May 18-24, 2003






























"I get the feeling that Catholics and evangelical Protestants are infecting each other more than we all realize."




Pop Songwriter Turns to Celtic Rock

Bob Halligan Jr. has written songs for Cher, Michael Bolton, Joan Jett, Kathy Mattea and others.

But in addition to the songs he has written for others, he also writes for himself.

He is the lead singer for the Celtic rock band Ceili Rain. The band has performed at the National Catholic Youth Conference and World Youth Days in Rome and Toronto. It has recorded five albums, including its most recent, "No You - No Me." Halligan spoke recently with Register features correspondent Tim Drake from his home in Nashville, Tenn.

Have you always been musical?

Yes. I've been a singer from the age of 3 or 4. I started piano lessons when I was 7 years old. I picked up the guitar when I was 13 and started to write songs at about age 15.

I first played in a band when I was 12. It's the Beatles' fault. Most musicians in my age group will tell you that.

Did you grow up Catholic?

I grew up as an only child in Syracuse, N.Y My father was the editor of an industrial magazine and my mother was a housewife.

Yes, I am a cradle-to-the-grave Catholic. I was an altar boy and sang in choir. I had 13 years of Catholic school' and three years of Latin. There are family members who are priests and brothers. About half of the band is Catholic.

What led to the creation of Celli Rain?

About nine years ago, my wife had been playing Celtic music around the house, and I started to really enjoy it a lot. At that point, I had had a fairly successful career as a songwriter for other people. I've had about 150 songs recorded by various artists and have sold about 30 million units.

When my wife noticed that I was developing a fondness for Celtic music, she asked me, "Why don't you combine that with the rock-and-roll stuff you've always done?" I replied that that was easily the dumbest idea I had ever heard.

Yet it was like an itch that I had to scratch, and so I tried. I've never been the same since. A guitar, bass and drums kind of band no longer holds any interest for me whatsoever. It seems devoid of color. Celtic rock music is all I can really muster any feelings about.

My first cousin Dick Halligan ;was, one of the founding members of Blood, Sweat and Tears, so Ceili Rain is kind of an Irish-Beatley take n Blood, Sweat and Tears. They ad horns, whereas we have whistles, pipes, accordions and sometimes a fiddle.

You're one of the few contemporary Catholic groups that have been picked up by both contemporary Christian and secular labels aren't you?

Yes, our songs, "A Hundred Smiles an Hour" and "Everything Good is You," have received airplay on evangelical stations. In the Catholic world, Heart Beat Records distributes our albums. On the contemporary Christian label, Crossdriven, Lemstone and Lifeway/Providence distribute our albums in Christian bookstores. We're currently negotiating a contract with a mainstream label, Compendia. Once that takes place,

probably in June, we will have woof our records in Borders and ' Tower Records types of stores.

How does your faith play out in your music?

The lyrics are informed by my Catholic-Christian perspective. As evangelicals will tell you, our theology is quite different from theirs.

While we do not actively evangelize or proselytize, that does happen as a result of people listening to our music.

We also evangelize just by being -decent people. When someone asks, "Why are you so nice?" we can explain that we try to follow the Golden Rule, which is of a Christian concoction.

I understand that you play at a lot of youth events.

Yes, between 30-40% of our shows are for youth. In recent months we played diocesan youth rallies in Wilmington, Del., Charleston, S.C., and Philadelphia. The coordinators bring us in after the youth have been listening to talks all day and the youth are ready to rock, yet they want to do it in a way that isn't harmful to the young. In the past, coordinators have had dances with mainstream music with questionable content. The youth hear enough of that. They need to hear something different - rock that comes from a wholesome place. That's where we come in.

How do you see contemporary Christian music and contemporary Catholic music interacting with one another?

I get the feeling that Catholics and evangelical Protestants are infecting each other more than we all realize. The increased enthusiasm among young Catholics for matters of faith, and the increased numbers of Catholic youth that are active in youth groups and rallies is somewhat attributable to them seeing their friends attend contemporary Christian music concerts. I really believe that there are ways in which contemporary Christian music and the Catholic Church can complete each other.

When we play at World Youth Day or the National Catholic Youth Conference we cannot tell the crowd apart from a crowd at a contemporary Christian music concert. Both audiences share the same enthusiasm for God.

What remains the biggest challenge?

I live in the buckle of the Bible belt. There used to be a time when, if you were Italian, you were assumed to be in the Mafia.

I don't know that being Catholic will ever be viewed as a good thing here, but it's less negative than it used to be. There is more acceptance within the evangelical Protestant world than there used to be for all things Catholic. Yet, it's very slow.

In the contemporary Christian music world, being Catholic is not good news to people that meet me for the first time. Yet some will admit that a family member is Catholic; or they know of others who are converting to Catholicism. Popular Christian singer Rich Mullins was on the verge of converting when he was tragically killed in a car accident five or six years ago. That is a well-known fact among Catholics, but a well-hidden fact among the evangelical music community.

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.


2003 National Catholic REGISTER