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Fiona Reflects: Life on the Dial
by Fiona Ritchie, adapted from Fiona Ritchie presents The Best of The Thistle & Shamrock® Volume 1, now available in the NPR Shop on CD and cassette.

I am just old enough to be able to claim to have grown up listening to radio. The pride of my Scottish childhood home was a wood-effect wireless set, with a metal grille, and a painted glass panel marking all the BBC and European frequencies.

Philips Lamps 206A/15
Philips Lamps 206A/15
We'd click the dial, wait for the glow, the hum, the static whine as a station faded slowly in. We'd spin the weighty tuner, letting its pointer glide past every frequency on the glass, as each yielded snatches of exotic music, foreign speech, and yet more static to our eager ears.

We'd sit around the radio in the morning for "Listen With Mother," and dance with her in the evening to the fiddles and accordions of Scottish country dance music. Sitting quietly, listening to the radio soundtracking my brother's birth in the next room, is one of my oldest, dearest memories.

So it makes sense that my life's course would be charted by something I heard on the radio. The manufacturer of my teenage pocket transistor had invested more technology in the handy wrist strap, than the woeful speaker. High volume perhaps. High fidelity -- no. Nevertheless, my "tranny" accompanied me to school by day, and into my bedroom by night.

One night, as I surfed the wavebands, I struggled to tune in the strains of a music which grabbed me. It was the sound of Highland pipes, duelling with a wailing electric guitar, and driven along by a bass and full drum kit. This blend was completely new to me and I craved more.

I led a few trusting friends on an expedition to an Edinburgh concert hall to see the man who had made my cheap radio sound so good. And the Alan Stivell album I bought the next day ended up on a U.S. public radio station turntable a few years later.

How my interest in Celtic music led to a career of playing it on U.S. radio stations is a matter of serendipity.

Suffice to say that The Thistle & Shamrock began on WFAE-FM in Charlotte, NC in 1981, and was first introduced to a national audience on June 4, 1983.

Every week since then, I've taken great pleasure in filling the airwaves with an hour of music by remarkable musicians.

There is infinitely more awareness of their work than there was at the time of that first tentative broadcast, and over 380 public radio stations across the U.S. now air The Thistle & Shamrock via National Public Radio.

When we marked 15 years of The Thistle & Shamrock, I was asked to put together a "personal best" CD. For me, the temptation to offer the one and only compilation of favorite artists or recordings from The Thistle & Shamrock has always been easy to resist. How to pick cuttings from the vast golden crop of music that is 15 years of radio programs? I never thought it possible.

But after much deliberation, I was able to collect a first harvest, tracing my journey through the past decade and a half. I chose a dozen recordings which have moved, thrilled, invigorated, refreshed, and entertained me, and listeners to Thistle. They include Dougie MacLean (below, left), a perennial favorite with listeners, whose music is woven throughout the history of The Thistle & Shamrock.

Dougie MacLean  
In '89 and '90, we embarked upon a great adventure together, touring by plane and bus to stage live versions of the radio program. The two concert tours we presented allowed me to meet listeners in all corners of the U.S., and gave me some of my funniest memories.

I also included Scots artists Dick Gaughan, Alasdair Fraser, Sileas, William Jackson, and Battlefield Band, a group clearly big on firsts. The inaugual live concert I promoted was theirs, its members my first interview subjects, and their concert performance the first in a long line of live recordings. We've crossed paths many times since. If we are in a longevity contest, I need to know what they're on.

French guitarist Pierre Bensusan is a musician whose playing I greatly admire, and whose work I was desperate to include in our first collection. Years ago, after organizing another North Carolina concert for public radio, I expressed a heartfelt wish that I could play like Pierre. "But you could, Fiona," he said sincerely, "if you practised 10 hours a day like I did." I took his advice and did manage the ten hours of practice. But not all in one day.

Including the music of Relativity in our collection reminded me of fine times with former North Carolina neighbor, Triona Ni Dhomhnaill, and many great encounters with brother Micheal and the Cunninghams, John and Phil. During the band's one U.S. tour, Relativity played in conjunction with the radio program. As the concert reached its close, I remember an ecstatic voice yelling from the back of the hall "best band in the WORLD!"

Maura O'Connell
Maura O'Connell
Some Irish artists I was eager to include were Clannad, Altan, Davy Spillane, and also Maura O'Connell, whose voice has helped to define the sound of The Thistle & Shamrock. County Claire-born and Nashville-based, her music often makes the American connection, which has been fundamental to the program through the years.

This music shines on the radio, but it positively dazzles upon hearing it live. At Whelan's Pub in Dublin, Davy Spillane closed his eyes and cradled his uilleann pipes throughout a spellbinding performance I attended in the early '90s. His recordings stand as some of the most popular instrumentals ever aired on Thistle, and his was one of the most acclaimed interview features.

I've probably used his music as a driving soundtrack more than any other, especially when crossing those wide open spaces: last year on the Road to the Isles, and over the sea to Skye.

The Best of The Thistle & Shamrock Vol 1
Best of
The Thistle & Shamrock, Vol. 1
Trawling through the Thistle library for music to include on the CD helped me to appreciate how much change we have seen in a decade and a half of radio programs. We have travelled from LP to CD; from transistor to website; from transmitter to satellite; and, not surprisingly, from harps, pipes, and fiddles to harps, pipes, and fiddles.

Rapid change all around with the music remaining rooted, timeless. Long may it be so.

Fiona Ritchie

Copyright 2005 NPR and Fiona Ritchie