Though Celtic fiddle music is not the biggest-selling genre in the music industry, fiddler Natalie MacMaster has earned plenty of popular support. Known as Nova Scotia’s favorite Celtic fiddler, MacMaster “doesn’t even consider herself a violinist,” according to the University of California, Los Angeles Daily Bruin, but “describes herself as a world-class fiddler.” While she sticks close to her Cape Breton roots and musical traditions, she also adds her own sense of style, which has widened her audience significantly. Her albums Fit as a Fiddle, No Boundaries, and In My Hands each earned gold certification for sales of more than 50,000 copies. She kept closer to tradition on My Roots Are Showing, her collection of traditional Celtic and Cape Breton fiddle music. MacMaster’s musical talent and flair is likely in her blood—popular young fiddler Ashley Maclsaac is her cousin, and Buddy MacMaster, the influential and veteran fiddler, is her great-uncle. Her pop-star looks don’t hurt, either—the vivacious stage performer is blonde, slender, attractive, and outgoing. Since 1997 she has been voted best fiddle player in addition to a host of other awards received at the Canadian Country Music Awards and Canadian Juno Awards.
MacMaster was born to a musical family in 1973 in Troy, Inverness, on Cape Breton, a Nova Scotia island off Canada’s east coast. MacMaster’s family ties and roots to Cape Breton and her Scottish heritage remain strong despite her popular success. “I love what I love about Cape Breton: its natural and its rootsy sound, the tradition that’s been carried on for so long,” she told the Burlington Free Press. “I haven’t abandoned what’s home.” She credits her family for her love of music, often telling stories of her great-uncle, Buddy MacMaster, who gave her her first fiddle at age nine.
MacMaster and her cousin, Ashley Maclsaac, took lessons together, and barely six months after picking up the fiddle, MacMaster performed her first concert. By age 12 she had finished her first tour and knew what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. Though her parents had to force her to practice at first, MacMaster soon began eagerly pursuing opportunities to play. “I would do whatever anybody asked me to,” she told the Burlington Free Press in an interview. “I wanted to be involved with the music, and the more gigs I got… the better.” She has never had a job other than fiddling.
MacMaster did not wait for a record deal to release her first albums. She self-produced two cassettes—4 on the Floor and Road to the Isle, released in 1989 and 1990, respectively—by the time she was 20. (Tracks from both of these independent releases can be found on A Compilation, released by Rounder in 1998.) It wasn’t until 1993, however, that MacMaster released No Boundaries on Warner Bros. Canada. The album was dedicated to MacMaster’s late grandmother, Margaret Ann Beaton, who often sang along in Gaelic to the songs MacMaster learned to play on her fiddle as a child.
Born in 1973 in Troy (on the island of Cape Breton), Nova Scotia, Canada; niece of famed Cape Breton fiddler Buddy MacMaster.
Began fiddling, c. 1982; completed first tour, c. 1985; released 4 on the Floor, 1989; Road to the Isle, 1990; Fit as a Fiddle, 1992; No Boundaries (on Warner Bros. Canada), 1993; A Compilation (Rounder Records), 1998; My Roots Are Showing (Warner Bros. Canada), 1998; In My Hands (Rounder), 1999; and Live (Rounder Records), 2002; has toured constantly throughout her career.
Awards: East Coast (Canada) Music Awards, Best Roots/Traditional Album for Fit as a Fiddle, 1992; Successful Canadian Women’s Award, Adsum House, 1999; Juno Award (Canada), Best Instrumental Album for My Roots Are Showing, 1999; East Coast Music Awards, Female Artist of the Year and Roots/Traditional Solo Artist of the Year, 2000; Canadian Country Music Association, Vocal/Instrumental Collaboration of the Year for “Get Me Through December,” 2000; Juno Award, Best Instrumental Album for In My Hands, 2000; Canadian Country Music Association, Roots Artist or Group of the Year, 2001; Canadian Country Music Association, Best Fiddle Player, 1997-2001.
Addresses: Record company —Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. Fan club—Natalie MacMaster, Box 9638, Port Hastings, NS B9A3R7, Canada. Website —Natalie MacMaster Official Website: http://www.nataliemacmaster.com.
