Singer, songwriter, musician, actor, and published author: these are the distinctive hallmarks of Kevin O’Donnell’s public career. He is affectionately called “uncle tunes” among his family and close circle of musician friends, and is more broadly recognized in Chicago music circles as the founder and front man for the Irish-American folk group Arranmore.
Kevin’s commercial success as a songwriter dates back to the 1986 release of Island Home. He has frequently been compared to such writers as Gordon Lightfoot, Cheryl Wheeler, and Bill Staines. Americana and folk artists have recorded his early works and his historically based compositions have been featured in television documentaries both in the USA and Ireland. Under Kevin’s leadership and direction Arranmore attained musical success in the 1980s and 1990s.
Kevin traded concert stages for theatrical stages in 2000, performing with the prestigious Racine Theatre Guild, playing leading roles in several plays including Twelve Angry Men, The Sensuous Senator, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), Flowers for Algernon, and Neil Simon’s, I Ought To Be In Pictures.
In 2009 Kevin published his first book, Fadó: A Memoir of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness (Xlibris), chronicling the confluence of two cultures – that of his family’s ancestral home in Ireland, and his boyhood hometown in the American Midwest. The three-year writing project was not only a critical success but a financial one as well, supporting a book tour throughout the US and Ireland. The controversial memoir imbued with historical fact, has been praised and criticized in equal measure on both sides of the Atlantic for its frankness and handling of sensitive subject matter.
Throughout this time Kevin never stopped song writing and improving his craft, accumulating “a drawer full” of material that no one had ever heard – or was ever likely to hear.
Then along came a chance encounter with Maurice Lennon (Stockton’s Wing).
After a 15-year hiatus from music, Kevin was convinced to return to the studio in 2012 when Maurice agreed to produce a solo album of Kevin’s material. Kevin and Maurice eventually settled on ten original songs for the project. Some were pulled from the drawer; others were previously recorded by Kevin in the ’80s and ’90s – but those were retooled, rearranged, and in some cases, completely rewritten. The project inspired Maurice to write an original tune (A Letter Home) that serves as a prelude to the album.
The concept album – Deep Is The Well – is the result of an idea formulated by Kevin back in 2010. Three years in the making, it collectively represents a unique perspective of the American experience over a 170-year period as told by individuals of a multi-generational family of Irish descent. The album and website detail the complex family genealogy and include elaborate backstories of each of the characters he has created and are underscored and laced with actual historical events. Maurice Lennon’s arrangements feature four All Ireland instrumentalists who, in addition to Maurice himself are: Finbar Furey, John Williams and Jessica Willis. Noted Chicago A-list musicians Jim DeWan, Kathleen Keane, John Rice, and Larry Grey, enhance Kevin’s unique yet familiar sounding melodies and engaging stories widely loved for their vivid imagery, emotional depth and historical underpinnings.
Kevin remains an ardent lover of Chicago’s rich and bustling trad music scene. As he sings in the song Hooley on a Saturday Night, “there’s something to the feel and the rhythm of a reel that will run in these veins for good.” He can occasionally be found at sessions throughout the city. But he’s become an elusive if not reluctant performer, rarely taking the stage. “What would give me the greatest satisfaction now,” says Kevin, “is to see my writing stand solely on its own merits and maybe, if I’m lucky, hear how others might interpret my words and music.”
What’s next for the prolific writer? When asked, he says with a wry smile, “I’m thinking of writing a play.”