James (Patrick) Keelaghan. Singer-songwriter, guitarist, b Calgary 28 Oct 1959. Keelaghan began performing at Calgary folk venues while a history student at the University of Calgary in the early 1980s. After playing in folk ensembles and supporting himself as a sheet-metal worker, he launched his solo career. Success began to come his way after Garnet Rogers recorded Keelaghan's "Jenny Bryce" in 1986. By 1991 he was touring the USA with Ferron, Stephen Fearing, and Connie Kaldor, billed as A Canadian Festival of Songwriters. He made his debut in Texas and Los Angeles that year.
Keelaghan toured initially with backup musicians (Bill Eaglesham and Gary Bird) as a trio, then by 1993 as soloist. By 1994 he was playing 200 engagements a year. He has toured Australia several times and appeared at festivals and other venues in the United Kingdom and Europe. In 1995 he was invited to the Hong Kong Festival. His home base has been Calgary, with the exception of a period in Toronto in the mid-1990s.
Keelaghan's idiom is contemporary folksong, in the storytelling tradition of Gordon Lightfoot and Stan Rogers (who influenced his performance style). Keelaghan's early recordings (1987) revealed his interest in history, featuring insightful topical ballads on significant events, leavened with traditional numbers and a few cover songs. His lyrics often explore the point of view of an observer close to the event. Such songs as "Hillcrest Mine" (Alberta mining disaster); "Kiri's Piano" (internment of Japanese Canadians in World War II); "Red River Rising" and "Honoré" (Riel Rebellion); "October 70" (FLQ crisis); and "Stonecutter" (construction of the Parliament Buildings) explore Canada's history. Other songs, such as "Cold Missouri Waters" and "The Fires of Calais" treated events in the USA or Britain. His first domestic Canadian release was A Recent Future (Justin Time, 1995). This and later albums revealed his songwriting palette expanding to cover relationships, political commentary, and Latin influences.
Other Appearances and Projects
Keelaghan is a favourite performer at folk festivals, particularly in Western Canada and the USA, including Ann Arbor, Calgary, Cowichan, Edmonton, Lake of the Woods, Summerfolk (Owen Sound), Moab (Utah), Regina, Vancouver, and Winnipeg.
On CBC Radio, he has appeared on Morningside and hosted specials; he has also been featured on CKUA, Alberta; WKSU, Ohio; and WUMB, Boston. He cohosted the 1997 Folk Dream Gala Concert in Toronto, and has taught songwriting, eg at Kerrville, Texas. In 1999 he appeared with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. His song "Cold Missouri Waters" was covered on the highly successful CD Cry Cry Cry (Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell). He recorded "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" for the Lightfoot tribute, Beautiful, in 2003. Expanding into film in 1996, he has composed scores and done narration.
Awards and Recognition
Keelaghan's My Skies received the 1994 Juno Award for best roots and traditional album. The film Feeding the Future: The Seeds of Survival (1996) won for him the Global Visions artist of the year award. In 2002 and 2003, he won the folk category of the USA Songwriting Contest (for "Cold Missouri Waters" and "Message to the Future"). His work has been recognized by the Alberta Recording Industry Association and other organizations. He is acknowledged as an engaging performer, whose commanding yet smoothly caressing voice and crafted, well-enunciated lyrics forge immediate and lasting audience rapport.