Sharon Shannon & Friends

Over the course of three superb solo albums, a stint with the Waterboys, and celebrity associations with members of U2, Mike Scott, Kirsty MacColl, and others, Irish fiddler and accordionist Sharon Shannon has earned her share of critical kudos. Dubbed Ireland's Number One Traditional Artist and Folk Artist of the Year, she has helped bridge the gap between Celtic tradition and its more contemporary applications, all the while refusing to concede to commercial considerations.

The Diamond Mountain Sessions may nudge her a bit more toward the mainstream -- but not all that much. It's the first time Shannon has abandoned an all-instrumental approach, thanks to an array of illustrious guest vocalists, including Jackson Browne, Steve Earle, and John Prine. Taking an approach similar to the Chieftains, whose albums have featured cameos from eclectic extras such as the Rolling Stones, Sting, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, and Linda Ronstadt, Shannon freely shares the spotlight on tunes that continue to tap into tradition. For example the rousing "Galway Girl" may be an Earle original, but he gives it an Irish authenticity that's every bit as convincing as his crooked country anthems. Jackson Browne's take on the folk chestnut "Man of Constant Sorrow" -- a standard that's been sung by practically everyone from Bob Dylan to Rod Stewart -- becomes a lilting lament with a personal perspective but one that's both tender and timeless.

That said, some of the album's offerings inevitably soak up outside influences as well. Irish singer John Hoban's inspired ode to Van Morrison, "Slan Le Van," carries a breezy tropical sway strikingly similar to one of Jimmy Buffett's nautical narratives. "Love Love Love," John Prine's duet with Mary Staunton, is a sweet serenade that could conceivably garner some crossover country airplay. The lovely "On the Banks of the Old Pontchertrain," sung by Liam O Maonlai of the Hothouse Flowers, features a tune taken from an old Irish waltz with lyrics penned by an archetypal American master, Hank Williams, Sr. And while there's the usual array of Irish instrumentals, Shannon includes two featuring Spanish piper Carlos Nuñez -- "A Costa de Galicia" and "Jota Do Porta Do Cabo" -- that bridge the distance from Galway to Galicia.

With its international outlook, The Diamond Mountain Sessions effectively expands Shannon's world view. For all her earlier accolades, this remarkable musical mix allows her to scale a new plateau.

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Lee Zimmerman