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home : arts & entertainment : arts & entertainment May 26, 2018

4/3/2018 1:36:00 PM
For the love of music
The harp is one of 10 instruments Darlene McGrady plays. photo provided
+ click to enlarge
The harp is one of 10 instruments Darlene McGrady plays. photo provided

By Eileen Chambers

If there is a perfect hometown for Darlene and Mick McGrady, a place filled with music, horses and wide-open spaces, Sisters is most definitely it.

Enjoying a morning at their home surrounded by a plethora of musical instruments including two standing Irish harps, Darlene told me of her prolific and joyous career in music, one that included touring with the 1960s folk group the New Christy Minstrels.

"I have been in music since I was knee high to a grasshopper," she laughed. "I even have a report card from my kindergarten teacher that says, 'Darlene has a nice singing voice.' So, I think my mother encouraged me in music. Piano lessons. Singing in the choirs. Being a cantor. Yes. Music is my gift. It makes me happy. It makes others happy, too."

After touring with her Citrus College choir, Darlene, in her early twenties, joined the New Christy Minstrels and toured nationally in the late 1970s. With hits like "Green, Green," and Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," the New Christy Minstrels embodied American folk music during the rock-and-roll era. Once described as "young Americans who demonstrate - with guitars," the large ensemble group was started by Randy Sparks and over the decades included singers and musicians such as Barry McGuire, Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes.

For Darlene, the high point of touring with the group came when she sang at the Grand Old Opry in Nashville.

"The Grand Ole Opry had just moved from the historic Ryman Auditorium to a state-of-the-art facility in Opryland," she recalled. Fortunately, they had saved wood from original stage in Ryman and put it on the new stage. As I stood there singing, I could not help but remember the many music legends who have stood on those very same boards before me."

Life touring on the road was both wonderful and hard.

"You live out of a suitcase," McGrady said. "Every other day you were flying somewhere. But when you are young..."

After the New Christy Minstrels, McGrady toured with Ray Anthony, a big-band trumpet player in the style of Glenn Miller. This was followed by a short stint as a solo performer at the Playboy Club in Japan.

"Everybody always wants to know, 'Did you wear the bunny costume?!!' No. No! I wore long evening gowns. It was a classy place," she said.

If singing at the Playboy Club was at one end of the cultural spectrum, in 1987, Darlene was chosen to be a part of a choir that sang before thousands at Dodger Stadium and the LA Coliseum during Pope John Paul's visit to Los Angeles.

Eventually, Darlene returned home to Southern California, got married and raised a family. For the next 24 years, she taught choir, general music, music theory and guitar.

"During my last eight years at the school, they switched me to orchestra where I had to learn how to play the violin in order to teach it," she said. "Oh my gosh. I play 10 different instruments but the violin was, by far, the most difficult to learn. It is so easy to get off pitch! My poor husband had to suffer through me learning it."

Teaching music seems to be in McGrady's blood.

"I love it. To see a child who has never held a violin, who doesn't know the strings or how to hold the bow and then, in a couple months, watch them play in a concert with other students, it is very fulfilling knowing that you have played a smart part in building their confidence and encouraging them to be unafraid of making mistakes. It is an experience that I always hope will provide a good foundation in their lives outside of music."

In the last 10 years, Darlene took up the Irish harp just for fun.

"I have been inspired by harpers over the years, especially Keri Lynn Zwicker from Canada," she said. "The music is so haunting and, for someone who plays piano, it's really not as difficult as you might expect."

Though officially retired, Darlene and Mick are anything but sedentary. Both are active with their horses, even serving on Los Angeles County Mounted Assistance Unit. Not wasting any time, they are volunteering with Sisters Rodeo and Back Country Horsemen of Oregon.

"We chose Sisters because of the music and the woods," she said. "This is a dream come true for us."

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