Local bluegrass fans know that each January, Shelter Island is the place to be when Sylvester Manor presents its annual traditional music concert in the school auditorium.
But when The Lonely Heartstring Band heats up the school’s stage this Saturday evening, bluegrass lovers will hear at least one player who had to move thousands of miles and cross an international border in order to tap into the traditional American music form he now calls his own.
That’s because fiddle player Patrick M’Gonigle hails not from the United States, but Canada — British Columbia to be exact, Vancouver Island to be more exact. While there often aren’t huge cultural differences to be found between Canadians and Americans, when it comes to perfecting uniquely American forms of traditional music, Mr. M’Gonigle realized early on that it wasn’t something he could easily do in British Columbia.
So he set his sights on the United States.
“I was interested in traditional music, but not super steeped in playing it,” said Mr. M’Gonigle during a recent phone interview from his hometown of Victoria. “I didn’t have the space to explore it out here. There are a lot of singer-songwriters and fiddle players here, but I was more interested in real traditional American music — like bluegrass and old time.
“For that, you really have to live in the States,” he said.
So the classically trained violinist packed his bags and his fiddle and headed east — to Berklee College of Music in Boston where he enrolled in the school’s American Roots Music Program.
“Boston is active in the traditional music scene and Berklee is a huge part of it,” he said. “I wanted to draw myself into it.”
Ironically, though he arrived in Boston with more than a decade of classical experience as a violinist, Mr. M’Gonigle soon realized that being classically trained wasn’t necessarily a benefit when it came to playing bluegrass.
“The fiddle specifically, maybe more so than other instrument in a bluegrass band, requires technique that has to be worked out over the years,” Mr. M’Gonigle explained. “I also had to unlearn a lot of what classical methods teach, and learn how to improvise.
“It’s a different approach to the instrument and a different language,” he said.
Fortunately, Mr. M’Gonigle found that Berklee’s American Roots program — dedicated to exploration of rural and early American music from the first half of the 20th century — was exactly the place to learn that new language; and he also appreciated the intimate nature of the instruction.
“Students would come and go throughout their degrees, but for 20 to 40 students, that was their main focus,” he said. “Every semester, American roots teachers would come in and we worked with lots of ensembles. Among the amazing guests was Bela Fleck.”
“It was a big school in the best way, but it also felt small because I was in this small group,” he said. “It’s a really unique program and exactly what I was looking for.”
Berklee was also where Mr. M’Gonigle met the fellow students with whom he would form The Lonely Heartstring Band. Along with the instruction received at Berklee, immersing themselves in Boston’s active traditional music scene formed the backbone of their education. Dropping in to play a set at a place like Harvard Square’s storied Club Passim, where Joan Baez and Bob Dylan played, was not uncommon.
But it was a wedding that brought this band together — not one of their own, but that of a client who hired them to provide the music for his reception. That gig also provided the inspiration for their name, which has stuck, as the groom specifically wanted them to play only Beatles tunes.
“That’s how we formed. It was the first time we played together as a group,” said Mr. M’Gonigle. “I said, ‘We should maybe do this again.’ So we started doing events and things, and one thing led to another.”
“Because we formed as a result of the Beatles, we figured we’d pay homage to them in our name,” he said.
It turns out, the Beatles also taught this band a lot about songwriting.
“The Beatles songs are so well arranged, we accidentally started studying how to arrange music. We didn’t just turn them into bluegrass. We would find exactly what we wanted to put out — horn, string sections, piano — they were masters in the studio,” he said. “From the very beginning, before we wrote a single original song, we had a unique take on how to arrange.”
Those skills are paying off. In 2015, the group won an IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Momentum Award, and in late 2015, The Lonely Heartstring Band was signed to Rounder Records. Their debut album, “Deep Waters,” came out this past June.
“It’s huge. Before that we didn’t have a record,” said Mr. M’Gonigle. “We were playing festivals but it’s hard to be a band without a record. It’s also a big deal to have it on Rounder. We’ve all listened to their records for year. That meant a lot.”
The Lonely Heartstring Band, which also includes mandolin player Matt Witler from Los Angles, and three Massachusetts natives — guitarist George Clements, his bass-playing twin brother Charles Clements, and banjo player Gabe Hirshfeld, now has enough original material in their repertoire to carry a concert without the music of the Fab Four. But for Beatles fans, Mr. M’Gonigle said the group often covers one or two of their tunes over the course of any given evening.
Now that they’re out of school and frequently on the road, building momentum as a traveling band is their priority. But with the musicians all between the ages of 25 and 31, there will soon come a day when they’ll need to devise a strategy for balancing music and family commitments.
In some cases, that day has already arrived.
“We talk about domestic life all the time,” admitted Mr. M’Gonigle. “How can we make this a sustainable career and sleep in our beds more than once every eight months?”
“We’re navigating through it. Charles got married this year and most of us have long term partners,” he added. “It’s always a challenge with so many uncertainties. The dream is to really tour a lot over the next couple years and then get to a level where we can tour less — do bigger shows less often, and then there are other things we can do.”
“I’d love to teach at the college level,” he said. “Right now, it’s about launching this into cruising altitude. I’m looking forward to that.”
The Lonely Heartstring Band performs on Saturday, January 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Shelter Island School auditorium. Tickets start at $25. To reserve, call (631) 749-0626 or visit sylvestermanor.org. Proceeds from the concert benefit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.
Opening the show will be Tom and Lisa and Friends.