Food & Culture

Fiddler Brings Traditional Irish Music to the Pacific Northwest

Fiddler Randal Bays has the luck—and talent—of the Irish

By Jennifer Meyers March 1, 2016

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This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Fiddling for more than three decades, but with a musical career that spans over 50 years, Randal Bays has made a name for himself playing traditional Irish music in the Pacific Northwest and around the globe. “My fiddling extends into the misty past,” he says, laughing as he describes how he stumbled upon the genre in Portland in the 1970s, when a group of his friends convinced him to go to a traditional Irish music concert. Bays immediately fell in love with the sound and bought his first fiddle the very next day.

Despite his considerable talent and recording history with well-known native Irish fiddlers such as Martin Hayes and James Kelly, the musician had trouble finding a Seattle recording studio that was interested in signing a fiddler who wasn’t Irish. (“It’s a fierce little world of its own,” Bays says.) So he created his own label, Foxglove Records, and has since produced 16 albums.

Although Bays says some of his finest musical moments have been during late-night sessions with other professional musicians at Conor Byrne Pub in Ballard and the now-defunct Brad’s Swingside Café in Fremont, the 65-year-old’s real passion isn’t in merely performing, but in sharing his musical knowledge. He does so by teaching private lessons and acting as program director of Cascadia Irish Music Week (cascadiairish.org), an annual event in Olympia that offers group lessons taught by Irish musicians to more than 100 students every summer. “I try to bring [the history] to the lesson, so people know they’re not just learning a few notes,” he says. “They’re learning why it sounds like that and what’s behind the feeling of the music. That’s really important to me.”

Need to Know

1. Music is a family affair for Bays, who recorded his album A Rake of Tunes with his wife, fellow fiddler Susan Waters, and sons Willie and Owen Bays, who play the Irish flute and concertina, respectively.  

2. He says he can’t listen to Irish music for relaxation because he ends up critiquing it. Instead, he unwinds with early Baroque and Renaissance music. 

3. Bays not only has students in Seattle, but also conducts lessons via Skype with budding musicians in New Zealand, France and Ireland.

Fiddling for more than three decades, but with a musical career that spans over 50 years, Randal Bays has made a name for himself playing traditional Irish music in the Pacific Northwest and around the globe. “My fiddling extends into the misty past,” he says, laughing as he describes how he stumbled upon the genre in Portland in the 1970s, when a group of his friends convinced him to go to a traditional Irish music concert. Bays immediately fell in love with the sound and bought his first fiddle the very next day. Despite his considerable talent and recording history with well-known native Irish fiddlers such as Martin Hayes and James Kelly, the musician had trouble finding a Seattle recording studio that was interested in signing a fiddler who wasn’t Irish. (“It’s a fierce little world of its own,” Bays says.) So he created his own label, Foxglove Records, and has since produced 16 albums. Although Bays says some of his finest musical moments have been during late-night sessions with other professional musicians at Conor Byrne Pub in Ballard and the now-defunct Brad’s Swingside Café in Fremont, the 65-year-old’s real passion isn’t in merely performing, but in sharing his musical knowledge. He does so by teaching private lessons and acting as program director of Cascadia Irish Music Week (cascadiairish.org), an annual event in Olympia that offers group lessons taught by Irish 
musicians to more than 100 students every summer. “I try to bring [the history] to the lesson, so people know they’re not just learning a few notes,” he says. “They’re learning why it sounds like that and what’s behind the feeling of the music. That’s really important to me.”

 

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