Joanie Madden, leader of the all-women Irish group Cherish the Ladies, isn’t sure why Celtic music is so readily linked to the Christmas holiday. But like any good performer, she’s happy to give people what they want.
About 20 years ago, a concert promoter contacted Madden and asked if her band had a Christmas show.
Madden said yes of course it did, and after she agreed to perform three concerts leading up to the holiday, she quickly set about putting together a holiday show.
Two decades later, Cherish the Ladies have released three Christmas albums and performed hundreds of concerts that mix traditional Irish music with classic holiday songs.
“The first album, ‘On Christmas Night,’ we recorded here in my house and we couldn’t believe it when the New York Times chose it as one of the top 10 Christmas albums,” Madden said during a phone interview from her home in New York City.
The quintet recorded their first Christmas album in 2004 and followed with two more: “A Star in the East” in 2009 and “Christmas in Ireland” in 2015.
“So many traditional Irish melodies interweave very well with Christmas music,” Madden observed.
She and her band will return Saturday at 7:30 p.m. to put on another holiday show featuring traditional Celtic music and dance alongside their favorite Christmas songs.
Cherish the Ladies have scheduled 20 holiday shows in 24 days in seven states, Madden said.
Along with the group’s regular members — Madden (flute, whistles and harmony vocals), Mary Coogan (guitar, mandolin and vocals), Mirella Murray (accordion), Kathleen Boyle (piano and harmony vocals) and Nollaig Casey (fiddle) — the concert will feature two vocalists, Don Stiffe and Kate Purcell, world-champion step dancer David Geaney and All-Ireland champion singer and dancer Seamus O’Flatharta.
“We’re going to come out with our guns a blazing,” Madden promised.
Cherish the Ladies formed in 1985 as a way to celebrate the extraordinary number of American women playing traditional Irish music.
Folklorist and musician Mick Moloney in 1983 conceived a plan to organize a concert series featuring Irish-American women performing their music, and Madden was the first person he contacted. That year she had taken first place for her age group in an All-Ireland music competition for performance on both flute and tin whistle. She also won a duet championship with fiddler Kathy McGinty.
“It was a great day for me because it was actually 25 years to the day that my dad had won the All-Ireland on accordion,” Madden recalled.
She accepted Moloney’s invitation to be part of the concert series, which included about two-dozen women performers.
After the sold-out shows had ended, the participants had assumed that Cherish the Ladies was over. But Moloney persuaded the National Endowment of the Arts to fund an album. Like the concerts, it included over a dozen women and was a big success. Library of Congress selected it as one of the best folk albums of 1985, and the NEA sponsored a Cherish the Ladies tour.
Organizers turned to Madden to pare the group down to a manageable size, which she did with a group of five women.
“We met on a Wednesday and went out on tour on Thursday,” Madden remembered.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be making my life working this way,” she added. “Since the beginning, we always had dancers with us and saw them as an exciting part of our show.”
It was before Riverdance and Lord of the Dance had become enormously popular in the U.S. around 1990. By then, Cherish the Ladies had developed a strong following throughout the country.
“We were doing this before Celtic was cool,” Madden said. “Our early tours often were a bit like going around and educating people about our music.”
Cherish the Ladies will celebrate 35 years as a group in January. They’ve released 18 albums and have been named the favorite Irish-American band several times on both sides of the Atlantic.
Madden explained that each woman in the band initially learned to play music at home from their father. She said for many years, traditional Irish music was a male-dominated activity, and women played only a supportive role.
But that gender disparity shifted in the past generation, she added, and for some reason the girls followed their fathers’ example.
“It was really our generation when women were actually encouraged to learn to play music,” Madden said. “I have five brothers, but I’m the only one that played traditional music. And that’s the way it was with all of us in the band — none of the sons picked up traditional Irish music but all of the girls did. Now we’re just carrying on the legacy of our fathers and bringing the music that’s been passed down.