For over two decades, Brian FitzGerald and Martin McCormack of
Switchback have been entertaining audiences around the world with their
unique American Roots music blended with Celtic Soul. Showcasing their
impeccable vocal harmonies, Switchback plays an exciting mix of
mandolin, guitar and bass.The music is emotionally charged and
excitingly eclectic, combining elements of bluegrass, country, rock, and
Celtic.Wherever they play, no matter the size or age of audience,
Switchback always captivates and charms folks with their energy and
Their Celtic music is authentically Irish, drawing praise from such traditional players as Matt Molloy of the group the Chieftains. Ireland has taken Switchback to her heart, with performances at art centers throughout the country and appearances on RTE (Raidió Teilifís Éireann). At the same time, their music is modern Celtic, with songs capturing the Irish of today as accurately as the Pogues and singer-songwriters like Christy Moore.
But to pay attention only to the Celtic side of Switchback would be a disservice to the unique American roots music crafted by FitzGerald and McCormack. None other than the Grammy Award-winning producer Lloyd Maines chose to work with Switchback in producing three of their albums and considers the duo one of the most important acts playing Americana music today.
Switchback tours throughout the United States, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Italy, and the Netherlands playing over 200 engagements a year. Their television specials “The Americana Sessions” and “The Celtic Sessions” have aired on PBS stations throughout the U.S. The band has also been working with Paul Mertens (who arranged the music for “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin”) on orchestral scores for some of their original music.
On top of their usual tour schedule, Switchback regularly presents outreach programs for schools, community events, senior citizen groups, and special needs audiences. They offer outreach programs on Celtic music, songwriting, and music appreciation as well as music residencies.
Unusual, honest, heartfelt, humorous, personable, talented, spiritual, and spirited – these all describe the band Switchback.
Contrary to popular myth, Brian FitzGerald wasn’t born with a mandolin in his hand. That and his guitar came much later when as a 17-year-old in Oak Park, Illinois, he began studying the guitar. His guitar playing was so intense that his parents decided to sell their home and move out to Lansing, Iowa, just so they could finally get Brian out of his bedroom.
Once out of his room, FitzGerald wandered down to Maxwell Street in Chicago. There he sat in with some highly regarded musicians, picking up the “Freddy Green” style of rhythm playing that was to serve him years later with Switchback. Brian also was introduced to the famous mandolin player Jethro Burns, who was part of the duo Homer and Jethro and was a regular on the Grand Ole Opry stage as well as on Prairie Home Companion. Picking up a used Kentucky mandolin, Brian began to learn jazz, bluegrass, and other standards from Burns.
In 1981, his family opened FitzGerald’s nightclub in Berywn, Illinois. Under the leadership of Brian’s music aficionado brother Bill, FitzGerald’s quickly became known for having the best singer-songwriters and folk and rock bands from across North America appear. Moonlighting as a barkeep and doorman, FitzGerald picked up on some of the greats that graced the stage, including an unknown Texas rocker named Steve Ray Vaughan who good naturedly let Brian try his legendary hat and guitar. The late, great Zydeco king, Clifton Chenier, also frequented FitzGerald’s. On one of these occasions, Chenier’s guitarist became ill, so Clifton invited Brian to finish the stint at FitzGerald’s and accompany the band on the rest of the tour to the Twin Cities.
Another renowned influence was the County Kerry Irishman Cuz Teahan, who encouraged Brian to join his band of traditional musicians. Brian learned the traditional tunes on his mandolin and soon was immersed in the Chicago Irish music scene.
Two big things happened in Brian’s life in 1986. He married his wife Maggie, an accomplished singer-songwriter in her own right, and he soon became a father. Together Brian and Maggie became a music duo noted for playing community centers and nursing homes. Their son Chris would sometimes travel with them, where he would bring down the house with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
If that wasn’t enough, in 1986 Brian met a young singer-songwriter from Woodstock, Illinois, named Marty McCormack. The two were on a double bill at a club in Palatine, Illinois and an uncanny friendship started up as McCormack became the lead singer in Teahan’s Irish band. FitzGerald and McCormack continued along to form the Wailin’ Banshees and later in 1993 they formally began their songwriting partnership as the duo called Switchback.
The FitzGerald family moved out to Lansing, Iowa in 1995 and daughter Siobhan was added to the family. The kids are almost grown now and both are musically inclined. When not working on music, Brian is studying Tai Chi and reading classical literature.
At the tender age of four, Marty McCormack was already an accomplished songwriter, bringing down the house (well, the house he lived in with seven brothers and two sisters in Deerfield, IL) with his favorite self-penned song, “Tall Corn Moose.” At the urging of a neighbor who heard Marty’s non-stop singing on a visit to the McCormack homestead, his mother brought him to a nursing home, where he stood on a table and sang “Silent Night.” It was the beginning of an auspicious career in music. Years later, McCormack would be still standing on tables and singing, but with his partner Brian FitzGerald in the duo Switchback.
When the family moved out to a 25-acre farm near Woodstock, Illinois in 1971, McCormack had to adjust to his new, rural settings. No longer having a ready audience, he took to singing to the local herd of Holsteins that would gather underneath an oak tree next to the McCormack farm. Their milk didn’t sour, but McCormack did, pining for a human audience. He got that audience in 1976, when he won the McHenry County talent contest for singing “The Hawaiian Wedding Song.” He also won first prize for having the fastest pony in the county, but that is another story.
It seemed like music was to be his destiny. His mother’s side of the family had the famous band, the Imperial Orchestra of Dubuque, IA. Marty had an insatiable appetite for the family record collection, listening to everything from Ronnie Hawkins to Bing Crosby. He began starring in local musicals, playing the part of Winthrop Paroo in the Music Man and Prince Chululongkorn in The King and I on the stage of the newly restored Woodstock Opera House. But it was his singing of Irish ballads and his introduction of his County Mayo-born grandfather, Luke McCormack, to a standing ovation that brought McCormack local recognition. Soon he was singing in churches, nursing homes, and local weddings. By senior year in high school, McCormack won the Woodstock Fine Arts Scholarship and went on to study voice at Mundelein College in Chicago. He also pursued a Bachelor’s in Communications at nearby Loyola University.
Forming several bands through college, McCormack continued to garner prizes for his voice, winning Loyola’s BG Gross Award for his arias. Upon graduation in 1985, Marty continued his vocal training, first at the American Conservatory and next at the Sherwood Conservatory, both in Chicago, tempted to become the next Pavarotti. But a career in opera did not seem to be in the cards as his love for writing songs took flight. After several brushes with fame, including a chance to perform on Star Search, McCormack took a job in marketing for a Chicago health care company to pay his college loans. He continued to play at night and met Brian FitzGerald when his band met Brian’s at a suburban Chicago pub. Striking up a friendship, soon FitzGerald and McCormack were writing songs together and performing in Irish and Americana bands. Making music late into the night, Marty would wake up at 6:30 a.m., pull on his business suit and head off to his marketing job. The pace couldn’t last; he left health care in 1993 to go into music full time with Brian as the duo Switchback.
McCormack settled on the north side of Chicago where he lives with his wife Annie and his daughter Áine. When he is not rambling across the country with Brian, he likes to spend time with his family cooking, going to the park, drawing and catching up on sleep.