Energetic live shows are part of MacMaster’s musical focus. She plays “foot-tapping rave ups,” and “heart-rending waltzes,” according to her online biography, and performs bits of step dancing and storytelling during her live shows. “The step dancing… has become part of my show,” MacMaster said in an interview with Don Heckman for the Los Angeles Times. “I only put it in because I know the crowd loves it.” When she’s opted not to dance, she continued, “I’ve heard about it.” MacMaster plays with her own five-piece band and has opened for both Carlos Santana and the Chieftains, in addition to her own rigorous headlining schedule that includes between 150 and 200 shows yearly across Canada, the United States, and Europe. She once played with the Chieftains in a concert honoring Luciano Pavarotti in New York City. About touring, she told the Los Angeles Daily News : “It’s a crazy lifestyle, and I’m sort of a traditional girl and I like to be home.” When not on tour MacMaster can be found playing her fiddle at local Cape Breton square dances, “just for practice,” according to her online biography. “I enjoy coming home, and I play for square dances and little concerts here and there, and its very much a community thing and a family thing,” she told the Daily Bruin. “There’s a lot of dancing and it’s just really real and good.”
In addition to her own work, MacMaster has appeared on albums by the Chieftains, Kevin Evans and Brian Doherty, Eileen Ivers, Ralwins Cross, and Sharon Shannon. She also has been featured on ad campaigns for Tim Horton’s Donuts, General Motors (Pontiac), and Eaton’s. She has played to raise money for Adsum House, a shelter for homeless and transient women and children and is an instructor at the annual Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp. In 1999, she cohosted and performed at the Canada Day celebration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada.
On her fifth release, In My Hands, which came out in 1999, MacMaster featured a wide range of influences—Latin rhythms, pop, and hip-hop grooves—and included artists such as Canadian guitar virtuoso Jesse Cook, session fiddler Mark O’Connor, and Irish accordion player Sharon Shannon. The title track features MacMaster on vocals and was the artist’s “first-ever clear contender for commercial radio play,” according to her online biography. Vocalist Alison Krauss sang on the tune “Get Me Through December,” which won the Canadian Country Music Association Award for Vocal/Instrumental Collaboration of the Year in 2000.
MacMaster released an album dedicated to her Cape Breton and Celtic heritage in the United States in 2000. Aptly titled My Roots Are Showing, the album features many of the most influential and historically important traditional Cape Breton songs for fiddle, using only guitar and piano accompaniment. The liner notes for the release contain historical background on the music, much of which dates back to the early twentieth century, and which MacMaster played to the note. “The less improvising the better, with the Cape Breton style,” she told Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times. “It’s considered very respectful of the music and the tradition to play the tunes the way they were written.” The album includes a selection of jigs, reels, marches, strathspeys (Scottish dance tunes), and hornpipes. The songs range from dance tunes like “Close to the Floor” and “Willie Fraser” to more sentimental selections like “The Shakin’s o’ the Pocky” and “A’ Chuthag,” or “The Cuckoo.” The final track on My Roots Are Showing, called “A Glencoe Dance Set,” features a lively duet between MacMaster and her famous uncle. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2000 and won the 1999 Juno Award for Best Instrumental Album.
4 on the Floor, self-released, 1989.
Road to the Isle, self-released, 1990.
Fit as a Fiddle, 1992; reissued, Rounder, 1997.
No Boundaries, Warner Bros. Canada, 1993; reissued, Rounder, 1997.
Compilation, Rounder, 1998.
In My Hands, Rounder, 1999.
My Roots Are Showing, Warner Bros. Canada, 1998; reissued, Rounder, 2000.
Live, Rounder, 2002.
Boston Herald, November 10, 2000.
Burlington Free Press, April 26, 2001.
Daily Bruin (University of California, Los Angeles), February 23, 2001.
Daily News (Los Angeles), May 1, 2001.
Dirty Linen, December 2000/January 2001.
Honolulu Advertiser, April 27, 2001.
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, April 29, 2001.
Houston Chronicle, April 30, 2001.
Intelligencer-Record (Doylestown, Pennsylvania), April 20, 2001.
Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2001.
Maine Times, April 26, 2001.
New York Times, February 23, 2001.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland), July 29, 2001.
Washington Post, November 2, 2001.
Canadian Country Music Awards, http://www.ccma.org (January 24, 2002).
“Natalie MacMaster,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 24, 2002).
Natalie MacMaster Official Website, http://www.nataliemacmaster.com (January 24, 2002).
Additional materials were provided by the Rounder Records publicity department, 2002.
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