Tuam Raiders

Although they hail from Tuam, in the rural west of the country where Gaelic is still spoken, there's nothing altogether Irish about the Saw Doctors' music. Erase the vocals from their rock and pop tracks, and you probably wouldn't be able to tell where the band is from.

Once you hear any of the singers, though, you'll know they're not only from Ireland but damn proud of it. As band co-founder Leo Moran once put it: "I love the West of Ireland, and the way people speak. It's a kind of Irish English, which is being lost by our generation because we were brought up on telly, and everything is the same."

Saw Doctors co-founder Davy Carton provides a few examples of this Irish English over the phone from Tuam (pronounced "choom"). "People in Dublin think they're the bee's knees," he laughs. "We're all what they call 'culchies.' We're from Tuam, and it's only a small town, but when we were growing up, we thought we were the bee's knees. We would call ourselves 'shams' in the town -- we would consider ourselves the latest in everything. The lads who would come to school with us from the country, we would call them 'buffers,' as a derogatory term." (An Irish slang Web site defines "buffer" as "a red-neck, although mostly used by red-necks to describe other red-necks living further out in the countryside, and likely to live on a farm up a mountain somewhere.")

Carton and Moran at first tried to reject their Irishness altogether, as any good shams would. Right before the Saw Doctors got together, Carton was in a punk band called Blaze X and Moran was leading a reggae band with the look-out-world-here-we-come! name Too Much for the White Man.

But their inner buffers were crying out for release. After the breakups of Blaze and Too Much, Moran started a rock duo with mutual friend Mary O'Connor and drew on Carton's large repertoire of unused songs from his punk days. Soon enough Carton made the band a trio, and by 1987 they were a quintet. Gone were the anarchic rants and Rastafarian riddims; the Saw Doctors were going to sing about Tuam alone. They were going to bring the world to Tuam and Tuam to the world.

Against all odds they did it almost immediately. Their fame quickly radiated outward from their hometown -- first to Galway, where Mike Scott of the Waterboys happened upon them and asked the band to open for him on his 1988 Ireland tour and his tour of the UK the next year.

Oh, yeah, the band also released a single called "I Useta Lover." The salacious tune about lusting at Mass enraged Ireland's bishops and opened the pocketbooks of the hoi polloi. Eventually, it became the biggest-selling Irish single of all time. The band followed that with "N17," a wistful song with a catchy chorus about the road that the people of western Ireland take to Shannon Airport and emigration. For many Irish, the scenic road is their last memory of Ireland on the ground, and the song's nostalgia struck a chord. Homesick Irish the world over snapped up the single and sang along at the Saw Doctors shows. By now their fame had spread beyond Tuam for sure.

But they've never been critical darlings. Some scribes have called them overly sentimental. The London Times called them a "people's band" (read: "not something you or I should be interested in"). Others said they weren't political enough, and yet more said their celebrations of all things sham and buffer were "too Irish."

"In an Irish context we're seen as very rural and almost nostalgic, because to celebrate place is not that hip really in Ireland," says Carton. "In Ireland they want to be the most modern and the most new and shiny. We didn't set out to do anything except [chronicle] the place that we live. We just happen to like the place we live."

Of course Texas bands, especially those of the country persuasion, are all about celebrating place, sometimes mindlessly. The Saw Doctors avoid Pat Green Disease by employing the local to reach the global. No hollering idiotically about Guinness and the Blarney Stone for these lads, thank you very much; they're after richer quarry. "We kinda take our lead from Bruce Springsteen writing about New Jersey, Tom Waits writing about the old Los Angeles where he grew up," says Carton. "We're old-fashioned from that point of view. But we'd hope that there might be little gremlins of what we say that might be universal."

And indeed there are gremlins on their latest release, Villains?, starting with the raplike title track. Between plenty of place-name checks, the song tells of penny-ante drug dealers in Tuam who work at the behest of hardened paramilitaries north of the border. One line -- "The guilty wear suits and ties / many of them drive fancy cars / I ask you / who the villains are" -- rings more than a little true in this city chock-full of Porsche Boxster-driving Enron hornswogglers.

Even if the Saw Doctors' music is mainly descriptive of Ireland, even if they fail at their mission of universality, they do so better than at least two of their more famous musical compatriots. Quoth the Edinburgh Evening News: "Future historians and archaeologists will get a better picture of life in late 20th-century Ireland from Saw Doctors' records than from anything by U2 or the Pogues."

That Scotsman's right. Shane MacGowan's Ireland seems to have come from books and twitchy whiskey dreams, while Bono's Ireland plays as if it were handed down on stone tablets from on high. By contrast, the Saw Doctors' Ireland is a mirror image of living, breathing reality. They sing of lonely men trying to score with lonely women outside fish-and-chip shops, of the beauty but also the stifling boredom of rural Ireland, of life lived under the watchful eyes of priests, nuns and bishops.

Or as Moran once put it in a tour program: "Born into a repressed, Catholic, conservative, small-town, agrarian, angst-ridden and showband-infested society, we're trying to preserve the positive elements of our backgrounds and marry them to the sounds which have culturally invaded our milieu through TV, radio, 45s, fast food restaurants, 24-hour petrol stations and electric blankets."

So perhaps the Saw Doctors are a fusion of the shams they once wanted to be and the buffers they have since embraced. Call them shuffers.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax