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Photo by Margaret MalandruccoloLike B.B. King strumming his guitar Lucille, NovaScotian songwriter/step dancer Natalie MacMaster and her fiddle were meant for each other.
She's been immersed in a culture rich in the Celtic fiddle tradition: at age nine, MacMaster's father taught her to play for six months before she began formal studies with Stan Chapman, a respected Cape Breton fiddle teacher (she is also the niece of famed Cape Breton fiddler Buddy MacMaster). She was playing publicly by age 12 and recorded her first album, Four on the Floor, four years later. By 1993, the then-20-year-old's third release, Fit As a Fiddle, won the East Coast Music Award for Best Roots/Traditional Album. Onstage, MacMaster, now 32, roams from slow, haunting ballads to fast-paced jigs and reels, all delivered with limitless energy and passion.
"Traditional music can be so beautiful that I just bubble up inside with joy whenever I play it," she says. "But at the same time, I listen to everything from Maroon 5 to the Dixie Chicks to AC/DC, so I do have this creative desire to stretch my musical palette."
This adventurous spirit percolates throughout her latest release, 2003's Blueprint, a collection mixing her native fiddle music with modern American string music, featuring bluegrass pickers Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and others. The result is a seamless set of reels, breakdowns and jigs where the common threads linking bluegrass and Celtic music are clearly highlighted.
Well-known singer/songwriter/fiddler Alison Krauss was the first musician to get MacMaster interested in bluegrass, but oddly enough, MacMaster didn't specifically want Blueprintto be a quasi-bluegrass recording. She simply went after the best musicians she could find.
"I wanted to create a sound that was a little bit different for me," explains MacMaster. "There really are no banjo, dobro or mandolin players in my world, and Bela, Jerry and Sam [respectively] are known as the best at what they do. So I was more attracted to these players than the kind of music they necessarily play."
Themes have become a central focus, as well, and MacMaster's songwriting has begun to blossom recently. One of Blueprint's highlights is the lovely "Minnie & Alex's Reel," a selection she wrote for her parents. MacMaster also composed three fiddle tunes and co-wrote the rollicking "Jig Party" with her bagpipe player, Matt MacIsaac.
But didn't MacMaster once say there's no need to write any new songs because there's already a gazillion good ones out there?
"Yes, I have said that," she answers, chuckling. "At that time, I just didn't have the desire to write any songs. But when I just couldn't find any tunes that fit the sound and style I was after, I sat down and eventually came up with 'David's Jig/Valerie Pringle's Reel.' I think anyone can be a writer as long as the interest is there. And it's an amazing feeling when you actually produce something you're proud of."
Natalie MacMaster at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (800) 300-4345; www.cerritoscenter.com. Thurs., Feb. 3, 8 p.m. $20-$40. All ages.