Are you ready for the
country - or whah?
We hear tell that Country 'n' Irish is back in town and itching to
get even for all those years in exile.
Kevin Courtney goes west to head the ringleaders off at the pass
In the first episode of From A Whisper To A Scream, the RTÉ documentary of Irish rock, Bono declared that showbands were "the enemy". He may, however, have been slightly off the mark. To many rock fans, the real enemy was Country 'n' Irish, and its practitioners were seen as the Saddams of the Irish concert circuit, carpet-bombing the towns and villages of Ireland with their twanging, trad-flavoured musical Scuds. They were, to paraphrase Bono, from an Ireland that we didn't want anything to do with, but into which we had been corralled by prevailing tastes.
At least the Showband scene produced great rock musicians like Van
Morrison and Rory Gallagher, he Argued. What did Country 'n' Irish give
us, only Daniel O'Donnell?
Growing up in Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, my young, rock-centric ears were assailed daily by the sounds of
Larry Cunningham, Brendan Shine, Big Tom, T.R. Dallas, and the queen of them all, Philomena Begley.
Their waltz-time warbles made The Miami Showband seem like Led Zeppelin.
Country 'n' Irish was a unique, rather grotesque hybrid, combining the ruddier-necked elements of American Country 'n' Western and the mawkish side of trad, but it became the music which defined rural Irish culture during the Gaybo era. Country 'n'Irish artists routinely topped the charts at home, knocking international stars off the Number One slot, and the airwaves - ruled by a single national station - were dominated by Culchie 'n' Western crooners. No wonder I hid under my bedsheets and snuggled up to Radio Luxembourg for safety.
In recent years, the Celtic Tiger has swept Country 'n' Irish under the bogland, Lord bless us and save us.
In The Swingin' Sixties Book, published by John Coughlan in 1990, Paschal Mooney traces the roots the Country 'n' Irish phenomenon, laying the blame squarely at the feet of the late Jim Reeves. The American crooner, who died in a plane crash in 1963, influenced a whole generation of Irish country singers, says Mooney, and prompted a builder named Larry Cunningham, from Co Longford, to put down his trowel and pick up a microphone.
Cunningham kick-started the Country 'n' Irish wagon with his
UK Top Twenty hit, Tribute To Jim Reeves, and became C 'n'I's equivalent
of Bono through such smash hits as Lovely eitrim, Among The Wicklow Hills,
Pretty Little Girls From Omagh, and - deep breath - Cottage On The Border Line Between Galway And Mayo.
The Beatles weren't even in it.
Cunningham's success started a veritable stampede of C 'n' I artists, and the biggest of the lot was a big fella from Co Monaghan named Tom McBride. Big Tom became the Elvis of Country 'n' Irish, even though he looked more like Elvis's doorman, and his band, The Mainliners, broke box office records wherever they played.
Big Tom,concludes Paschal Mooney, was "probably the greatest phenomenon the world of Irish Country
Music has ever produced or will ever produce again".
So we'll never see his like again, and we have that in writing.
Rumours of C&I's demise, however, are somewhat prematuresays
Tom Allen, a.k.a. T.R. Dallas. "Country 'n' Irish is not dead," asserts
the Stetsoned former hitmaker, speaking while en route to a sellout show
in Bognor Regis. "The only place it's dead is in radio, where it's not
considered cool." Allen had his biggest hit with a song entitled
Who Shot J.R. Ewing?, which he released following the famous cliffhanger
episode of American soap, Dallas.
Allen, born in Moate, comes from a musical family - his brother is Tony Allen of Foster & Allen - and grew up listening to traditional Irish tunes. Country music appeals to Irish people, says Allen, because "it's close to the
bone. Country comes from the same stem as traditional, and it's played on banjos, mandolins and fiddles."
Allen works five nights a week, playing venues all over Ireland
and the UK - and sometimes the US Everywhere he plays, the punters
get up and dance, even though there's not a breakbeat or sample in
sight. He laments the lack of Country 'n' Irish on the national airwaves,
"Thousands of people pay good money to see this sort of stuff every night,
so it stands to reason that they'd want to hear it on the radio too,
but I suppose it's just not cool enough for the Celtic Tiger.
Brendan Shine may be old-school, but the 53-year-old legend has always
had one wellie on the dancefloor.
His most recent hit was a novelty "Irish rap" tune called Rinca, but he'll probably be best remembered for the classic Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down? Ooh-er, missus. "I wouldn't have much Nashville in my repertoire," says Shine, My style is more traditional Irish, with a bit of old-fashioned music hall."
Thirty years after his first Number One hit, O'Brien Has No
Place To Go, Shine still finds a welcome in venues across Ireland and the
UK for his easy, middle-of-the-road formula.
In fact, demand is so great that his daughter, Emily - a psychologist by trade - is now a permanent part of the Shine
roadshow. "She'll be doing some nice ballads, and that song from Titanic. I'll be just doing my usual old rubbish!" Although he admits that the golden age of Country 'n' Irish has long passed, Shine has no intention of hanging up the washcloth just yet.
"I've been 37 years on the road," he says. "Not only do I know
every road in Ireland, I've slept on them all; too. But I enjoy what
I do, and the more people who vomit every time they hear me, the more people
there are who really have a good night out. How long more will I keep doing
it? How long more do you think they can stand it?"
