In traditional Irish music circles, the Teetotallers are sort of a supergroup. Violist Martin Hayes is a six-time all-Ireland fiddle champion. Kevin Crawford, who plays the flute, whistle, and bodhrán drum, has worked the Celtic folk circuit since the '90s in the bands Lúnasa and Moving Cloud. And singer John Doyle has recorded with Joan Baez and toured extensively with the legendary Irish-American band Solas.
Doyle says the band was put together and named ("for a laugh," he says) by the organizer of a Celtic music festival in Sebastopol, Calif., in 2010, and the lineup stuck. Today, they play a mix of traditional and modern traditional music, mainly from County Clare, where Hayes and Crawford hail from.
"The songs speak of the struggles, successes, and failures of individuals in love, war, oppression," Doyle says. "I believe it is a fascinating insight into our culture. Plus, I think we're not bad on our instruments."
The trio has earned critical praise for their concerts, in which they sit in the round and swap songs and stories, sometimes cracking jokes but always approaching their craft with a single-minded seriousness. Doyle is the only member who lives in the U.S., and he has recently spent some time in Ireland rehearsing with the others. He was born in Dublin but lives in Asheville, N.C., and he says his style of music is not lost on audiences in the artist-friendly mountain town. To Celtic players, Appalachian music is "rather like a different dialect in a language," having been brought to America by the Scots-Irish in the 18th century and mixed with the music of enslaved Africans — who, for instance, introduced the banjo to the American folk tradition. "There are still many tunes one can pick out from old-timey music and hear the equivalent tune in Ireland or Scotland," Doyle says.
In recent years, rock bands have successfully incorporated Celtic sounds into their music — Flogging Molly, the Frames, and the Dropkick Murphys come to mind. Doyle holds no grudge against them. "There is room for innovation and progressiveness in Celtic music, and I have done my fair share of it with different bands I was part of over the years," he says. "I prefer acoustic music personally these days."
Having grown up in a musical family, with a father who sang traditional songs and a grandfather who played the button accordion, Doyle was captivated by the genre at a young age and started studying the great guitar players of the Celtic and English folk scenes: Arty McGlynn, Dónal Lunny, Dick Gaughan. He says traditional instrumental music is enjoying some popularity in Ireland today, although old-style sean nós singing has not seen a resurgence yet.
Doyle is known for his innovations on the folk guitar, which he notes is a historically recent addition to the lineup of Celtic instruments. With the Teetotallers, he has picked up a hybrid bouzouki-guitar, an eight-stringed instrument with a guitar body. It's an apt picture of an ever-evolving musical form, centuries in the making.