BY MELISSA HOWELL
Ask The Kilted Man his most requested song at a St. Patrick’s Day performance, and the answer comes easily: “Danny Boy,” followed by “The Scotsman.” Ask The Kilted Man his favorite song to perform on St. Patrick’s Day, and the answer is much different.
“It depends on the audience and situation. Songs are for moments, and each moment has its own perfect song.”
For The Kilted Man, there have been many moments: Travels. Experiences. Catastrophes. And music. Always music.
Matthew Gurnsey – The Kilted Man – was born in Jamestown, west of Longmont up Left Hand Canyon. Situated on a mountain, the family home, which was originally built in 1894, was struck by lightning in 1973 – the year Gurnsey was born. The top floor was burned, and the family moved to an apartment above the Jamestown Mercantile while the home was repaired.
His parents – a father who was a hard-rock miner turned professional firefighter for the city of Boulder when the mines closed down, and a mother who worked as a librarian, at one time for Burlington Elementary in Longmont – introduced Gurnsey to music at a young age, often by the light of an oil-burning lamp.
“The power goes out up here (in Jamestown) a lot, and there was nothing else to do but sit around and play music as a family,” Gurnsey says. “I started performing at 4 or 5 (years old).”
As a teenager, Gurnsey’s father taught him to play the bagpipes. “Dad would play and people would call across the canyon and make requests,” Gurnsey says. Gurnsey has extensive, but not exclusive, experience in music and theater. He’s also herded cattle, taught rock climbing, performed extensive community service and acts of volunteerism, obtained multiple college degrees, fished on a professional shrimping vessel off the Alaskan coast, and worked as director of property management for Pearl Street Properties in Boulder, to name a few of his other ventures.
More than a decade ago he coformed a traditional Celtic band, “The Muses!” and toured through 42 states as well as internationally, performing upwards of 250 shows a year. The band’s time together produced six albums and a DVD, and billing at 10 of the largest Scottish/Irish festivals in the country. But in the midst of creating a new album and music video, the band’s 40-foot tour bus was involved in a roll-over accident, totaling the bus and everything inside.
Shortly after, the band broke up and Gurnsey launched his solo career as The Kilted Man. He settled back in Jamestown, into his childhood home perched atop the mountain; 15 years earlier he had purchased the home from his parents. “I enjoy the freedom of the solo career, but miss the harmony. I play 14 instruments, so I still get some harmony. The instruments fill in well with my voice.”
However, seemingly determined to finish the job from years ago, fire – this time from electrical wiring in a wall – burned his home to the ground in November 2011 while Gurnsey was away with his two 150-pound dogs. His cat escaped the fire, later returning. His instruments and kilts did not. He lost between 35 and 45 instruments to the fire, including bagpipes, an antique accordion, antique fiddles and his family piano.
“Neighbors have said they really miss hearing the bagpipes coming from the house,” Gurnsey says. Unable to locate a rental for Gurnsey and his dogs while he plans how to rebuild, insurance has provided them with a small travel trailer. On windy nights, Gurnsey doesn’t sleep.
On the road for St. Patrick’s Day for a number of previous years, this year he will be home, a word with perhaps a different meaning now. On March 15, he will perform at the Longmont Public Library. The 6:30 p.m. show will feature music and storytelling by The Kilted Man, along with soda bread and Shamrock cookies. He has performed several other times at the library.
“He’s fabulous, a phenomenal performer,” says Elektra Greer, head of the Children and Teen Department at Longmont Public Library. “There aren’t enough family friendly St. Patrick’s Day events in Longmont.”
“Growing up with a librarian, libraries are near and dear to my heart,” Gurnsey says.
To this end, he has launched yet another venture, a booking company that books cultural and educational events for libraries; he plugs traveling musical groups into libraries on their off days for a huge discount.
“It’s good for the artists to try out new material and have fun, and great for kids and families. I hope it’s excellent for libraries, brings people back to the library. And it’s a family friendly, cultural, fun, safe event. We have vetted our performers’ shows to make sure they are safe for families.”
For all the experiences, all the travels and performances, Gurnsey says nothing measures up to St. Patrick’s Day. “No matter how many shows I do in a year, St. Patrick’s Day is always special to Celtic musicians. There’s no other day quite like it in this community.”