian fiddling?
Doug Leahy: There’s definitely a different style of play. For example, one of the great Canadian players in the old-time style, Don Messer, plays everything straight, with not a lot of frills. There’s a very solid tempo, with very clean playing.
Then you move to a great in the Scottish genre -- take Natalie MacMaster, for example. There you have a very heavy beat, with a lot of tunes connecting one after another, kind of in medleys. There are great key changes, mixing up a lot of minors and majors. But the Scottish players always maintain a heavy, heavy beat with lots of accents.
With Irish fiddlers it’s a lot like the Scottish style, but basically faster music with a lot of accents. Overall, there are a lot of similarities between the Irish and Scottish styles. But there’s a huge difference between those two and old-time Canadian.
What would you tell a youngster playing the violin who wants to take up the fiddle style?
Doug Leahy: The whole key to a child learning how to play the fiddle or violin is holding it properly. As for the style, each style will complement the other. A lot of the difference between violin and fiddle music is mainly in the bowhand and the wrist.
Also a lot of people who study by note find it difficult to play by ear. We play by ear. We just had a music camp last year, and one thing we really encouraged was for people to train their ears. At first some said they just can’t do it, but by the end of the camp they were ecstatic that they were able to hear these things and play them. A lot of it just comes down to the fact that for some people to change habits is hard.
So when everyone is learning these traditional tunes, are you reading them? Are they collected somewhere in sheet music form?
Doug Leahy: Oh no, not at all. It’s something that comes to you. It’s like when you read a story. Let’s say you read Goldilocks. Now, even though everyone knows the story, if you asked everyone to tell the story about three bears and a girl you’ll get a variation. Each person will put their own touch on it.
It’s the same with music. If you play by ear often people will put their touch on it in little different ways. With Leahy, we all have different tastes and different styles. You have a structure, but people have fun with it. Everythings always different and everyone has their own contribution to make. ƒç
Leahy performs 8 p.m. March 15 at the Lucas Theatre. For tix and info go to