Accordionist Fiona Black of the band The Outside Track is not from Ireland but from Scotland, in the far northern reaches of the island, past Inverness.
From the time she was a "wee child," she said, she danced the traditional dances of the Highlands. The back-to-tradition "Fèisean movement" was re-introducing the old music to young people, and through her dancing, Black learned to love the old tunes and instruments.
"I thought the accordion was cool," she remembered, speaking by phone last week from frozen Chicago, where her band landed to begin an American tour. The Outside Track will join the Irish band Socks in the Frying Pan for a pan-Celtic concert in Tucson Friday night.
"I persuaded my parents to get me lessons at 12 or 13." But when it came time to study her piano accordion seriously, Black set out for Ireland, immersing herself in the renowned program in Irish music and dance at the University of Limerick.
"I didn't know much Irish music at the time, but I was in love with it," she said. "There were so many amazing musicians there."
Limerick has generated no small number of up-and-coming traditional bands, and The Outside Track—unusual for its line-up of four women and one man—has no fewer than four Limerick grads.
Besides Black, the band's Limerick alums are fellow Scotswoman Ailie Robertson, the harpist; Teresa Horgan, singer, flutist and whistle player from County Cork, Ireland; and guitarist Cillian O'Dálaigh, an Irishman born in Germany of a German mother and an Irish father, but raised in Ireland.
The band, which has won the Live Ireland and Tradition in Review music awards, started nine years ago during the musicians' undergrad years, though it's been through several personnel changes. Horgan used to sing with FullSet, another band of Limerick graduates, and she performed with them in Tucson and elsewhere before switching over to The Outside Track.
Given the band members' varying nationalities, their music naturally ranged widely over the Celtic world from the start.
"There's a lot of regional styles in both countries, in Ireland and Scotland," Black explained. "There are very different tune types."
Black bolstered her pan-Celtic credentials by taking a semester in Cape Breton, a bastion of Scottish culture in Nova Scotia, fueled by a great migration of Highland Scots in the early 19th century. The band's regular fiddler/dancer, Mairi Rankin, hails from Cape Breton, but visa troubles kept her off the tour.
Boston fiddler Emerald Rae has stepped in for Rankin, literally.
"She spent time in Cape Breton and does dancing as well," Black said.
And her multiple Celtic credentials are impeccable. No only does she have an antique Welsh fiddle—a crwth—she's mastered Scottish and Irish fiddling.
At the concert, the band will be playing plenty of tunes from its new album, "Light Up the Black," which roves over Irish, Scottish, Breton, English and even Swedish/Danish music.
"There will be a few step dances as well," Black promised, courtesy of Emerald Rae.
The female power band shares the bill with the all-male trio Socks in the Frying Pan, whose quotient of three Irishmen tips the balance of the concert back to the Emerald Isle. Hailing from County Clare—famed for the slow, ornamented fiddling style of Martin Hayes—Socks is made up of brothers Shane and Fiachra Hayes, who play fiddle, banjo and button accordion, and Aodán Coyne, who sings and plays guitar.
Named best new traditional band in 2014 in the Tradition in Review competition, the Socks all grew up in the town of Ennis, a bastion of traditional Irish music. Coyne is the son and grandson of musicians, and Shane Hayes has a master's in Irish song from University of Limerick.
The trio sings three-part harmonies, and has developed a rep for witty on-stage patter. As for the origin of their odd name, the Socks declare on their website, "This is yet to be disclosed!"