Maggie's New Muse

It's been a long seven weeks for SixMileBridge, touring the Midwest and the East Coast to promote their debut CD, Across the Water. They've survived everything from torrential flooding to altitude sickness. But over the phone from a Richmond, Virginia, hotel room, singer Maggie Drennon sounds surprisingly relaxed and upbeat.

"If you're doing it right, the band is like a family," Drennon says. "After living in a car for seven weeks, you know everything about each other. We care intensely about each other, and we have a lot of fun."

It probably doesn't hurt the family dynamic that SixMileBridge guitarist Anders Johansson is also Drennon's husband. Johansson was also an integral part of her previous "family," Ceili's Muse, a band still so cherished in local folkie cliques that in '98 it received yet another Press Music Awards nomination -- almost a year after its demise. With its obsessive fan base and high-energy live show, Ceili's Muse was arguably Houston's most successful Celtic outfit of the past decade.

Drennon already had ten years of classical training in piano, flute and violin by the time she met Ceili's Muse co-founder Mary Maddux in the late '80s, and it was with her that Drennon took up singing seriously. Maddux also exposed her to Celtic music. Not coincidentally, it was at about that time Drennon began her "obsession with Ireland," something she now likens to a disease. Intrigued by her own Irish decent, she began making frequent trips to the Emerald Isle armed with a portable tape recorder, hiding out in a town called SixMileBridge in County Clare.

Such cultural-preservation tactics were the inspiration behind the Muse, which by 1990 was performing regularly around town, most notably at McGonigel's Mucky Duck. In late 1991, the group released the first of a handful of recordings, One Voice. Buoyed by the close-knit harmonies of Drennon and Maddux and the inspired playing of a rotating cast of band members, the Muse spent the early '90s broadening its repertoire beyond the strictly traditional. But by 1995, the band had begun unraveling. Maddux moved back to Massachusetts, leaving Drennon to soldier on as the lone frontwoman.

"Ceili's Muse was falling apart," Drennon admits now. "[Ending the band] was the most painful decision of my life."

But, in crisis, Drennon managed to find opportunity: "What's supposed to happen is that you move on to something better. To let go, I had to have faith, and my prayers were answered."

Wowed by bouzouki and mandolin player Frances Newton at a Wednesday-night Celtic session at the Mucky Duck, Drennon recruited the blond 20-year-old for her new project with Johansson, SixMileBridge. Newton came to the band from a contra-dance band (based not in the Nicaraguan resistance movement but in an early form of American square dance), and Drennon credits her love of traditional music for keeping the band bound to its roots: "She's the band's trad police; she won't let us get too far into rock."

Austin drummer Wolf Loescher filled out the new band, which Drennon freely admits is a concerted attempt to cross into more mainstream territory. "It was a conscious decision to become [more of] a rock band," she says. "[SixMileBridge] can play to larger audiences, in larger clubs and still play traditional Irish festivals."

Even so, some Celtic music devotees throughout the country have had a hard time adjusting to the band's more contemporary direction, coupled with its Texas origins. One irate New York fan even approached Johansson during a set and told him to "Fuck off," apparently because he's Swedish. Drennon countered by promising him a pint on the band if he could translate the Gaelic she was singing.

"Some people think it's completely retarded -- a Scottish/Irish band from Texas," Drennon confesses.

Not helping matters any is Across the Water, which covers a wide range of styles, from contemporary rock with a decidedly European feel to straight-up Celtic folk ditties played on mandolin, bodhran, bouzouki and pipes. On tracks like "Missing You," Drennon's wrenching soprano plays counterpoint to Johannson's guitar pyrotechnics and Loescher's powerful drumming. (The band's recent appearance at a Leesburg, Virginia, folk festival marked the first time in 18 years that a full drum kit had been used on the event's stage.) Across the Water also includes several lovely Frances Newton originals with a distinctly old-country feel. Granted, it ain't the Cranberries, but the group's modern-day reach is nonetheless impressive.

"It's a question of balance," Drennon says.
As for the future, SixMileBridge has already begun work on Across the Water's follow-up, its release slated for fall on Drennon's own Loose Goose label. And since Johansson is engineering the CD at his own Houston Audio Labs, the band has the luxury of recording at its own pace. Drennon also plans to publish a Loose Goose catalog. The project began as a way to "advertise the CDs of my friends," Drennon says. "But people [have] crawled out of the woodwork to get it." (Already, Loose Goose boasts a mailing list of more than 2,000 names.)

Drennon is equally impressed by the commitment she's seen from other members of SixMileBridge. "[I feel] incredibly honored to be in a band with this mix of people," she says. "It's really true that every day we say 'Thank you; thank you' to each other."

SixMileBridge performs at 9 p.m. Friday, July 10, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $8. For info, call 528-5999.

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