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Tupelo’s music journey to America started in Kansas City

James Cramer (front) leads the Irish rock band Tupelo, which is returning to the Kansas City Irish Fest this weekend.
James Cramer (front) leads the Irish rock band Tupelo, which is returning to the Kansas City Irish Fest this weekend.

When he started writing songs as a teenager in Dublin, James Cramer had one lofty goal in mind.

“Everyone wants to go to America and make a name for themselves,” he said. “That hasn’t changed, and it never will change.”

He lived the dream in 2015 when he performed at the Kansas City Irish Fest, his first-ever performance in America. “It was a big deal, a really big deal,” he said.

And it was a long time coming.

Cramer was 22 in 2008 when he’d decided he’d written enough songs and performed solo long enough. It was time to start a band. He called it Tupelo, after “Tupelo Honey,” a favorite song by one of his favorite songwriters, Van Morrison.

Within two years, Tupelo had recorded a live record and a studio album, and it started getting some traction in Ireland. But Cramer realized that any manner of success would require taking his music overseas.

“Ireland is so small,” he said. “It’s not like America. You can really only gig in Ireland maybe 10 to 15 shows a year. After that, you overflood the market. The money is in getting out of Ireland.”

Tupelo’s first tour outside Ireland came in early 2012, after Cramer had contacted Eugene Graham, father of Danish pop star Lukas Graham and a promoter in Scandinavia. “It was a short tour of Denmark, but we did well,” Cramer said, “and it has gone really well over there since.”

A unexpected break came in December 2013, when Tupelo was on a bill at Vicar Street in Dublin with Shane McGowan, Sharon Shannon and Mundy. Also in attendance was Ronan Collins, a Dublin native, Kansas City resident and among the organizers of the Kansas City Irish Fest.

“It was a full house, and Tupelo was the opening band,” Collins said. “I had never heard of them before. I was really impressed with the way they got the crowd going. James is a great frontman. He had the whole audience singing their anthem song, ‘I’m an Irishman.’ It’s a very catchy tune. Audiences in Dublin sometimes can be standoffish, so that made it even more remarkable. I thought to myself. ‘Hmmm ... I bet they’d kick arse on Grand Avenue over Labor Day weekend.’ 

Collins got the ball rolling on bringing Tupelo to Kansas City.

“When I got back to Kansas City, I talked to some of the festival’s key decision-makers,” he said. “They followed up by seeing and meeting the band back in Dublin at TradFest, which happens every January.”

Collins also helped the band navigate all the bureaucracy and paperwork and assemble the business requirements necessary for a band to get permission to perform in the U.S.

“We really needed someone like (Collins), who’s really informed and well-respected and well-liked and is a genuine guy,” Cramer said.

In September, Tupelo and Cramer played their first gigs in America: three shows at the Kansas City Irish Fest.

“It was great,” Cramer said. “We felt like we should have started playing here a long time ago.”

Tupelo is not a traditional Irish band; its music is more roots/rock. “We’re a band playing songs that comes from Dublin,” Cramer said.

And that’s the kind of music the Kansas City Irish Fest has showcased more recently, giving its audiences something other than traditional Irish music.

“We always try to keep up with what is current in Ireland,” said Keli O’Neill Wenzel, the festival’s executive director. “We want to bring in bands that are up-and-coming in Ireland that play alternative music, not just traditional bands.

“That’s why we’re bringing back Tupelo. They fit that. And we’re bringing in The Young Folk. I saw them in Dublin a couple of years ago, and they came over here on a grant … and played at the Folk Alliance. They’ve got a (Mumford & Sons) vibe. It keeps the festival relevant, and it shows that Irish music runs the gamut and can provide something for everyone.”

“The festival organizers have a great track record of taking chances with bands and breaking new bands here,” Collins said. “Baile An Salsa is another example of this. We’re hoping to get them back to Kansas City next year to play at the new Irish Center, Drexel Hall.”

Kansas City has helped open doors for Tupelo. The band has since played Irish festivals in Chicago and Muskegon, Mich. And others are showing interest. For Cramer, though, the shows that stand out are the first three he played in Kansas City, before a crowd that was unfamiliar with its music.

“The reactions to our songs were great,” he said. “The crowd just kind of got it right away. We sold lots of CDs and downloads, and there was a lot of interest in the band. That’s why we’re going back.”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

THIS WEEKEND

The Kansas City Irish Fest runs Friday through Sunday at Crown Center. It features more than six dozen music/dance performances on seven stages plus two nights of comedy. Ticket prices range from $5 for children 3-12 years old to $12 for a daily admission, $30 for a weekend pass. For a complete list of ticket packages and a music schedule, visit KCIrishFest.com.

Organizers have added some changes and attractions this year:

▪ The Hogan Stand: A $50 ticket gets you admission to the festival, two drink tickets and access to the front-of-stage area of the Boulevard Stage. Capacity will be limited to 100 people.

▪ The Sunday Brunch: Shaun Brady, a native of Ireland and chef at the Ambassador Hotel, will prepare a traditional Irish breakfast, which will be served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, after Mass.

The western border of the festival grounds will be moved to Main Street so patrons can take advantage of the downtown streetcar.

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