The Rock-and-Roll Star of Fiddle Music Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Tuesday, 15 March 2005 18:00
Natalie MacMaster grew up listening to her brothers’ records – everything from AC/DC to Michael Jackson to Loverboy. “I’m an ’80s chick, all the way,” she said in an interview with the River Cities’ Reader.

But the 32-year-old Celtic fiddler, dancer, and tunesmith makes her living in the traditional music of her native Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia, Canada. She turned down a role as a featured musician in Lord of the Dance to pursue her solo career, and she’s become a sensation in the folk world, known for her dynamic, high-energy performances that appeal to both traditionalists and younger people.

Modern music sneaks in to the jigs and reels. While the tunes are unmistakably Celtic, MacMaster will sometimes make them electric with guitar and drums, and her performances are lively and fiery, with the performer dancing as she fiddles. MacMaster does for Cape Breton music what Shania Twain does for country; she’s a rock-and-roll star of the fiddle.

When MacMaster performs at the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium on March 31, audiences will get to see firsthand her dexterous fiddling, step-dancing, and the adept way she keeps one foot firmly in folk music while the other playfully and powerfully incorporates rock and funk elements. Her two-disc live set from 2002 is split down the middle, with one platter featuring electric guitar, drums, and plenty of grooves, and one devoted to acoustic performances. Her fiddling is intense no matter the context.

MacMaster said she has the freedom to record and perform whatever music strikes her fancy. Looking forward to a fall release, she said she’d like to release a double-disc set, one traditional and one contemporary.

“We don’t have to be anything,” she said. “We can really let the music lead us.”

MacMaster is the niece of the influential fiddler Buddy MacMaster, and she had produced and released a pair of cassette-only recordings in her teens. By the time she was 24, she had four recordings to her credit. The title of that fourth album, No Boundaries, was a statement that MacMaster refused to be pigeonholed. “We have it [artistic freedom] because we’ve always had it,” she said.

Part of that freedom stems from operating in a niche market. Without expectations of gold records or sold-out stadiums, MacMaster is free to follow her muse. Limited commercial prospects lead to unlimited musical possibilities. “What hinders us also makes us stronger,” she said. “We’ve never had to conform.”

Just as important, she said, her market position allows her to spend time with her family. “It doesn’t frustrate me, because that’s not what I am,” she said. “People assume bigger is better. … But you’re giving up something by doing that as well.”

MacMaster started dancing when she was five and fiddling when she was nine. She’d heard of people doing the two together, and tried it when she was 16. It’s not much different from rubbing one’s belly while tapping one’s head; it requires concentration and some practice, but she swears: “It’s really not as hard as it looks.”

Audiences disagree. “People freaked out,” she said. “If you want to get them, start there.”

The fancy footwork and fiddling go naturally together, she said, because the Cape Breton style of music is well-suited to dancing. “Its got a really strong, powerful rhythm,” she said. That also makes it ideal for updating, with traditional rock instrumentation.

Her latest CD, 2003’s Blueprint, sticks primarily with the old-style music, although “Touch of the Master’s Hand” features propulsive drums and soulful singing that wouldn’t be out of place in the U.S. South. MacMaster’s fiddle, or course, distinguishes the track, making it a Celtic cousin of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

MacMaster said she and her band are heading into the studio in about a month, and she hopes to have a new CD out late this year. She said she has about 50 tunes she wants to record, about half that she’s written herself. “It’s in there,” she said. “I need to get it out.” That’s why she’s considering a two-disc set.

And her label, Rounder, has been “strong and steady,” allowing her to follow her musical path. “I have the world where I want it,” she said.

Natalie MacMaster will perform on Thursday, March 31, at 7:30 p.m. at Hancher Auditorium. Tickets are $15 to $30 and are available by calling (800)426-2437 or by visiting (http://www.uiowa.edu/hancher).
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