Natalie MacMasterBluegrass and Celtic music are close cousins, with shared roots dating back several hundred years. But that's not what prompted Celtic fiddling virtuoso Natalie MacMaster to enlist some of the world's top bluegrass pickers--including Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and Edgar Meyer--for her latest album, Blueprint. MacMaster, a native of Canada's Cape Breton Island, says her only motivation in choosing guests for the album was to feature the best acoustic musicians she could find. The common thread of bluegrass turned out to be a happy coincidence. "I gravitate toward quality musicianship--that's what I grew up with," says MacMaster, who earned a Grammy nomination in 2000 for My Roots Are Showing in the Best Traditional Folk Album category. "Irish music affects me the same way as Cape Breton music because those are the sounds and instruments that I've heard since I was a child. It's the same thing with bluegrass music, which has many of the same sounds and instruments. And, in a way, bluegrass musicians play reels, breakdowns and jigs too, so it's all very similar."
Working in Nashville with producer Darol Anger, MacMaster began assembling a wish list of who they'd like to work with. After recruiting banjo star Fleck and mandolin great Bush, MacMaster and Anger needed to line up a vocalist to sing "Touch of the Master's Hand," a poem set to music written by MacMaster and her guitarist, Brad Davidge. It was only when they settled on singer John Cowan did they realize the connection; Fleck, Bush and Cowan had all been members of bluegrass innovators the New Grass Revival.
Douglas, who appears on five of Blueprint's 13 tracks, provided another unexpected link: it turned out that bassist Meyer and guitarist Bryan Sutton had both previously worked with the Dobro master. "Jerry's the best Dobro player in the world," enthuses MacMaster. "We thought, 'why not start at the top?' He's so versatile and he adapted to the Cape Breton style right away." Adds MacMaster: "None of the musicians were show-offs. They're all just totally devoted to music--no matter what the style--and they were a total pleasure to work with. That was the coolest part of making this record."
That joyfulness is evident on the album's opening track, "A Blast," a series of five rollicking fiddle tunes, three of which MacMaster wrote herself. She also co-wrote "Jig Party" with her bagpipe player Matt MacIsaac and penned "Minnie & Alex's Reel" for her parents. MacMaster's compositional output is at an all-time high. "I'm in a real creative phase right now," she acknowledges. "Every time I sit down to practice, I have a lot of ideas for tunes and usually spend the first half hour just writing them down."
While still fairly new to songwriting, the 30-year-old MacMaster is already a veteran of her instrument. She first picked up a fiddle at the age of nine and hasn't looked back. The niece of famed Cape Breton fiddler Buddy MacMaster, Natalie quickly became a major talent in her own right. After winning numerous East Coast Music Awards for her early traditional Cape Breton recordings, she began taking Celtic music to new heights with albums like In My Hands, which featured elements of jazz, Latin music and guest vocals by Alison Krauss. To her accomplishments, she's added a Juno Award (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy) for Best Instrumental Album and several Canadian Country Music Awards for Fiddler of the Year. For every contemporary album, MacMaster is quick to respond with a traditional one, like My Roots Are Showing. Her most recent recording, Live, was two albums in one: the first disc showcased her Celtic rock band, including the big-concert sounds of synthesizer, drums and electric bass, while the other featured a down-home Cape Breton square dance with just piano and guitar. MacMaster, who plays with what the Los Angeles Times described as "irresistible, keening passion," thrives in both settings.
With Blueprint, MacMaster is once again pushing the boundaries for traditional music, fusing her brilliant Cape Breton fiddling with the sounds of banjo, Dobro and mandolin, as played by the cream of America's bluegrass community. "Alison Krauss was the artist who first got me listening to bluegrass music," recalls MacMaster. "With this album, maybe I can do the same thing and attract people to traditional Cape Breton music."