TOM NELLIGAN , Dirty Linen, October/November (Issue #114), 2004

Reilly & Maloney
West Coast Harmony

People who hear Ginny Reilly and David Maloney sing together always remember the way their voices blend. Among all the male/female duos who have picked up acoustic guitars over the years, their sound is surely among the most distinctive, with Reilly's sweet natural soprano counterpointing Maloney's country-friendly lower register in precise but wonderfully unpredictable arrangements. During a 20-year career in the 1970s and 1980s, Reilly & Maloney recorded seven albums and performed about 3,000 shows, building a loyal audience on the West Coast and across the country. Now, after a decade-long hiatus, they're singing together again. They talked about the old days and their revived duo career before a showcase set at last February's Folk Alliance conference in San Diego.

The pair met in San Francisco in 1970 at a folk club called the Drinking Gourd. They were introduced by Jay Kellum, a mutual friend who, as Reilly said, "was in the habit of finding people who sounded good together." Their musical chemistry was immediately apparent. A short guest set at the Drinking Gourd led to a lounge job in Lake Tahoe and much more. "Jay taught us how to arrange and how to harmonize, but it came pretty intuitively. I clearly remember those phone calls to the post office and the substitute teachers," she recalled with a laugh, describing how they gave up their other work. "It's like, we're committing. To hell with the day job!"

"We cut our teeth in the winter of 1970 and never stopped," Maloney added. "We never agreed to work together! We just began to work with Jay, and then on our own." Their voices were an inherent fit. "We were both people who could sing in tune and had strong voices," he explained, "and had done a lot of harmony singing in family and school situations. Jay's guidance certainly was important, but it was a natural sound. Ginny's voice is quite distinctive, as everyone who hears her realizes, but there's a sort of timbre in my voice that's almost like a brother/sister feel."

They were noted for their unique covers of familiar songs like Buddy Holly's "Everyday" and Tom Dundee's "Delicate Balance," where their harmonies made other people's songs their own. Both partners also contributed original material, with Reilly's compositions often being wistful looks at the world from a woman's perspective, like "Did Beethoven Do the Dishes?" and "The I Ain't Gettin' It Blues," while Maloney specialized in narratives of colorful characters, road songs, and California country ballads.

That first phase of the duo's career wound down in 1990. Reilly had moved to Seattle while Maloney still lived in the Bay Area, and the distance between them and a certain road-weariness took its toll. Maloney embarked on an active solo career, releasing seven solo albums, including two children's albums. He also did some theatrical work and toured with Tom Paxton as his guitar accompanist. Reilly sang in a blues duo with a pianist, did a few solo shows, and went back to school to study classical music and jazz history. But they kept in touch and did short reunion sets at the Napa Valley Folk Festival in 1996 and the Seattle Folklife Festival in 1997. "Only 25 minutes of music, just to keep our toes in the water," as Maloney described it. In 2000 the duo re-released a compilation on CD, and by the fall of 2001 the occasional reunion concerts had evolved into a renewed (if still part-time) partnership.

"I've been so impressed at how glad people are to see us again," Reilly said. "These are people who heard us in the 70s and 80s, so it makes me very appreciative to be remembered. It must have been pretty good! That 20 years were what we gave them, and now they're giving it back."

Maloney echoed her appreciation of their longtime fans: "People are finding us from all over the country and the world. They're hitting our web site and we get e-mails saying, 'I can't believe you're together,' and they tell us about marriages and divorces and how the kids are grown. It's very gratifying."

Last year, Reilly and Maloney released their first new album of new material since 1986. Together Again captures a 2003 show at a Berkeley club, with covers of songs by notable writers including John Prine, Tom Paxton, and Bruce Springsteen, as well as some new originals. "I could see that what we needed was a new recording," Maloney commented, "because trying to get work, you can't send out a collection from 20 years ago. [Concert promoters] want to know what you sound like now. It's very real, it's very strong, it's exactly how we present our show today -- two voices two guitars, a little banjo, and a little bit of patter."

"And there's only one song on the new CD from the old era," he continued. "We began learning some new material from the first. It's been fun. It reminds me of our first album -- we had six years singing together before we made it. It's taken us a long time, but I think the material is pretty wonderful."

And where does that material come from? "It's hard to say what makes a song appeal to a singer," Reilly explained. "You just like it. It's never based on how our voices sound together. We just trust that once we start singing a song it's going to sound okay."

"It's almost intuitive, in a sense," Maloney added. "Ginny brings what she hears, like the Iris DeMent song that we're doing ["Let the Mystery Be"]. She somehow knew that with my harmony it would bring that Reilly & Maloney sound. And I also know when I bring a song to Ginny that it will fit right in the pocket of our harmonies, be it fast or slow, something up or something country. We enjoy a variety, and we've learned to adapt to different styles."

It seemed clear as we talked that Reilly and Maloney were recharged and enthusiastic about again working together, an impression confirmed by their crisp and well-received concert sets in San Diego. They planned to tour as much as possible this year, and will be re-releasing their entire back catalog on CD. Maloney summed up how these days they look both to the past and to the future: "Being away from it for those years, and now coming back to it, I can really appreciate what developed. I'm very excited now because we have that history and those years behind us. I look forward to continuing to develop and be creative in this era, not being just a nostalgia act!"

Tom Nelligan

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