Celtic Thunder goes beyond traditional folk

When it came time for Celtic Thunder to develop its latest project, the creators behind the successful vocal group tapped its six principal vocalists for ideas to bring “Mythology” – the theme of the group’s new album and tour – to life.

Scotsman George Donaldson, a former bus builder and Glasgow folksinger, jumped at the chance to contribute.

“There is nothing better than selling something you suggested when you walk on stage,” he said, calling from a tour stop in Knoxville, Tenn., last week. “All the guys had more of a contribution to the selection of songs. That’s come across really well.”

He chose songs by Joni Mitchell, fellow Scots the Proclaimers, and UK legend Ralph McTell. If you’re expecting an old-timey set of traditional Celtic tunes, Celtic Thunder is much more eclectic, spanning generations and styles.

“When they launched the first show, it was a whole new concept,” Donaldson says. “The age span and the genre of music has something for everyone – classical, folk, pop.”

The current show includes songs as disparate as “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Danny Boy” and Irish classic rockers Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

To reflect the blend of musical styles, the producers opted to recruit singers from different backgrounds.

“I think it’s one of the things that’s made the strength in the show is the variety and different backgrounds,” he adds.

Donaldson was working as a coach builder when the audition notice came along a little more than six years ago.

“I’d been doing that as an apprenticeship, but I’d always been a musician as well, singing in bars and clubs over 20 years,” says the 43-year-old husband and father. “When the audition came along, I’d never done anything like that before. I always had a dream that I’d get a chance to tour the world, and it hadn’t materialized. The funny thing is they were looking for Scotsman, which I am. A folksinger, which I am. And someone with flaming red hair.” Donaldson’s head is cleanly bald.

When Donaldson joined Celtic Thunder in 2007, he was the only Scot on the tour. Since then, others have signed on, including a female cellist.

“It was four or five against one. Now I have other people in my corner,” he jokes, but adds that there’s a brotherly similarity between the frontline and principal singers. “We all have pretty much the same sense of humor. It’s almost like when you go on tour, the guys become your new family.”

All of the members of Celtic Thunder are die-hard music buffs who spend much of their downtime playing and singing.

If they don’t have a show, “you’ll find us at a karaoke bar so we can sing,” he laughs. “We don’t want the night off.”

And when he’s not on tour, you can find Donaldson back at the pub playing music for friends.

“I love the fact I have the best of both worlds. I can perform for 1,000 people and sing in the same bar I’ve been singing at for 20 years, standing there with a guitar and a microphone. You get a chance to be the real raw version of music.”