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James Kelly

2001 Florida Folk Heritage Award


One of the finest traditional Irish fiddlers today, James Kelly grew up in a household in Dublin steeped in traditional music. His father, John Kelly, was renowned fiddler and concertina player from County Clare. Kelly was taught to play the fiddle at the age of three, and progressed rapidly under his father’s tutelage and the example of other fine traditional musicians. He initially played by ear, but learned to read music at 26. Kelly’s background and style reflect a synthesis of styles from counties Clare and Sligo. The Clare style is highly ornamented, but even-flowing, in contrast to the bouncier Sligo style. While his playing follows traditional forms and techniques, Kelly has also developed an unmistakable personal style.

Kelly was performing for Irish radio and television by 14, and recorded his first album with his brother John at 16. That year he won first place in the prestigious "Fiddler of the Year" competition and recorded his first album, a duet with his brother John.  In 1978, he first came to the U.S. to record an album with Shanachie Records, then spent four years touring and giving concerts, workshops, and master fiddle classes before recording another album. He returned to Ireland in 1982, but moved permanently to Miami in 1984. Kelly has toured Europe, the U.S., Canada and South America. He has played and recorded with a number of well-respected musical groups, including Ceoltoiri Leigheann, Planxty, Kinvara, and Patrick Street. Kelly has also taught fiddle at the Piper’s Club in Dublin, the Willy Clancy School, and in the teacher-student program sponsored by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann. He was a presenter on the Pure Drop series for Irish TV, appeared with the Chieftains, and has performed several times on Garrison Keillor's national radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. In addition to his performing career, Kelly has composed over 600 tunes. 

Kelly received the Florida Folk Heritage Award as well as the Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in Folk Arts in recognition of his outstanding musicianship. He has 19 albums to his credit, recently released his third solo CD, is compiling his compositions for publication, and is recording an instructional DVD for fiddle students. Kelly continues to tour the U.S., Canada and Europe with some of Irish music's leading accompanists. He has passed on his musical talent to his daughter, Sarah, who is studying concertina in the style of her grandfather.