When Chris Poland, manager of the West Coast band California Celts, received the Cultural Attractions Committee's request for his band to play at UT, he was simultaneously pleased and confused.
"At first, I was like, 'Wow, that's great they want us,'" Poland said. "Then I was thinking, 'Wait, how is it that they want us?'"
For those unfamiliar with the musical style and story of California Celts, Poland's puzzlement might seem justified. Most simply described as "Celtic-Ska," the band is influenced by a wide and seemingly disparate range of styles, including Reggae, Bluegrass, Mexicano and Appalachian hymns. Calling southern California home, most of the band members have never been to Tennessee before.
So, why UT?
"I made the connection in my head, 'They probably want to hear how Californians interpret Appalachian music as a Celtic band,'" Poland said.
Victoria Knight, vice chair of CAC, validated his logic.
"It is significant for California Celts to play here in East Tennessee, especially, because our roots are so closely tied in the Appalachian areas with the Scotch-Irish," Knight said. "About one in five native Tennesseans can trace their ancestry to the Scotch-Irish. ... It is evident through the rich bluegrass and country music scene that much of that history and connection is still present today in Tennessee."
It is this theme of heritage that makes the group's trip to UT, as well as their eclectic combination of musical influences, all the more sensible.
"Basically, (our sound) is the whole Scotch-Irish trek from the Old World, from the British Isles, to the New World," Poland said. "A lot of our songs – our fundamental sound – has a Caribbean under-beat with bass guitar and the drums, and then on the top beats are the scales and the melodies from the British Isles."
The band's songwriting reflects this original voyage of the Celtic people to the Americas and their continued journeys from then on, Poland said.
"The Scotch-Irish didn't stop in Appalachia, they kept going west to Washington state, Idaho and California, mainly," he said, "and then a lot of them also went to Oklahoma and were there for the Dust Bowl."
Intent on forging a full representation of the reality of Celtic people's experiences in America through their music, the band drew its Reggae and nautical influences from what Poland recalls as the oft-forgotten historical alliance between Celts and Mexicans.
"A lot of people on their way out to California bumped into Mexican populations, and there's this sidebar of history where a lot of the Catholics in the army defected to Mexico," Poland said. "The Celts and the Mexicans, we're rebels, man. We want to get away from the government and do our own thing."
California Celts will certainly do its own thing on stage tonight, with a lineup of instruments as diverse as the group's inspiration sources. Tin whistle, tenor saxophone, traditional Scottish bagpipes, trumpet and Celtic harp are among those to be featured.
Knight said she believes the diversity and unconventionality of California Celts, which is evident in both the group's musical and historical inspirations, is representative of CAC's overarching mission.
"We want to expose students to something completely new they may have never seen or heard of before and may not even know exists," she said. "It's always illuminating to listen to something new in the music world, and you may find yourself liking a whole new genre of music you've never heard before."
California Celts will play tonight in the UC Auditorium beginning at 7 p.m. Admission for students is free.