Trio Makes Music to Soothe the Soul
By Carol Schaal ’91M.A.
Call them three guys who love music. Call them the liturgical trio. Or call them the instrumentalists with some popular CDs to their name.
Except their group doesn’t have a name. And that’s fine with them.
The trio is made up of Michael James ’84, violin and mandolin; Craig Watz ’84, ’87J.D., acoustic bass; and Steve Warner ’80M.A., guitar, dulcimer and Celtic harp.
“We let the concept be what sells—not the three of us,” says James. They call that concept “acoustic meditations.”
“It’s spiritual and enlightening,” James says. “It transcends specific church experiences.”
The group just released its third collaboration, Sojourners, which focuses on American roots music, including blues, spirituals and bluegrass. Their 1992 CD, CommonSong, draws on traditional folk music from Appalachia, the Netherlands, Ireland and Native America. In 1996 they released Dante De, which features sacred melodies from an Irish hymnal.
Each of their first two CDs has sold 20,000 copies “and they continue to sell,” says Mary Andrews, marketing director of Ave Maria Press, which publishes the CDs. (The collections may be ordered at www.avemariapress.com.)
For the musicians, the CDs also speak of a friendship that began at Notre Dame 20 years ago, when James and Watz were students and played during Mass under the direction of Warner.
“Our first exposure to each other was sacred music,” says Warner. The three would get together for jam sessions, and their improvisational styles clicked. They were able to work on the improvisations even after graduation, since Watz stayed at ND for law school and James remained for seven years as employee in admissions.
On a Folk Choir trip to Ireland, the threesome did get a name that may explain why they prefer not to be called anything. The owner of a pub in Kilkenny was introduced to James and Watz one afternoon and asked if they would play, since his house band had the night off. When they took Warner to the pub to verify the time of their session, they saw a sign announcing their appearance. “We were billed as the American Hillbilly Band,” says James with a laugh.
Their 20 years of friendship have resulted in only three published collections because it is difficult for them to meet. “We all have families and tough jobs,” says Warner, who is kept busy at ND as director of the Folk Choir and of liturgical resources for Campus Ministry and is an instructor in the Master of Education Program. Watz is an FBI agent in Kansas City, Missouri, where he specializes in terrorism and weapons of mass destruction investigations, and James is the associate executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in the Washington, D.C., area. They talk on the phone a lot, says Watz, and when they do manage to meet, Warner notes, it’s like no time has passed.
“It’s a real treat for the three of us to be together,” says James. “It’s fun; it’s intense.” Watz calls their meetings friendship, faith and fun. “It’s important for me to keep that part of my soul alive.”
Carolyn Woo, dean of the Mendoza College of Business, can relate to the soul of their music. When she wants to give someone a sense of Notre Dame, she sends them a copy of the group’s first CD. “I have probably given away over 100 copies of CommonSong,” she says. “It invokes a spirit of prayer and sense of God’s peace.”
Since Sojourners was just released, it probably will be awhile before they record their next CD. And deciding the shape of that next collaboration will take a lot of phone calls, since the men’s musical tastes are as varied as their jobs. Watz says he’s currently enjoying big-band music and horns, while James is focusing on Brazilian music and jazz. As for Warner, he’s developed a taste for what he calls the “noble simplicity” of Gregorian music.
Whatever the result might be, the focus will remain the same. Their collections, says Warner, are designed “to try to allow the listener to get into a more peaceful place.”
Carol Schaal is the managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine.