First Published December 2020
It’s honestly hard to know where to begin when it comes to talking about another Late Late Show Country ‘Special.’ And it’s nothing short of frustrating in the extreme to actually need to talk about it again. But I have to. To not do so would be to simply ignore the fact that, at this stage, I believe this yearly event – as it is and as it has been organised and presented nearly every year so far – is actually doing more harm than good to the country music scene in Ireland.
Look, if all you were expecting, looking for, or hoping for from last Friday night’s show was an evening’s entertainment, then sure, your expectations were probably met and similarly your hopes fulfilled. But, if you’re someone who works largely in or around the Irish country music scene, then this show will have left you lost in feelings of deja-vous and despair. If these ‘Specials’ are being billed as the biggest night in Irish country music, and they’re taking place every year, then they have to be viewed in a context much wider than just one night, and not just on how well they fill two or so hours of television every twelve months. One of the most important questions that has to be asked is this; Do they serve well the Irish country music scene as a whole? And the answer to that, certainly in my opinion, is, after five years of these shows (going back to the inaugural – and so far only – RTE Irish Country Music Awards in 2016), a resounding no.
For one thing, this is not the biggest night of the year in Irish country music, nor should it for even a moment be considered as such. In terms of its potential audience reach, then yes, of course, that fact alone rightly places it amongst what can be considered the biggest nights – plural – of the country year. But it seems to have been created – and certainly year on year it has been maintained – as something much more akin to an exclusive members-only affair than anything that even attempts to be truly reflective of the Irish country music scene. It is not inclusive of the many artists – older and younger – and other important players who have helped to make the country scene what it is, and who tend to have been around well before RTE and The Late Late Show deemed country music worthy of any serious attention in 2016.
Of the artists who were featured on last Friday’s show, and I make it twelve (counting The Three Amigos as one act, and not counting the six artists who were asked to be their backing-singers and who were only on-screen for about five seconds, if even that!), EIGHT of those were on last year’s Special as well. Cliona, Sandy, Philomena, The Three Amigos, Margo, Mike, Daniel, and Nathan. And most of those eight have featured on every Country Special. Many of them are also guests on The Late Late at some stage during the rest of the year too.
Of the remaining four artists from last week’s show; Una Healy, Claudia Buckley, Trudi Lalor, and Barry Kirwan, Una and Claudia have appeared on regular season installments of The Late Late Show as well. Trudi was part of the opening sequence of last year’s Country Special, but didn’t have a chance to perform in her own right. In fact, I’m not sure if Trudi has ever been invited to appear on The Late Late Show. And as one of the greatest female voices the Irish scene has been blessed to have, how can that be right? So, of the twelve artists featured on this year’s show, only TWO did not feature last year as well. Only two.
This is NOT – I repeat NOT – a negative commentary on ANY of those artists. I’ve interviewed most of them for this column. I admire all of them as artists in their own right. I know how hard EVERY artist in this business has to work. I know many of these artists very well and hold them in high regard not just as entertainers, but as people.
But, this IS about the fact that RTE and The Late Late Show keep bringing back the same guests on these ‘specials’ every year, as if there were no other artists on the Irish country scene. That is simply not true. Now of course, it’s impossible to feature every single artist out there in one-go. Common sense. But no-one has ever asked for that to happen. However, it can’t be denied that since 2016, The Late Late Show has made zero effort – never mind tried and failed, they haven’t even attempted it! – to present the Irish country scene in any kind of way that truly reflects it. If they had, then over the last five years, the Irish public in general would know a lot more about many of the amazingly talented artists and great people who make up the scene.
