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APSU grad student rediscovers Irish heritage through music

April 1, 2003

Austin Peay graduate student Alan Mearn came to the United States with his family at the young age of 16, but one listen to his new CD The Tree tells you his heart remains in Ireland.
April 1, 2003

Austin Peay graduate student Alan Mearn came to the United States with his family at the young age of 16, but one listen to his new CD “The Tree” tells you his heart remains in Ireland.

At 25, Mearns has made a life out of his love of music. A violinist since the age of five, he switched to guitar at age 10, when he heard a friend of his brother play “Johnny Be Good.” In school he began to study jazz and classical guitar, eventually winning the Fletcher Scholarship Award at Appalachian State University in North Carolinathe only full scholarship the school offers.

His decision to pursue graduate work at Austin Peay came when he met Dr. Stanley Yates, eminent guitarist and associate professor of music and head of APSU's guitar studies program.

“I came to Nashville for session music, when I found out Dr. Yates worked here,” Mearns says. Yates encouraged him to further his academic career in music.

Mearns' styles of music range from classical to Celtic to modern rock. He switches back and forth between the styles to keep a healthy balance and, most of all, to keep things interesting.

“My academic pursuit of classical guitar is more for the pleasure of learning to play it well, but even if you get good at one particular style, you can get burnt-out on it,” says Mearns.

“Classical guitar is like figure skating; rock gives you the freedom to just relax and play. I don't want to be limited to the academic world.”

Although he likes to “relax and play,” one thing Mearns takes seriously is composing.

“Dr. Jeffrey Wood has been a fantastic teacher in composition. The past year of lessons with him has been invaluable,” says Mearns, who plans to graduate this May.

With his master's degree nearly in hand, Mearns has been juggling prospects in the music
industry, starting with promoting “The Tree,” a work he says recounts the rediscovery of his Irish heritage.

“I have an intense, deep-seeded desire to return to Ireland,” says Mearns, who rediscovered his interest in Irish and Scottish folk music through a Scottish-American friend and musician. “It was a very personal experience making this CD, almost like giving birth. It was something I had to do.”

Mearn's nostalgia is reflected in such songs as “Dunmurray,” which depicts comforting images of his hometown outside of Belfast in Northern Ireland and “Prayer for Belfast,” which expresses his hope for peace in the area.

Even with his dream of becoming a national Irish composer, Mearns admits that opportunity for success in the music industry is more prevalent in America.

“If you work hard and take the opportunities as they come to you here, you should succeed. In Ireland, music teachers have to work part-time jobs to make ends meet.”

There is also the undeniable claim that pop artists who make it in the states can make it anywhere. Nashville, in particular, is known for its ability to make struggling bands into stars overnight. That's one of the appeals the area has for Mearns.

“Nashville is one of the best places in the East to make it in the music industry, and you can really feel at home here,” says Mearns, who describes Nashville as “a little quainter of a city.” While temporarily separated from members of his band “Black Box,” he has toyed around with the idea of bringing the band from North Carolina out to the Nashville area and pursuing some gigs in local bars and cafés. Still, his thoughts always return to Ireland.

“I used to fear that when I returned to Ireland it wouldn't be as I dreamed,” says Mearns, who has since returned to the country to visit family and friends. “But I've found it is very charming, green and hospitable. It took a bit of distance to develop a newfound love and appreciation of that. It's what the CD is about.”

Mearns plans to compete in the Appalachian Guitar Festival in Boone, N.C., this June, and his music will be featured in the guitar magazine “Fingerstyle” next month.

To sample or purchase Mearns' CD “The Tree,” visit