Not everyone in Weston, MO., has an emmy sitting on their shelf. Nor do they have several critically-acclaimed CDs to their credit, or books of poetry with their byline. Connie Dover, however, does, although you would never know it from speaking with this humble and demure artist.
In the world of Celtic vocal music, Dover is a rock star. Four critically-acclaimed albums have cemented her reputation as an evocative voice to not only the music of Scotland and Ireland, but that of Appalachia and the old west, places that have become a second home to her in her adult life.
Dover is a North Kansas City native. She grew up there with her brother, Jeff Dover, owner of Le Monde Bakery, a North Kansas City standby for French pastries and authentic Vietnamese spring rolls. She says that her childhood never hinted at the troubadour lifestyle that she now enjoys.
“I wasn’t raised in a family where I was exposed to Celtic music, it just wasn’t available then,” says Dover. Dover heard the music randomly and its hold on her took her by surprise.
“It was so much cooler and more moving than anything that I was hearing on the radio,” she says. “So I started seeking it out, looking for, at the time, LPs that might have recordings. I started finding records from the 60’s and 70’s from the folk revival and they just won my heart. I thought they were interesting and the language was really true and pure and the melodies were haunting and simple.
As she dug deeper into the genre, she began learning the words and music as a hobby, finding more kindred musicians that were inspired by the style and forming what would become her first foray into the music business. The group, Scartaglen, became an Irish-American band that successfully toured and recorded from 1982 through 1994.
While the band started off as a bit of a novelty for many listeners, (an Irish band from Kansas?), through the years, each member made strides with their instruments and gained a reputation throughout the country. As the band grew, Dover started contemplating striking out on her own, and in the early 90s, contacted internationally-acclaimed Scottish musician Phil Cunningham.
Her paper letter, asking Cunningham to produce her album, was met with enthusiasm and an invitation to come to Scotland to record with some of the best musicians in the genre. Over the last 20 years, the duo has collaborated on four albums, combining Celtic, American folk and some of Dover’s original compositions. She is currently working on material for a fifth album.
“I’m trying to narrow it down between about 20 songs,” says Dover. “I’ll take the songs that are the most beautiful and the most interesting and moving to me, which tend to also be the most heartrending ones, and focus on them. I try to use the ones that are the most universal and those songs always are.”
What sets Dover apart for many fans is her authenticity. While with Scartaglen, Dover began learning Irish Gaelic, a fairly rare form of a struggling language, from Barbara Carswell, a native speaker located in Lawrence, Kan. She has continued to learn from Carswell, working to understand the grammar and phrasing of what she is singing.
Of course the thing that most people notice first is the quality of her voice. Her clear, tremulous soprano could be matched against any in the Celtic music arena and come out on top. After seeing Dover live, it’s clear that there is little enhancement in the studio. Her voice is truly an instrument that has been finely tuned for the haunting melodies so rampant in Gaelic and Celtic music.
Beyond the language, Dover has become a collector of folk music. Within her own family, Dover found that her grandmother had been a singer of ballads in Arkansas as a young lady, and incorporated some of those tunes into her repertoire.
One of Dover’s other loves is the American West and in it, she found another source of musical inspiration. Years ago, she began cooking on a ranch in Wyoming, and has gone back every summer. Last year, she began working at the winter camp in Yellowstone National Park as a cook and guide. Being entrenched in the American West has revealed that Scottish and Irish music is still sung on the trails, mixing with American traditional songs such as Shenandoah and Sweet Betsy From Pike.
Over the years, Dover’s talent for not only singing, but also song- writing, has become well known. The Emmy on her mantle was earned for her work as composer and arranger on the KCPT Channel 19 documentary “Bad Blood: The Border War that Triggered the Civil War” in 2007. She has also won awards for her songwriting with the Yellowstone and Teton Song Contest.
When she’s not on the trail in the west, or on tour around the world, she lives outside Weston, Mo., writing poetry. She published a book of poetry, Winter Count, in 2007. She says that writing poetry helps to keep her creative skills sharp while also letting her mind have a little release.
“Songwriting, for me, in the style of music that I sing, is a little bit more constrained, more structured,” Dover says. “That’s the challenge of writing a song; how do write something that you feel is beautiful and true and do it within a musical structure? What I like about poetry, at least free verse, which is how I write, is it’s a much freer form of expression. I write about the things that I haven’t figured out a way to say in musical form yet.”
With so much success in her career, why stay in Kansas City? Dover says that Kansas City provides a great blend of the urban and rural environments that she craves. “Living here allows me to have a little privacy and be in nature, but also allows me to be near family and friends, and my parents, who mean a lot to me,” she says. “Plus, there are such talented musicians in this area, so it’s a real luxury to be able to work with them. So I spend part of the year in Wyoming and part of the year here. But my mortgage is here!”
You can often find Dover at Prospero’s Bookstore for open poetry jams or the Rhime Buddhist Center for meditation classes. This adopted Celtic songbird has taken a melody and created a life on her own terms. And the world is listening.
You can see and hear Connie Dover this month with the Philharmonia of Greater Kansas City Chamber Ensemble and the Kansas City Youth Ballet on March 10 at the Graham Tyler Memorial Chapel. To hear more, visit ConnieDover.com.