Four Leaf Peat Keeps Traditional Irish Music Alive in Knoxville

Chad Beauchaine's tunes sometimes race, sometimes dance lightly, and every now and then wail like a lonesome night wind. They're by turns soulful, plaintive, merry to the ear—and swirling renditions of traditional Irish music, every one.

But somehow, even lost in the melody, playing off his bandmate's sweet, clear, dulcimers, or making merry alongside the mandolin, the fiddler for Four Leaf Peat looks a bit like a pharmaceutical rep. Like maybe he shed his suit and tie an hour ago for jeans and a shirt, though his fresh haircut and eyeglasses stayed the same.

Fact is, Beauchaine is a pharmaceutical rep ("I sell drugs to support my musical habit," he explains) and his three bandmates all have day jobs, too. Oak Ridge native Jason Herrera, who plays bodhran and whistles and sings with a lilting brogue, works as a hair stylist and does a bit of blacksmithing. Rick Hall has been playing hammer dulcimer 30 years now, since he saw one at the 1975 Knoxville Jubilee Festival, and also works as a veterinarian. Gil Draper, who coaxes Irish chords from a standard guitar and mandolin, works by day at CNX Gas.

"I like to say I'm a musician making a living as a geologist," Draper says.

Of course, moonlighting musicians is a long-standing tradition, but for this band, it's particularly appropriate.

"The people who really kept the tradition going, they worked the fields and the factories," says Beauchaine. "Then they came home and sang at night. Dancing and singing and playing was their entertainment. They didn't do it because they were going to get some payoff."

In Knoxville, Draper reckons, they are one of just a few bands that play Irish music at all, and the only one that plays traditional, by which they mean traditional. For example, only one of the tunes on their 2009 CD, The Next One, required any sort of credit ("Hector the Hero," composed by James Scott Skinner); the rest are heritage Irish songs and lyrics. They play bodhran and whistles, hammer dulcimer and bouzouki. And Draper's guitar is DADGAD, which sounds like a fond nickname but instead refers to the traditional tuning of the six strings: D-A-D-G-A-D, not the American rock and bluegrass standard of E-B-G-D-A-B.

"The tuning gives you more of a drone effect," he says. "I don't know, it's really hard to explain how it works, but I love it."

Draper had played 15 years in other types of bands when he joined Four Leaf Peat in 2007.

"He came from bluegrass and we converted him to the dark side of the forest," Beauchaine says.

With St. Patrick's Day around the corner, Four Leaf Peat will be playing the WDVX Blue Plate Special and the Square Room that same night. They've played the Laurel Theater, and the Bijou when they first formed in 2004 (at that time with Matt McNeely in place of Draper). Their other gigs have varied, from Dollywood's International Festival the past two years to wedding receptions. "Usually anybody who hires an Irish band for a wedding is going to be a fun group of people," Beauchaine says.

One thing does not vary from gig to gig. "People always say, ‘Wow, we had no idea,'" says Beauchaine, who notes he himself had no idea 11 years ago. "I was in Johnson City, and a friend heard I played the violin and invited me to his house. The next thing I knew, I was in an Irish band. Irish music is just one of those things that hits you like a ton of bricks. Every time I hear good Irish, I fall in love all over again."

In Knoxville, the band gets a particularly good reception from fans of old time and bluegrass music and, says Beauchaine, "little kids who love to jump around and dance." They'd love to broaden their scope, but it's unlikely they'll ever become stars in the 21st-century sense, says Draper.

"It's very similar to old time music, where you get in jams, get in sessions is what they call it. But unlike bluegrass or rock, traditional Irish is not show-off music. It's more of a communal effort—musicians commune as one to create these lovely melodies."