First Published June 2019
LATE LATE COUNTRY SHAMBLES
I didn’t get a chance to write about this year’s Late Late Show ‘country special’ yet, so I was just going to leave it. Because in all honesty, it was so bad – again – that it almost feels like there’s no point. And after last year’s attempt, I honestly didn’t believe that it could get any worse. I was wrong. So here goes…
At the beginning of last month, I sat down to watch this year’s installment with a tiny flicker of hope still present in my heart. I wanted – I really wanted – the show to live up to its billing of being something ‘special.’ The Late Late is a celebrated institution in Irish entertainment. Its place in the history of popular culture on the island is secure. So for the country music scene to have a night to itself on the show for each of the last few years, well that should be a God-send for showcasing some of the hugely talented artists – young and old, past and present – who have been entertaining fans all across the country since long before The Late Late decided to grace the country scene with its blessing.
From the first country special a few years back, this should have been a golden opportunity for the business in Ireland to put itself – as an industry, as a scene, and as a community – in the spotlight. The sad thing is, that anyone who saw the first one, missed the next few, and then watched this year’s show, would think that absolutely nothing had changed or evolved in all that time. Still the same few artists being interviewed, still the same few telling their stories. It’s impossible for every country artist out there to be featured, no-one is even making that kind of argument. But what is possible – and what should surely have been figured out by now – is a way to feature a wider variety of artists, instead of falling back on the same selection, more or less, every time.
The signs for this year weren’t good. When you had Ryan Tubridy busking in Dublin while wearing a cowboy hat and accompanied by a flash-mob of dancers in the days leading up to the show, that in itself was almost enough to guarantee that some grim viewing lay ahead. Not to mention the fact that he was promising some ‘big’ surprises. Thinking back to the debacle of a year previously, when Lisa McHugh was promptly dismissed after her duet with Ronan Keating so the Boyzone front-man could be interviewed, or the cringe-worthy moment when Tubridy couldn’t even spare a second to name Ciaran Rosney or Gerry Guthrie when they were part of the Circle of Friends segment, some ‘big’ surprises sounded very much like a warning.
And perhaps most frustrating and annoying of all on this year’s show, was the Search For A Country Star competition. This is the same show that won’t even give a chance to new and young country artists who are already actually out there performing, entertaining, and impressing fans on the country music scene week-in and week-out. But now it was going to take it upon itself to ‘find’ the next country star? Oh please. How exactly was a show who knows so very little about country music going to know it had a possible country star in front of them, when they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – even recognise or acknowledge the new artists already making their mark on that scene when those artists were put right in front of them?
Sure, there was a panel of judges which included both Nathan and Margo – two individuals who I have a lot of respect for – that picked the eventual winner. But even Nathan said it himself on the night of the show, that panel didn’t get to see, hear, or meet all the contestants who entered. Logistically, with everyone’s schedules, that just wouldn’t have been feasible. And that’s fair enough. So there had to be a filtering process. That’s fair enough, too. But here’s what that means. Before that panel of judges had a chance to decide who the contestants with the best chance of being the next ‘country star’ were, somebody else decided. Who? And based on what knowledge or experience of the country scene?
The decision to open the show with ‘Walk of Life’ by Dire Straits was a dire choice alright. There are literally thousands of actual country songs that could have worked brilliantly to get things underway, literally thousands. ‘Walk of Life’ is a great song, but come on, if you’re calling something a country music special, play country music! That flash of imagination was followed up with ‘Shallow’, from A Star Is Born, as the duet between Nathan and the Search For A Country Star winner, Clodagh Lawlor. Now Clodagh can certainly sing, there’s no doubt about that. And again, it’s a great song. But it’s already over-played, and more importantly, there’s a thousand better country songs out there, and any one of them would have been a better choice for Nathan and Clodagh. This was an easy, lazy choice.
This year’s Circle of Friends segment was based around families, but Robert (Mizzell), Susan (McCann), Cliona (Hagan), and Jimmy (Buckley) have all featured on the Late Late Show before, many times before. So here was a chance to include four different artists for a change. There are enough quality artists out there to fill a show where everyone who performs only gets to do so once. Worse followed with a Hank Williams medley that, as an idea, should have been dismissed within two seconds of first being suggested. Another lazy, easy choice.
The Wagon Wheel of Fortune was simply an insult to the intelligence of everyone who took part. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it wasted probably another five or ten minutes where two or three more of the artists reduced to being faces in the crowd for the opening sequence, or part of the chorus for the very end, could have actually sang. That there was time found for Ryan Tubridy to actually duet with Daniel O’ Donnell was the most self-indulgent moment of all. There’s nothing more certain than the fact that Daniel will be a guest on The Late Late Show again before too long. Sing then, lads, to your hearts content. And in fairness, Ryan has a bit of a voice on him, credit where it’s due. He didn’t let himself down. But the point is, that was another chance for another actual country artist to be included in the show.
As far as Daniel’s induction into the Irish Country Music Association’s Irish Country Music Hall of Fame goes, again, credit where it’s due, first of all. For everything Daniel has achieved in and contributed to Irish country music, he probably deserves every acknowledgement of that fact that comes his way. What it would be really good to know, though, is what exactly is the Irish Country Music Association? Or who exactly is involved? Or how exactly do you join? Because I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. And what’s more, neither do any of the other people involved in the industry who I’ve asked about it. But you’d imagine the occasion of such an association inducting only its second ever individual to its Hall of Fame (Big Tom was the first) would have been a moment for such an association’s chairperson, or president, or secretary – or some representative – to be a part of?
The country music scene in Ireland is not just about six or seven artists. It’s not just about dancing, either. There was no involvement from anyone in country radio, no involvement from anyone in the country press, and not even a mention of any Irish songwriters. The night’s songs; ‘Walk of Life’, ‘Shallow’, ‘Walk The Line’, ‘Teach Your Children Well’, ‘Past the Point of Rescue’ (at least it was by an Irish writer, the great Mick Hanly), ‘Proud Mary’, that Hank Williams medley, ‘9 to 5′ (as part of that God awful quiz), ‘King of the Road’, ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, and ‘Dance The Night Away’, most of them are the typical songs you’d expect someone to sing at a country karaoke night. Not what you should expect – or get – from a night that’s supposed to be a celebration of the Irish country music scene.
There’s a train of thought that in cases like this, something is better than nothing. In other words, that having some shape of a country music special on The Late Late Show is better than not having anything at all. And if just wanted a night’s entertainment from it when you sat down to watch, you probably would have been more than satisfied. But I strongly disagree with the ‘something is better than nothing’ theory. There’s a bigger picture. At least there should be. And at this stage, these Late Late Show country specials are doing country music more harm than good. Why is it being allowed to happen? Who is allowing it to happen? Good questions. I wish I knew the answers….