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Country and Irish - The secret history of Irish pop culture

  Irish popular culture is a strange beast.

For such a small country that has produced such international cultural behemoths as U2, Father Ted, the Commitments and er... Mrs. Brown's Boys, there's a whole side of Irish culture - the real stuff that has been blanketed away.

For every Father Ted, there's a Leave It To Mrs. O'Brien, for every U2, a dozen showbands... There's a whole music scene - not the trad scene, but a pop scene - a whole alternate world that has gone on for decades, to mainstream success in the country.

This week, Big Tom McBride died aged 81, a few weeks after his beloved wife Rose. Though bar Irish ex-pat communities, unknown outside of Ireland, if one found themselves in Ireland, people may wonder what the fuss was. "King of Irish country" dies, barked the cover of every newspaper, accompanied by photos of this jovial blue-suited Brian Dennehy-ish figure, the father of "Country 'n' Irish", who came to fame in the mid-1960s with his band the completely innocently named the Mainliners, which despite the druggy connotations the name implies, the only drug these lads would be seen near would be caffeine. Cameras from all major Irish media hurtled down past the giant guitar-decorated gates of Big Tom's irony-free house in Oram, Co. Monaghan to the nearby town of Castleblayney, "the Vegas of Ireland", or its Nashville, depending on the tabloid headline. Although having been to this strange borderland dystopia full of gift shops and pubs, Branson would be a better description, for it has precisely one gambling den. And is more attuned to the "chicken in a basket" dinner theatre circuit than anything. On Tuesday, the cameras rolled, as Margo O'Donnell, an aged former idol of the industry stood there, claiming in her distinctive Donegal lilt, all too serious, "it's the day the music died". Instantly announcing that a statue had been prepared for a September unveiling, it seems Castleblayney is determined to remember Tom, in the same way that Mullingar, Co. Westmeath quickly erected a statue to its own local showband crooner, Joe Dolan, who unlike McBride, had had several bursts of internaional fame.

But what is Irish country music? Not to be confused with traditional Irish music or folk, it is a product of Ireland's strange love of Americana, especially westerns. One must realise that Ireland in the 60s, apart from the North and Southeast which were covered by the BBC and various ITV regions, only had one TV channel -RTE. Westerns were always popular in rural areas - both in print and in film, and The Virginian was one of the more popular TV shows on RTE. So it's no surprise that the sound of country and western music, itself derived from Scots-Irish folk became popular here.

It began with the showbands - cabaret covers groups that toured small, insular Catholic Ireland in the late 1950s and early 1960s - bringing a watered down version of rock and roll, and later Merseybeat and even surf music (in the case of the Freshmen - who in the opportunistic nature of the business - became a comedy punk band in the late 70s) to small parishes and villages. Many of the names became national stars, McBride, Joe Dolan, Brendan Bowyer, Eileen Reid, Tony Kenny, Twink, and Castleblayney's own Paddy Cole. Several, including Butch Moore, Sean Dunphy, the legendary Dickie Rock (yes, that's his real name - alongside Dolan, one of the two giants who remained as bright a star for the decades afterward), Muriel Day, Red Hurley, the Swarbriggs and Maxi represented Ireland in the feted Eurovision Song Contest - in the days before the winning season. Some even bigger names even came out of this insanely prolific march of light entertainment - Rory Gallagher, and Van Morrison to name but two.

The country scene began as a cash-in. And unlike real country music of America, which is driven by songwriters and hard lives, Irish country, like most of the Irish music scene has always been about trends. Yes, there have been some superior performers - Ray Lynam and Philomena Begley come to mind, but someone like Larry Cunningham - one of the early stars of the scene came to fame with the aptly named Tribute to Jim Reeves, a homage to the beloved American country crooner that predated the less respectful, more necrophiliac likes of Danny Mirror's I Remember Elvis Presley by over a decade. Cunningham became a sort of Reeves manque, while Philomena Begley scored a sizeable hit with a fairly identikit cover of Billie Jo Spears' Blanket on the Ground. And Pat Campbell, a Radio Luxembourg DJ/RTE producer rose to notoriety via "The Deal" - a religious-themed spoken word ballad cashing in on the success of Red Sovine's similar spoken sadnesses. Like Sovine's "Teddy Bear", "The Deal" became a favourite of Kenny Everett's Worst Records Show on Capital, so astonishing was its jaw-dropping tale of a father who sacrifices himself in a deal with God, in order to stop his wife and unborn child dying in a severe miscarriage. Such similar godliness also touches Gloria Sherry's record-breaking 1978 cover of the Kris Kristofferson composition One Day At A Time, which became a favourite of grandmothers all over, and would have perhaps hit bigger internationally were it not for a better cover by the Scottish singer Lena Martell, which though limped in Ireland at a measly no 22 in the charts, became a number one for three weeks in the UK.

But not all the stars resorted to covers. Big Tom McBride, often seen as the father of the genre, though prone to the odd cover of Porter Wagoner or Australian country star Slim Dusty, came to fame with original songs such as "Four Country Roads" and "Gentle Mother", that were about Ireland, unlike other performers' likes of "Queen of the Silver Dollar". (Mick) Foster and (Tony) Allen, alongside Daniel O'Donnell, one of the few international breakout acts became infamous for their Celtic-tinged country-folk, dressed in 18th century Anglo-Irish fashion/Barry Lyndon cosplay that many international audiences horrified at the green satin and cravats mistook as leprechaun outfits.