There are so many artists who have helped to set the standard for today’s stars, who made them dream and inspired them, and helped them to embark on their own musical voyages. And to be clear…Margo, Philomena, Sandy, Daniel…they all fall into that category too, and they absolutely deserve every word of praise and credit that comes their way. But what The Late Late Show either doesn’t seem to know or is unwilling to recognise, is that there are several more artists who have made today’s stars dream, who have inspired them, and who have helped them on their way. To name but a few; John Hogan, Shawn Cuddy, Mary Duff, Dominic Kirwan, Paddy O’ Brien, Mick Flavin, Ray Lynam. And yes, some of those have been spoken to for a minute or so when in the audience during previous shows, but never given the attention that their careers and their contributions to Irish country music have deserved. And as well as those who I’ve mentioned, I’m sure there are many more whom those with the benefit of more wisdom than I could also – and rightly – point to.
So, why would The Late Late Show bring back some artists as guests several times over, and ignore other artists completely? It’s not because their judgement on Irish country music is definitive or deeply insightful, because it most certainly is not. They prove that fact year on year. It’s not because no-one involved in the Irish country scene has tried to make them aware of other artists that should be considered, or other ways that things could be done, because people have tried to do both those things.
And just as those older artists need to and should be remembered and acknowledged for having blazed the trails that today’s stars now travel, so too do the younger and newer artists of today need to be remembered and acknowledged when shining a spotlight on the country scene. Because today’s dreamers will become tomorrow’s stars. And I stress the younger AND newer aspect of that, because one of the great things about country music, is that for the most part, age is no limit. New artists can emerge or first come to public attention in their forties, fifties, sixties or beyond, just as easily as in their twenties or thirties. Nobody is a ‘big-name’ from day-one of their careers. Nobody. Even the biggest names of today began with little more than just their dreams.
With a little imagination and a little vision – and that’s all this would take – there is absolutely no reason why a show that happens every year could not feature a different selection of heritage or legacy artists ( which are terms that are probably more honourable and respectful than ‘older’) each year, plus up-and-coming rising stars, and some of the biggest names of the moment.
If we take twelve guests as a benchmark of sorts, then there’s no reason why three artists – or musicians, songwriters (more on songwriters in just a while!), promoters, journalists, etc – could not be honoured for their contributions to country music, and why three artists could not be highlighted as ones to keep an eye on over the coming year or years, and yet still be able to feature six more ‘big-name’ artists in some way. An approach such as that would easily offer a better overall view of the Irish country music scene as it is, how it came to be this way, and where it might be headed. If an approach like that had been taken or considered, then since 2017 (leaving 2016 aside as that was the year of the RTE Irish Country Music Awards), up to twelve artists (or other influential contributors to the country scene) could have been honoured, and up to twelve new artists could have been introduced to a national audience.
And don’t let anyone tell you that there are no new artists coming along who deserve some attention, or none who are worth hearing other than those who are regularly featured on The Late Late Show. If you ever hear that from anyone, then all that’s just happened is you’re witnessed a confession that that person doesn’t know enough about the Irish country music scene to even be passing such a comment. Simple as that.
Again, to name but a few; there’s Sabrina Fallon, who has one of the most popular songs anywhere on Irish country radio right now in Candlelight And Wine with Shane Moore, and is constantly releasing top-class material. There’s Deirdre Keane who, like Sabrina, has a voice that would fit right into place on anything being recorded in Nashville, and whose latest release, I Just Want To Thank You, Lord would have been a perfect fit for last week’s Circle Of Friends segment instead of Christmas songs that were the laziest and most predictable choices possible. There’s Alex Roe, a guy who has been performing – as in gigging, as in out on the road, as in earning his dues – all around the country for years already and is yet to even face a cake with twenty-two candles on it. There’s Colin Kenny, not just a man with a voice who can effortlessly take on any style of music, but also a songwriter of fantastic ability who is recording and releasing his own material and getting serious airplay on country radio. There’s Stephen Rosney, another songwriter of immense talent who has been adding to the canon of Irish country music culture for years by releasing original material. Likewise with Justin McGurk, whose new song, You Are, would also have been an ideal choice for the aforementioned Circle Of Friends segment. You can add Jordan Mogey and Niamh McGlinchey to that list of artists and songwriters as well. And as far as guitarists on the Irish country scene go, there are very few with as much talent as Ciaran Rosney.
