As the pandemic shifts many aspects of daily life remote, 42-year-old fiddler and UNC alumnus Mike Ferry has found time to return to his roots and do what he loves most: play Irish music.
Ferry’s music career first began to take off during his time of UNC, he said. In his junior year of high school, he joined a local Greensboro band called Weekend Excursion. But as the band members graduated and continued to play after going to their respective colleges, what started as a high school band quickly became a college town sensation.
“In the late '90s, early 2000s, we ended up selling out all college towns across the state of North Carolina," Ferry said. "I mean, we were very popular in Chapel Hill and Raleigh and Greensboro, Boone, Charlotte. The whole state."
Jeff Foxworth, the lead guitarist for Weekend Excursion and a lifelong friend of Ferry’s, reflected on his own experience in the band.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I mean, most of us now have families, most of us are married with kids. It now provides a perspective to look back on what we did when we were younger."
As Weekend Excursion began to tour more regularly, Ferry said they met bands and artists that are still widely known today — including renowned musicians such as Edwin McCain, Jennifer Nettles, Barenaked Ladies, Melissa Etheridge and John Mayer.
When asked how the band came across John Mayer, Ferry laughed.
“We actually played with him at ECU,” Ferry said. “He was a solo acoustic performer. And he played before us. So we were actually in a headlining position and he was an opener, which is kind of funny. People were there to see us, they weren't there to see him.”
But once the band split up in 2004, Ferry said he began to float between music genres before settling on Irish folk music.
“My family’s from Ireland,” Ferry said. “Three of my grandparents came from County Donegal, which is in the Northwest corner of Ireland. So growing up, I always had this strong appreciation and love for Irish culture, and Irish music in particular.”
Ferry said that he only recently decided to delve deeper into Irish, Scottish and American fiddle tunes.
“It took me a long time to actually come back to my Irish roots,” Ferry said. “And now that I'm here, I want to drop anchor and hang out in the genre for a long time because it's so much fun. And with my interest in presenting it in a different way, with drum loops and synthesizers and unique percussive sounds, there's really no limit to what I can create in this domain.”
Although COVID-19 has disrupted the careers of countless musicians, Ferry said he believes it has opened doors for him. Being a high school history teacher and father of five, it was difficult for him to find even a few minutes each day to carve out for his music. Now that most everyday activities are remote, though, Ferry has finally found the time to get started on his most recent project.
The project, an album called "From Ulster To Appalachia," centers around the idea of modernizing traditional Irish tunes, some dating back 250 to 300 years.
He has coined this contemporary genre ‘techno-trad,’ and plans to use the music to portray a deeper societal message, according to a press release on Ferry’s work.
“We can't accomplish anything as a culture, whether it's in politics or whether it's just standing in line at the grocery store, if we're not able to listen to each other and have more empathy,” Ferry said.
This ideal of combatting polarization in the highly partisan social climate in the United States is a metaphor that he is attempting to reflect through his latest album. By combining various genres and styles from completely different time periods, Ferry is hoping to present a solution for the political and social divides that exist in the world today.
“As a musician, I love the idea of playing these traditional songs that have been around for hundreds of years in some cases, but presenting them in a totally different way that's never been heard before,” he said. “And I really think that that's what we need as a society, in our politics, but also just with our interactions with others — we really need to value diversity and inclusion.”
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