Tony Allen's brother Tom struggled on the scene for some years before in the early 80s, under the name TR Dallas, released the US soap cash-in "Who Shot JR Ewing", before unexpectedly, having a second hit with a cover of Mac Davis' "Oh Lord, It's So Hard To Be Humble!". This earnest presentation of otherwise novelty acts is something that has continued in Irish country.

Now, the country scene is still profitable. But most of the acts are not country per se. After the 80s glory years, country kind of retreated. Daniel O'Donnell's fame rose, no longer the brother of Margo, herself a star of some repute. But later stars, the next generation after Big Tom, Cunningham, Begley - the likes of Mick Flavin and Declan Nerney, though popular with older generations always had a reputation as glorified jokes, the bread and butter of local radio. The mania that Father Ted parodied with the episode "Night of the Nearly Dead" and the fictitious country crooner Eoin McLove is barely exaggerated.

Also, the major American acts, Johnny Cash, Charley Pride, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, etc began to tour Ireland, going to small towns where no other major international stars would go. As for the other way around, well... Daniel O'Donnell has has PBS specials and done Branson, like several other Irish acts. Philomena Begley guested on Porter Wagoner's show. Larry Cunningham tried, but there was always a glass roof. Country music was music about America and to a lesser extent, Canada and Mexico. Keith Urban's sound of metrosexual bland stateless form of country is a relative innovation. Even in Britain, where country is only mainstream in parts of Northern England and Scotland, most of these acts got play at the Wembley Festival of Country Music, and exposure on the BBC's Sing Country, there to appeal to various Irish immigrants living in London, who'd see their idols play in Cricklewood and Kilburn.

Then, Cartermania hit.

Nathan Carter, a teenage Liverpudlian of Irish descent and an accent somewhere between Merseyside and Bogside rose out of nowhere in the late 2000s. A handsome youth was something of a novelty in the Irish country scene. There were a few contemporaries. Michael English, very much an Eoin McLove-type, a sort of Daniel Mark II, briefly mentored by Louis Walsh on account of the latter's mother being a fan had some success, while Mike Denver, Carter's main rival - a frost-tipped Galwegian cowboy seemed to be so much of a veteran, as a newcomer, he had the unfortunate habit of coming across as a has-been. But Carter, not an exceptional talent, but certainly not the worst, and an enthusiast of the genre cracked the market, breaking out of the hotel dinner theatre/cabaret circuit, and into stadiums in Dublin, the capital being an area very hostile to Irish country music (the American giants are treated like kings, but there is a real snobbiness to homegrown "culchie" music in Dublin). He was good-looking enough to appeal to a younger audience, with enough of the manufactured innocence and an outspoken love of his own grandmother to appeal to pensioners. Since then, he's the new king - hosting his own old-fashioned variety show, his younger, less talented brother Jake being peddled as a star in his own right (although thankfully he brands himself as a pop star - although knowing his career, he may do the Ronan Keating and brand himself country retrospectively). Nathan Carter's version of Wagon Wheel became a hit, now forever on the playlist of wedding bands and rural pub cabaret acts. But the real rot set in with Carter's imitators, people like Derek Ryan and Lee Matthews, ex-boybanders and rappers who seem to be only in country for the money. Their legacy has changed Castleblayney. People in Castleblayney take country seriously - too seriously. The entire industry is mired in suspicion. There's always been dodgy angles to this industry from the Miami Showband killings to the recent revelation that D-list Irish country performer Eamonn Jackson funds himself via puppy farming. They don't see it as light entertainment fluff. The border area of Ireland/Northern Ireland (coincidentally the heartland of the Troubles) loves this new breed of country, because they are too busy jiving to actually listen to the likes of Marty Mone and Ritchie Remo, usually farmers who somehow have become singers. Their songs are sub-Wurzels ditties that they sing seriously. Songs like "Hit The Diff" and "Slip the Clutch" are rural humour songs being sung by people who don't see it as comedy. Because they don't care about the music. Just the dancing. The whole industry reeks of insecurity and insincerity. This new genre of boyfolk is as much a genre unto itself as Southern soul or psychobilly, but the promoters and the acts don't want to put it in its own category.

But Irish country, though a prolific genre is almost proudly undistinguished. I always wanted to do a documentary on the subject, seeing how RTE's Stetsons and Stilettos (or Keepin' 'Er Country as BBC Northern Ireland rename it) seem to focus mostly on the fans of the newer acts, and taking the mick out of competitive farm sorts and truck shows, rather than country itself, soundtracked to all of this boyfolk (a term that comes from boards.ie). Then, once I went to Castleblayney, I realised why. It's shallow. There's not much interesting backstories,at least nothing that can be said without being sued. Everything was covered by RTE's A Little Bit Country series of interview profiles. Most of these performers were adequate cabaret performers who benefitted from being from a small country. They struck lucky, and still do. But it's a pity there isn't much to say, because they themselves say a lot about Ireland.
Author: George White.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018