Twenty years ago my husband handed me a flyer he’d found on a bulletin board in a Martin City, Missouri, barbecue joint.
“Maybe this guy can make some tables for us,” he said. We’d wanted a couple of oak tables to match a pair we already owned.
“Sure,” I said. “Call him.”
And that’s how we met Ian Byrne, furniture maker extraordinaire but even now more widely known as the lead singer of the contemporary Irish-American band “The Elders”. It’s been fun ever since.
Long ago, when we handed Ian our plan for some oak end tables, Ian worked in a small shop (I think it was someone’s garage) in Martin City, a Kansas City suburb with a rural feel. He was slowly acquiring wood-working equipment and told us we were some of his first customers.
When we met Ian, he’d only been in the United States for a couple of years, coming to live in his wife’s hometown of Kansas City. Native to County Wicklow, Ireland, Ian had met his wife Kathy Quinn when her family regularly vacationed there. They were each other’s first and only sweethearts, they are happy to say. Kathy is an award-winning disc jockey and newscaster for local Kansas City television and radio stations, and Ian would tune in her radio program while he worked. She dedicated a song to us once while we visited Ian’s shop. They are both such warm, happy, inclusive, delightful people that you can’t resist them.
Ian’s business continued to grow, and he moved to larger shops. Ian made more oak furniture for us — a china cabinet, a head board, book shelves, entertainment centers, more tables. We like oak — it’s solid, beautiful and indestructible — but Ian can work in any wood. One of Ian’s early shops was in a forested area, and when we talked to him about a new project, he told us he’d just seen his first snake — ever. He made some joke about St. Patrick needing to come to Missouri.
Eventually, his business grew so large that he moved into a 16,000-square-foot area in a large old warehouse in the West Bottoms near downtown Kansas City. He gave us a tour after we’d visited the nearby Haunted Houses with our kids one October. Byrne Custom Woodworking Inc. is now in more than 30,000 square feet in an underground facility in Lenexa, Kansas. His company makes custom furniture, exquisite cabinetry for kitchens and plantation shutters. His clientele have included people from here and far away, including Steven Spielberg. Ian is out of our league now!
With his business booming, Ian was still able to find some time to return to music. The Elders were formed in 1998. (Their tag line is Arse Kicking Music from the Heartland.) Ian told us that in Ireland he’d been in a band that traveled around playing music in the style of Supertramp — I think. I confess that although his accent is adorable and charming, I’m not always sure quite what he is saying.
We have followed the band through the years from gigs in local pubs to parking lots in Westport to large venues. They have a huge following of fans who can sing along. Two years ago, my daughter worked as an intern for The Elders’ violinist Brent Hoad in his recording studio, which gave us a taste of just how busy they were, crisscrossing the country. The band headlines at many festivals.
This past weekend, The Elders opened the tenth year of free concerts in Olathe, Kansas. Ian told the crowd how great it was to play in town.
“In thirty minutes we can drive home and be in our scratchers,” he said.
It was a perfect June night, just warm enough to be comfortable with a light breeze. An almost full moon rose to cast its cool, pale light upon us. There weren’t even any bugs! Could this be Kansas? Step dancing erupted in the crowd, and the dancers had to find places to do their complicated moves among the blankets and folding chairs.
“I came to this country in 1987,” he told the crowd. “This year I’m completing my papers to become a citizen.” He said he’d been studying for the citizenship test, and then one of his band members joked that “I hope they grade on the curve.” But Ian rejoined that he thought he now knew more about this country “than most of you” and was eager to become a citizen. Many of The Elders’ songs are about tradition and family, about roots and leaving home.
The Elders have recorded several CDs and are featured on two DVDs, including “The Elders: Alive and Live in Ireland” about their 2007 tour of Ireland by Kansas City documentary maker Ben Meade, who is also featured in Joe Heyen’s just released documentary “Cowtown Ballroom…Sweet Jesus!” When my daughter was an intern with The Elders’ violinist, she and I worked the merchandise table at a special showing of The Elders movie when Meade, the band and many friends were there to celebrate its release. It was like one big happy family. Ian and Kathy give back to the community a hundred-fold. I’ve even seen his company’s name on a barbecue tent at the annual American Royal Barbecue Contest. Every year, Ian’s woodworking company creates and donates a beautifully crafted wine cabinet for the Operation Breakthrough auction, and The Elders play many benefit concerts for schools and groups.
I hope you get a chance to see them if they play in your area. Here’s their website, which includes music, merchandise and their schedule: The Elders, Arse Kicking Music from the Heartland. They can tell their story better than I can. Check out Ian’s woodworking company at Byrne Custom Wood. Check out Operation Breakthrough.