39 Steps to understanding Country & Irish Music
musical forms go, Country & Irish can best be described as the ugly
duckling that grew up to become a lame duck so hideous that only a blind
mother could love it.
2 Deaf people are also known to be uncommonly tolerant of it.
& Allen's leanings are more Irish than Country,
but they fit the rather smudgy bill somewhere near the top.
journalist once pointed out to F&A's mentor, Donie Cassidy, that the
duo's vocals were far too loud in the mix. "That's deliberate policy,"
responded Donie, "
We did a survey and found that 15% of Foster & Allen's audiences are deaf."
5 Mick Foster's brother represents the Country wing of the clan. As TR Dallas he became the authentic voice of designer bogmen everywhere with meisterwerks like "Who Shot JR?" and "It's Hard To Be Humble".
humility was put to the test on TV when he joined The Glam Tarts for a
romp through his greatest hit. Midway through the song the band struck
up Radiohead's "Creep"
and singer Paul Wonderful - on bended knee - serenaded Mr. Dallas with the declaration "
You're so fucking special".
7 Which wasn't really on.
music isn't about modern existentialist angst. It's about loneliness, the
pretty girls from Omagh and washing down oul' lobbies.
genre has a tiny vocabulary, as indeed do several of its perpetrators.
The handful of key words
are: Ramblin'. Mother. Lovely. Road. Mother. Old. Travellin'. Mother. Farewell. Fields. Dear.
Mountains. Mother. Home. Kissin'. Missin'. Mother. Leitrim.
10 Leitrim is one of the Home Counties of C&I music, a genre which has its stronghold in the the border areas and the midlands.
11 Ministers of the first Irish Government considered expelling Leitrim from the Free State. There was a widespread belief at cabinet level that the entire population of Leitrim were a shower of half-settled fuckers who wouldn't pay their taxes,mend their roads or speak properly.
12 This true fact is documented in Prof. Tom Garvin's authoritative study
"1922: The Birth Of Irish Democracy".
13 In all probability, C&I would have remained a minor backwater abberation but for the calamity that befell the ballrooms in the late Seventies.
14 With the advent of the disco, the entire showband industry ground to a halt. A new generation of punters no longer wanted beery men in toupees hawking cover versions of American and British hits.
15 So the beery men in toupees swelled the ranks of the C&I pub and club scene where they hawked cover versions of Irish tunes and homemade dirges about the view from their kitchen window.
Tom was C&I's first King. He was neither beery nor toupeed - and would
be entitled to sue anyone who suggested he was - but he had great success
with tunes such as
"Old Log Cabin For Sale", "Old Rustic Bridge" and "Back To Castleblaney".
is the Nashville of C&I. It's musical satellites include
Tourmakeady, Ballinamuck and Muff.
18 But back to Big Tom, who regularly toured the States with The Mainliners.
19 Once, Tom & Co. found themselves playing to a packed audience of strung-out Hell's Angels.
20 Mainlining is slang for injecting heroin.
21 The ex-showband heads who flooded C&I were astoundingly versatile when needs dictated.
22 Johnny Carroll, for instance, went from the Premier Aces Showband to Murphy And The Swallows to Magic & The Magic Band.
suit was festooned with lightbulbs that lit up as he gyrated.
This was sufficient to make him a major draw.
24 Unfortunately, the new discos had bigger and better lights.
then embraced the C&I scene, affiliating to its Easy Listening unit.
His proudest moment was performing at half-time during the 1988 All-Ireland Hurling Final.
between the GAA and the C&I are as numerous as the grains of sand on
"My Beloved Banna Strand" and "The Dunes Of Kilalla Bay".
why not? Do we want our role models associated with wholesome national
games or with unspeakable depravity involving six-in-a-bed sex romps with
Naomi Campbell lookalikes.Probably with the lights left on.
28 A composite profile of the typical C&I entertainer shows family values and positive attitudes to the fore.
that profile. 1st Job: Apprentice butcher/barman/cattle rustler. Interests:
Influences: Jim Reeves/Margo. Biggest thrill: Meeting Dolly Parton.
Ambition: To meet Pope John Paul
II. Star comment: "A stranger is a friend you do not know."
the 70s and 80s, stars of C&I were notable for making friends in strange
Romania under the murderous Ceaucescu regime and Apartheid South Africa.
31 The old Eastern Bloc was much loved by the C&I crowd. They'd arrive back in Ireland and rustle up publicity for their latest tour/record with tales of how they were infinitely bigger than Michael Jackson in Bulgaria, Moldova and/or Hungary.
32 And maybe they were. Unfortunately the Iron Curtain made it virtually impossible to check.
also forever winning first prize in the "prestigous"
Brataslava/Dubrovnik/Potsdam Song Contest.
34 Though only Eurovision itself is more prestigious than the annual Castlebar Song Contest, in the heartland of C&I music.
sample C&I at its best in Dublin, just follow the advice of the radio
ad. It says: "Come along toBarry's Hotel and meet all the stars.
There's Declan Nerney, Louise Morrissey, Big Tom ..."
36 Also try to catch Brian Coll. Brian is "an outstanding exponent of yodelling".
37 The biggest of them all, though, is Daniel O'Donnell.
38 If standard C&I fare is a boggy wasteland of despond, Daniel's output is Massey-Ferguson Young Farmer Of The Year award-winning stuff.
39 His huge success provides a salutary lesson in cultivating vegetables for profit.
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