The Gort Mile, Angela Usher’s first album, with tenor banjo taking centre stage, was released on Banjaxed Records in July 2018. Not that Angela is in any sense a newcomer. She has played Irish traditional music in Manchester for decades and is dedicated to perpetuating the music through successive generations in her home city, teaching and inspiring hundreds of local school age children.
Making her first recording under her own name led Angela to look back on her family and musical heritage. The album’s title is a reference to her Grandfather’s origins. John Joe Lally, came from Peterswell, close to Gort, Co. Galway, and he won the Gort Mile race in the early 1920’s. He was a keen Irish step dancer and moved to Manchester in the 1930’s. Angela was born in Glossop in 1967 and brought up in Manchester. She began Irish dancing at an early age and at the age of 10 started tin whistle lessons with Marian Egan (Flannery) at St Wilfrid’s in Hulme and later began banjo lessons with Sully (Tony Sullivan) and then Bobby Tracey.
In her early teens, Angela spent summers in Peterswell, frequently visiting the family home of celebrated box player Joe Cooley. She spent hours playing tunes on the whistle accompanied by Joe’s brother Jack on the bodhran. By the age of 15, Angela joined her first band Curragh and soon was teaching at her local Comalthas branch. A couple of years later, Angela was a founder member, with Mike McGoldrick and others, of the popular Manchester Celtic rock group Toss the Feathers. She played on their ‘Live at the 32’ release and first studio album Columbus Eclipse.
The idea of Angela making an album of her own hadn’t occurred to her. It was her Dad and sister Anne’s idea for the family to buy some studio time as a ‘whole family’ Christmas present. Mike McGoldrick was enlisted as producer and engineer. The respect she commands from other musicians is demonstrated in the contributions to The Gort Mile from John Carty (fiddle), Michael Coult (flute, whistle), Colin Farrell (fiddle), Matt Griffin (guitar) and Mike McGoldrick (flute, percussion, mandola, jaw harp). Angela explains how the album came about:
“Mike McGoldrick and I grabbed hours in the studio, here and there, working around our busy lives with work and family commitments. Our approach has been really relaxed and we’ve just gone with the flow. When different musicians were in town we asked them into the studio to guest on tracks. Having my own children and some of my former students on the The Gort Mile has been brilliant.”
Almost half of the tunes are Angela’s own compositions. The tune that gives the album its title, The Gort Mile, is dedicated to her race winning Grandfather, John Joe Lally. Another, The Sanderling Sessions, was composed for the Grady family who were next door neighbours of Angela grandparents – it was Margaret Grady who first encouraged Angela to take up the banjo.
The other tunes are a mix of traditional and compositions by the likes of Maurice Lennon, Liz Carroll, Alan Kelly, Frankie Rodgers and Damien Connolly. The album has one song, Landslide, written by Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, sung beautifully by Angela’s daughter Gráinne.
Whilst Angela can play many instruments very well, for many years the banjo has been her instrument of choice:
“It was as a teenager I really took to the banjo, in part inspired by listening a lot to Stockton’s Wing, and in particular Kieran Hanrahan’s playing. It’s been my main instrument ever since, although I still play lots of other instruments.”
Although the names of great banjo players come quickly to mind – Barney McKenna, Gerry O’Connor, John Carty, Éamonn Coyne, Brian McGrath – the banjo is not commonly the primary instrument on solo albums. Angela’s playing is unassuming, with refreshing interpretation and the melody always shines through in her subtle, intricate playing. Her feeling for each tune is personal and heartfelt. She also flows effortlessly from banjo to tin whistle, to guitar, to mandolin and back.
The Manchester Irish music scene’s best kept secret is out – with The Gort Mile Angela Usher is at last sharing her considerable talents as a musician and as a composer of tunes with the wider world.
“The influence of inspired and inspirational teachers like Angela can never be overestimated or over praised and the number of pupils that have left Angela to go on sharing and celebrating that great gift of music wherever they have been is hard to estimate. And now she has her own debut album out – at last. The Gort Mile is a rare and spirited collection from an outstanding musician and teacher. Cherish it.” – Mike Harding (Broadcaster and folk musician)
“I first played music with Angela Usher 31 years ago. It’s wonderful to watch her combine her two passions, music and teaching, when she’s encouraging and supporting the younger generation. She is an invaluable asset to the city of Manchester, changing the lives of people through her love of playing and teaching music.” – Mike McGoldrick
“I have been blessed to know the Usher family for many years and privileged to have shared many tunes with Angela and her siblings. This album represents a sublime manifestation of Angela’s outstanding talent, infectious joy and impressive humility. Traditional music constantly evolves and our culture will continue to thrive through the legacy being created by Angela Usher. ‘Scaoileann an ceol an t-anam’.” – Eamonn O’Neal (Broadcaster)