Bagpipes and bluegrass might seem unlikely musical bedfellows, but for the Scottish piper Fred Morrison, one of Celtic music’s most profoundly skilled and audaciously inventive exponents, they form a wholly natural alliance. His latest album project, Outlands, featuring such top Americana luminaries as producer Gary Paczosa, banjo/guitar ace Ron Block and Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien, sets out to explore the inherent connections Morrison perceives between their traditions and his.
“I’ve always heard a really strong affinity between my own South Uist background and the Irish travelling pipers’ style played by people like Paddy Keenan,” he says, “and when I started playing the Irish pipes myself, I also found this deep-down rhythmic connection with bluegrass music – to me it’s as if they’re all one and the same.”
Although Morrison was born and raised near Glasgow , it’s the celebrated Gaelic piping tradition of his father’s native South Uist, in the outer Hebrides, that forms the bedrock of his intensely expressive, uniquely adventurous style. His outstanding technical prowess saw him winning many top competition prizes while still at school, meanwhile being inspired by pioneering acts like the Bothy Band and the Tannahill Weavers. Although his first-love instrument remains the great Highland bagpipes, over the years his mastery has expanded to encompass whistles, Scottish smallpipes, or reelpipes – Morrison being a pivotal populariser of this once-rare variety – and Irish uilleann pipes. He was also one of the first Scottish artists to forge dynamic links with his Celtic cousins in Brittany and north-west Spain , adding further to his repertoire of influences and tunes, and has long been renowned as an outstanding tune composer.
Morrison maintains a busy touring schedule, having settled into working with a hand-picked pool of leading instrumentalists. His current bluegrass project, meanwhile, has him more fired up than ever before – and given Morrison’s uniquely impassioned approach to music, that’s saying something. “The point I’ve reached now with my playing and my writing – it’s like everything’s just kind of at one,” he says. “I’ve never felt I was quite there with it before, but now I know where I’m at, I know what I want to do, and I know I can do it. I heard this Uist-Irish-bluegrass connection in my head, and I knew I could make it work.”
Fred Morrison: Border pipes, uilleann pipes, low whistles