For close to 40 years the American/Irish band Cherish The Ladies has set the standard for groups who interpret traditional Irish music in the United States. Over those years they've released 18 albums, starred in the Emmy Award-winning PBS program "An Irish Homecoming", been named the BBC's "Best Musical Group Of The Year", "Top North American Celtic Group" at the Irish Music Awards and been the launching pad for solo artists Eileen Ivers, Aoife Clancy, Cathie Ryan and Winifred Horan. The individual talents of band members have won multiple All-Ireland championships with many of them going on to teach future All-Ireland champions. Praise has been bestowed on Cherish The Ladies by the New York Times and the Washington Post. But there was only one opinion band leader and whistle player Joanie Madden was interested in.
"I would be more worried about what my father would say about our album than the New York Time music critic," she remembers at this year's Celtic Roots Festival in Goderich, Ontario. "He was an All-Ireland champion on the accordion."
In fact, all of the members of Cherish The Ladies came from musical families. Accordionist Mirella Murray's father was a notable Sean-nós dancer, fiddler Nollaig Casey's sisters are harpists, singer Kate Purcell's father also sang while guitarist Mary Coogan's father was an accordion player.
"We were handed this music down from our parents. This was the most precious thing they gave us and we were told not to screw it up!"
The formation of Cherish The Ladies goes back to an idea from Dr. Mick Moloney following an impressive number of American female musicians returning from the 1983 All-Ireland Championships with wins, including Joanie who won three times.
"We had come from a society (Ireland) where it was the men who were playing the music. Now it was just as many girls," Joanie explains. "Mick thought we should do a concert to celebrate the role change and he asked me to help him organize a series of concerts."
Borrowing the title of a traditional Irish jig, Cherish The Ladies performed to sold out concerts in New York City, soon recorded their first album which was deemed the "Best Folk Album of the Year" by the Library of Congress and received a grant from the National Endowment For The Arts for a two week tour.
It may be difficult to believe now but back in the 80s Irish music in America was not as well-known as it is today.
"This was long before 'Riverdance', 'Lord Of The Dance' or any of that," says Joanie. "We'd go across Wyoming and Montana and people had never seen Irish music. We were like Johnny Appleseed showing people what Irish music was."
Individually and collectively the members of Cherish The Ladies have benefitted from the wave of popularity Irish music has received over the decades. But of course nothing was certain in the beginning.
"I've sold 500,000 slow air albums. I mean who the heck?" Joanie says. "When we made my album Whistle On The Wind in 1994 the producer said, 'You know Joanie we might sell 10,000 of these'. I said, 'Get the hell out of here!' and now I've been on multi-million selling albums. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be playing on over 200 records."
For a group to stay together for almost 40 years there's the inevitable personnel changes, with the group now having both American and Irish members. Original "Lady" Eileen Ivers moved on to a solo career as have others but it was the arrival of children which precipitated many of the changes.
"Babies would come along and that was the end of touring for people. We were a bit of a springboard for a lot of women who came in, learned the ropes and then gone off to do their own thing."
While Joanie has had a solo career aside from the band, Cherish The Ladies is always her first priority.
"The group has always been my baby and I dedicated my life to it. I told the girls if they stick with me, I'll stick with them and that's what's happened."
For more information go to cherishtheladies.com.