By John Chambless
On Memorial Day, Charlie Zahm was standing on stage at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, performing songs about America to hundreds of soldiers who were very far from home.
For Zahm, a longtime musician based in Coatesville, it was an honor to be in the spotlight on a national holiday. The road to the concert, though, was a long one.
"I wrote a song on Memorial Day two years ago called 'Prayer for a Soldier,'" Zahm said during an interview this week. "I recorded it in Nashville for my latest CD, called 'Nothin’ Like the South,' last year, and we made a You Tube video for it.
"Well, videos get passed around on Facebook and through e-mails, and this one was seen by a gentleman from Nottingham, Pa., who saw me perform at the Union League in Philadelphia. He sent it to a retired Army colonel in the Middle East, a friend of his, who is still very involved with our efforts there.
"The colonel appreciated the message in that song, and reached out to me to see if I would like to perform for the troops at Al Udeid airbase in Qatar, where he currently works in an advisory role," Zahm said. "I told him how much I would appreciate the opportunity and he got the ball rolling, and the next thing you know my fiddle player, Tad Marks, my wife Cathy and I were on a plane, bound for the Arabian Peninsula."
Zahm's rich baritone voice and flawless musicianship have been constants through a career that spans several musical genres. His 25 CDs since 1992 have spotlighted traditional songs from Ireland and Scotland, as well as originals in a similar vein. Zahm's repertoire includes a wide selection of traditional American folk songs and music of the Civil War era. His latest CD, released in 2013, shows him in country mode -- a musical style that's just a small step from the traditional music he is best known for.
Zahm takes great pride in his family's Scottish and Irish roots, which are threaded through Ontario, Canada, where his mother was born. His versatility keeps him busy playing large folk festivals, Civil War re-enactments, family-style folk concerts and private shows that can be tailored to just about any audience. Arranging his recent trip to Qatar, though, took some extra effort.
"There were actually several months between my contact from Al Udeid and us going," he said. "I was contacted before the big government sequester last year, and the sequester tabled anything beyond the most important expenses, so our visit was put on hold until after that was sorted out.
"The reason I was asked over in the first place is because of the message of 'Prayer for a Solder' and many of the other songs I have written -- my appreciation for the men and women of our military, their families back home, and so on," Zahm said. "They were trying to tie our visit in with a date important to our military, and Memorial Day is one of the most important days on our country’s calendar, so that date was chosen. That they trusted me to do a good job on such a respected day was an honor," he added.
The Qatar show is Zahm's most distant show ever, involving 24 hours of travel each way. He was at the base for three days.
"Our big performance was on Memorial Plaza at the base, which has a big stage and is where all big gatherings are held," he said. "It is under a huge permanent tent. I am not sure how many were at the show -- everybody works 10- and 12-hours shifts, six days a week or so, and they really don’t have a lot of spare time. But I would say at least 800 were there.
"We had a 90-minute set, with no breaks, for the big show. We didn’t take requests. We really couldn’t see anybody in the audience, and we had our set list made out. The show was about two-thirds songs I felt they know and could sing with, one-third songs I have written.
"We also played for wounded warriors on base and shared some songs during a church service," Zahm added. "We wanted to perform as much as we could, given they were bringing us so far."
Zahm and his wife and Marks met many of the soldiers at the base and got a tour of the nearest town, Doha.
"We slept on base, ate at the mess hall, and we were also given some great tours of the place," Zahm said. "I even got to sit in the cockpit of a B1 bomber. Awesome experience. Many said 'thank you' for us coming so far, but honestly we were the ones who were thankful. We were treated so very well. Their mood was great. They have a big job to do, but were always kind to us, smiled, and many took a moment to ask about us, where we’re from, and how we were enjoying the visit."
The chance to give back to the troops was a career highlight for Zahm, and he said he's ready to repeat the experience any time he's asked.
"Most definitely, we would be happy to go back," he said. "We got much more out of it than we gave, it seems. There is already discussion of us going back, maybe even later this year."
The Friends Folk Club Concert Series presents Charlie Zahm at The Oxford Friends Meetinghouse (260 S. Third St., Oxford) on June 6 at 7:30 p.m. He will be performing music from pre-Revolutionary days through the Civil War. Tad Marks will accompany him on fiddle. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults (children 12 and younger are free). Refreshments will be sold. Proceeds benefit the George Fox Friends School. For more information, call 610-593-7122.
Zahm is performing at the East of the Hebrides Bonnie Brae Scottish Festival in Liberty Corner, N.J., on June 7 at 10 a.m., but he's coming back for a fundraising Celtic music concert on June 8 at the Christian Life Center (125 Saginaw Rd., New London). The 2 p.m. concert will raise funds for a friend of Zahm's who is going to be doing mission work. Call 484-340-0211 for more information.