Celtic music and hammered dulcimer master Maggie Sansone was called to her favorite instrument in Key West, Florida, of all places — a curious spot for the instrument often associated with the Mid-Atlantic and Southern Highlands.
That was in the early 1980s, and Sansone was already an accomplished musician and intensely curious about new instruments.
“I get addicted to an instrument. I take lessons, meet the people,” she said, sitting in her West River home studio. Various instruments sit around the room — whistles, framed drums, Persian santoor (a close cousin of the American hammered dulcimer).
Sansone, known for launching the careers of a number of Celtic and Irish musicians, discovered the instrument and the genre in Baltimore while living with her brother in a “commune” after finishing college at Kent State University.
“I was at a party. One room was bluegrass, the other Irish music. I fell in love with the Irish music,” she said. And that was that.
These days, Sansone is busy planning the 18th annual Maggie’s Celtic Celebration coming to Ram’s Head On Stage Jan. 15. The showcase will feature Sansone on the hammered dulcimer, plus several other musicians, some of which got their start on her label, the once-booming Maggie’s Music.
The label had humble beginnings — her first Maggie’s Music studio was in a rowhouse basement in Baltimore’s Charles Village neighborhood.
Meanwhile, she had been playing some bluegrass, on mandolin and guitar, and was teaching lessons in the Baltimore Bluegrass Store.
She dove headfirst into Irish and Celtic music. “I was drawn to the music, the modal, minor keys,” she said.
She then headed to California and spent four years in the Bay Area, where she got a job playing at the Renaissance Faire.
“That is where I had my creative burst,” she said. “I made my first cassette in Berkley.”
When she returned to Maryland in the mid-’80s, she got hired at the Maryland Renaissance Festival after an audition.
“I was there every year for about 30 years,” she said. She played the music and sold cassettes, then CDs.
In 1987, Maggie’s Music became a label, recording and promoting a slew of other artists playing mostly Celtic music.
Harp guitarist and accordionist Paul Oorts came to Maggie’s Music when he married Sansone’s longtime cohort and fellow hammered dulcimer player Karen Ashbrook in 1998.
“It was great to have a powerhouse like Maggie’s Music around,” Oorts said. “She started the label to produce her own music but then began producing other people. She has been a vital part of a whole bunch of musicians careers.”
It was just the right time for Celtic music. The popularity took off with hit movies “Braveheart” and “Rob Roy,” smaller films like “The Commitments” and “Trainspotting,” and the wide popularity of “Riverdance.”
The boom helped sales, but the phenomenon had a downside — it got too popular.
Music industry powers flooded the market with all things Celtic, and gobbling up artists from the smaller independent labels like Maggie’s Music.
Then the music industry changed altogether with the advent of digital recording. Artists who used to make most of their income from recording sales now had to rely on live performance.
Sansone said Maggie’s Music was fortunate that it had a large catalogue of music and a presence in the Celtic and acoustic music world.
“It was good to have established that presence before the business changed,” she said. “We were already on Spotify, Pandora, YouTube — but instead of making dollars, we are making pennies.”
But artists first recorded on Maggie’s Music have taken off on their own labels and careers.
“We promoted them, supported them,” Sansone said. “Al Pettaway and Amy White, Bonnie Ridout, Karen Ashbrook. Many were with us about five years and they have . . . gone on to do really well on their own.”
And the label still sells their recordings, whether produced by Maggie’s Music or recorded under other labels.
But now, past the normal age of retirement, Sansone has slowed down, kicked back a gear.
The label is still active, selling well, but she does not play as many shows as she once did.
“I’m sort of an elder in a way,” she said.
“It’s just slowing down.”
Her last recording effort, “Cold Frosty Morn at West River,” recorded in Christ Church in West River, was released a couple years back. With fellow artists Andrea Hoag and Sharon Knowles, the album is packed with 15 tracks of Celtic holiday songs.
And at Rams Head On Stage on Jan. 15, Sansone will put the spotlight on others.
“The show has really grown over the years. This year we have so many people I am making more of a showcase. I will play a little but leave most of it for the others to come in,” she said.
Among them: Laura Byrne on Irish flute, Jimmy Eagan on fiddle, Seth Kibel on sax and clarinet, Oorts on harp and musette accordion, Karen Ashbrook on hammered dulcimer and Josh Dukes on percussion.
Tickets for the 4 p.m. show are $25 and available at ramsheadonstage.com.
Source: The Associated Press