There will be songs, laughter and stories aplenty when Mac McHale and Emery “Hutch” Hutchins step on to Claremont Opera House stage Friday night. The “Two Old Friends” blend Irish and traditional American sounds to build a musical bridge between the two continents.
“We’re combining Appalachian music with the music of the British Isles, because in truth, one’s tied to the other,” says Mac McHale, a native Mainer who traces his roots to the city of Sligo in the Irish Midlands. “We do a song called ‘Mrs. McCloud’s Reel,’ which is the Irish name of it. In Appalachia, it’s called ‘Did You Ever Go To Meet Uncle Joe,’ but it’s the exact same song. ‘Dooley’ is about a revenuer in Appalachia; in truth he was a guy who made illegal spirits in Ireland.”
The duo has over 80 years of performing time between them. “My first professional gig was in 1952, at the American Legion Hall in Orono, Maine,” says McHale. “Me and two other guys got a buck fifty a piece. I’ve been at it ever since.”
McHale and Hutchins met 30 years ago. “Emery was doing sound for a festival I was putting on,” says Mac. Hutchins suggested they play together, and along with Taylor Whiteside, they performed as Northeast Winds for over 15 years. “Things change, and we sort of disbanded, but four years ago we got back together as ‘Two Old Friends’.”
Their show is filled with many wonderful anecdotes, like the one Mac tells about the origins of “Orange Blossom Special,” a song that’s been called the best-known fiddle tune of the twentieth century. Two cabdrivers living in a Jacksonville rooming house wrote it one night when they had no fares.
“In the morning,” says McHale, “one of those guys sold his half of the song to the other guy for a pint of whisky. That guy copyrighted the song and lived on the royalties for the rest of his life.”
“You know what his friend told me?” Mac excitedly asks. “I worked on festivals in the south with him. He said, ‘Son, that was the most expensive drink I ever had.’”
Mac and Hutch play “Orange Blossom Special” in their set; Mac also plays it with “Old Time Radio Gang,” a bluegrass band that he calls his alter ego. “It’s traditional, old-time music like the Stanley Brothers,” says McHale. “No new grass.” The band’s name is a throwback to McHale’s boyhood experiences listening to the radio in Bangor, Maine.
“We had three stations that programmed live country music every day – bands in the studio,” he says. On “Noontime Jamboree,” he’d hear groups like Ray Little and the Radio Cowboy Show, Cowboy Gene Cooper and Lone Pine Mountaineer.
“At night we’d get Wheeling, West Virginia – WWVA. One of my mentors down there was Doc Williams, of Doc Williams and the Border Riders,” he says. “That’s when I got infected with the whole thing.”
More than half a century later, he shows no signs of slowing down. “I’m 74, and I can still drive all night,” laughs McHale.