It’s the fall semester of 2015 and I’m standing on a makeshift stage in the Arkansas Tech student center with a guitar strapped across my shoulders. For all intents and purposes we’re in a food court with bad acoustics. In front of me is a surprisingly large crowd of students. To my left is Wren Whiteseven, a middle aged, bald man with a massive goatee, holding a fiddle in his hands and a big, infectious smile across his face.
Then he put the fiddle up to his shoulder, leaned his head gently against the wood, closed his eyes and began to play a sweet Irish song. As music cut through the room, the kids became silent. Everyone focused on Wren. Over the next hour those students were transported from that student center with high glass walls to a pub in Ireland with an ebony stained wood bar and an ancient floor scratched and worn over the centuries. The kids sang. They laughed. They cried. They danced. For at least a little while, the stress of college was forgotten.
And according to Wren, that’s the point.
In 1967 Fergus and Mary Whitsievens immigrated from Ireland to the United States. A few months later, Wren was born in the Dallas area. But by the time he was three, cancer had taken his mother and a car accident had taken his father’s life. He was left all alone in a new country and placed in the care of Hope Cottage Orphanage until he was adopted by Joe and Pat Brown on his fifth birthday.
Fast forward with a new loving family, mix in a confused immigration officer and “Whitsievens” became “Whiteseven” and the immigrants’ son had been given another chance.
By the time he was 10, Wren’s adopted mom had noticed his love for music and enrolled him in private violin lessons. One lesson turned into many and over the years the classically trained young boy became an accomplished violinist. When he was 17, Wren auditioned for and made the Dallas Symphony. He was next to the last chair, but he made it.
By that time he also felt something was missing until a friend handed him a copy of the Kansas album, “Leftoverture.” “I was stunned,” said Wren. “I was in disbelief of what I was listening to.” The classically trained violinist now wanted to play progressive rock and roll. From this point on, Wren has continually sought out other musicians and played in multiple working bands ranging from progressive rock to honky tonk music in cattle sale barns to Christian heavy metal to worship music. Though the bands and people change over the years, Wren never stopped making music.
In 2002, when Wren moved to Russellville, he said it didn’t take long to find people to play with. “Musicians have always been sort of a tribe,” he told me. And while working bands are harder to come by here, there seems to be no shortage of friends to play music with in churches or on back porches. In recent years, the call of Ireland has become stronger for him. “I’ve been drawn to the Irish culture and heritage all of my life,” he said.“It was more of a personal listening hobby. That was until he connected with now longtime friend, Warren Dickey, who along with Wren, make up the core of their current Irish band, The Wandering Troubadours.
It’s no wonder that Ireland calls to so many of us. What we often refer to as “southern culture” is in many ways a product of the Scots-Irish culture laid down from early immigrants to what we now know as the southern United States. Drawn to the hill country that reminded them of their homeland, the Scots-Irish culture gave us many things from our clannish tendency toward family honor, to small hill farms with livestock, to the pull of a fishing pole and a shade tree by the river on a summer afternoon. But perhaps one of their greatest gifts was their love for music. The music of Ireland transformed itself in the back hollows of the American hill country into what we now know as mountain music, bluegrass and country.
In the South, music isn’t just something that exists for entertainment. It is a thread that binds our culture together. “Music is probably the greatest gift that we have other than life itself.” Wren tells me. “What else splashes more color and more joy into life itself than music? I feel the musicians of the South have more time, or choose to take more time, on the things of good and lasting virtue,” said Wren. “And because they’re living a slower lifestyle they’re noticing the things about them that make a good life.”
But there seems to be something about Irish music in particular that has such a strong calling. Because we are a country of immigrants, Americans very often feel like a misplaced people. There is a family history that is often unknown, and the struggle of our ancestors to leave their homeland in the search for a better life.
To Wren, that immigrant story hits closer to home.
“Because of my heritage, I’ve had a love for Irish music far and above any other music,” said Wren. “My heart of hearts is helplessly enslaved to the music of Erin’s Isle. The music of Ireland is so diverse and full of life and character. The dignity of these people from what they’ve suffered and endured throughout the history of their nation I think is reflected in the music. They celebrate hard, but they mourn hard, too. The people of Ireland have had a raw deal, in my opinion, almost from the beginning of time.”
When asked what he meant, you soon find out that Wren is as much of an introspective observer of humanity as he is an amazing violinist. Wren Whiteseven takes some things very seriously — music, faith, friendship. And Ireland.
“Because of the oppressed history of that nation is why you get so much extreme in their music,” Wren explained. “The first thing people think of with Irish music is pub songs. And there’s a good reason for that, but not the reason one would normally think. One can choose to find joy in your life in the midst of challenging circumstances. The pub songs are born from the hardworking people of Ireland coming together for a moment of escape from long workday or the tasks that lay ahead for them at home later that night. And they come together and it’s a joyful celebration of life through the vehicle of music. There is joy in the gift of music and this is the tapestry of their feelings coming out in their music. Likewise, in songs like ‘The Foggy Dew’ they are making a musical accounts of historical events of oppression, war, famine, and disease.”
“It’s like this,” said Wren, “there’s a lot of talk today about the Syrian refugees coming into America and how often is the temptation to write this off, excusing you from any deep thought about it by saying that’s just bad luck on them that they happen to be born where they were. And Ireland has rarely even sniffed what one would call being a superpower or an independent entity of their own. They’ve always been reliant on Great Britain to help fund, maintain, or uglier terms like keep under your thumb and I’ve known so many good people from England, but I don’t have a general positive opinion of that nation due to how I feel Ireland has always been exposed to some kind of abuse and control literally throughout the entire course of their history. So that makes me have a special place in my heart for them in that I’ve always been the ‘root for the underdog’ guy. I’ve always liked the little guy.”
Perhaps this is the essence of what calls out so deeply to so many. The music has its own dialect. Its own accent. The personality of an ancient homeland that resonates with us in this modern life. We hear the voice of our ancestors and their words still hold relevance. Wren continues. “The Irish celebrate with exuberance and raw enthusiasm. But, they mourn and grieve with equal enthusiasm. The accounts of the highs and lows of the people of the nation are evident in their music.”
Personally, I believe the music of Ireland has two natural environments. One is in nature itself. Wren’s home is in the community of Piney along the bank of the Arkansas River. I can imagine his violin playing a mournful ballad, cutting through the morning fog in the stillness of a cool morning or a setting sun. Somewhere on that river a fisherman or a riverboat crewman pauses at the sound and for however brief a moment finds that the music connects with him in a profound way.
The other is in a pub. With laughter, shouts and dancing, both celebration and introspection. And so when it comes to being on stage, Wren embraces that raw enthusiasm. “You go in there and you give it your best shot, and the idea is that everyone who goes in there will come out better and encouraged, entertained, happy and remember a great time,” said Wren.
“This world is hard enough. We are faced with every kind of challenge — the economy, the uncertainty of the government — I could go on and on,” said Wren. “All the obvious things that stress all of us out. We all have a lot of real problems in a real world. So when you can go into a pub or a place that has live music, you have an opportunity to gather with friends, family, and loved ones and enjoy live music. To celebrate life and basically escape for an hour or two. When I’m on stage, whether I’m playing an original that I’ve crafted or a cover song, and I look out while I’m playing and I see smiles on people’s faces and their heads bobbing, I get happy. And I feel like my purpose, my life is being fulfilled. My desire is to perform music to make people happy and if they can be entertained and inspired at the same time then I have done my job.”