As well as all of those artists, you can count in John Molloy, Alanna Maher, Caitlin, Pamela Gilmartin, Kerry Fearon, Aoife McDonagh, Aishling Rafferty, Larissa Tormey, Patricia Maguire, Lisa Stanley, Norman Borland, Joe Moore, John Rafferty, Noel Boland, Brian Mullen…and again, these are just a few of the names that could and should be considered and given more attention. Most people who are in any way aware of the Irish country scene know who these artists are. How can The Late Late Show, when organising yearly country ‘specials’, not be? These people are not in hiding, their music is out there to be heard. And their music is worth hearing. I’ve worked with almost all of these artists at one time or another, and in one way or another. They are more than deserving of being in with a chance of having their talents, and what they bring to the Irish country music scene, recognised on the national stage at some point in time. Right now, it’s just more than clear that there’s no hope of such a chance as things stand.
Going back to last Friday’s show, something that seemed to confuse a lot of people this year was the actual theme of the show. Was it an actual Dolly Parton tribute show? That impression was certainly given, and you could forgive people for understanding that to be the case. Was it just the annual Country Music Special, except at Christmas this year? Or was it an actual Christmas country special, where Christmas itself would be central? As it turned out, it was a little bit of everything, which made it feel a little bit messy. And to be honest, it also felt like the show was built more around the interview with Dolly than anything else, and that the Irish artists were filling in the gaps between the opening tribute to her and the actual interview at the end.
Dolly Parton is literally a living legend. Her life and her career have more than earned her the right to be honoured on any show anywhere, be it The Late Late Show or anything else. That’s without question. And Dolly’s appearance on the show, her involvement with it in any way, or the tribute to her are not being questioned either.
It’s also without question that the opening sequence of the show, featuring Una, Cliona, and Claudia, was outstanding. It was spectacular, and hearty and sincere pats on the back are due to everyone who made it happen. It’s also true, however, that artists like Olivia Douglas, Sabrina Fallon, and Deirdre Keane for example – none of whom have ever featured on The Late Late Show before – could also have stepped into those roles and done Dolly, her songs, and Irish country music proud. To be absolutely and unequivocally clear, Una, Cliona, and Claudia DID do Dolly, her songs, and Irish country music proud. Personally, I’m a massive fan of all three ladies, as artists and as people. My interviews with each of them on the OTRT website will clearly show that. I’m just further reinforcing the point that The Late Late Show relentlessly turns to the same artists all the time.
Having mentioned Olivia Douglas above, I cannot for the life of me understand why she – and five other artists – were asked to sing backing-vocals for The Three Amigos. First of all, there was no need for backing vocals. Robert, Jimmy, and Patrick were more than capable of giving their version of From A Distance everything that it needed, as they proved. And there was certainly no need for six artists to provide backing-vocals (seven, if you count both Ennis Brothers, together with Olivia, Clodagh Lawlor, Marc Roberts, Niamh Lynn, and David James). They got about five seconds on screen. There’s hardly any other way to see that than as a token gesture, simply a way to say six more artists were involved in this ‘special.’ And yes, involved they were. But included? That’s a different story. And a different question. And the answer is no.
Olivia was invited to be part of the grand-finale of last year’s ‘special’ as well, another segment that is little more than a token gesture, involving people – as you would involve a prop in something – but not genuinely including them. At least they got more screen-time out of it last year. But of what worth to any artist is a camera panning past you a few times?
Olivia is one of the most exciting new artists to appear on the Irish country music scene for years. She has another of those voices that you could put on any record that comes out of Nashville and it would sound like it belongs there. And by that, I don’t mean that she sounds American – an accusation often levelled at Irish country artists – I mean she would sound perfectly, authentically country. She has multiple awards to her name, has toured with both Nathan Carter and Derek Ryan several times, and as a musician is in a league of her own on the accordion.
Not only that, but Olivia’s most recent release, A Hug Or Two, has racked up over ELEVEN MILLION IMPACTS on Irish radio since March of 2019, made up of 2,185 plays. Thats TWO-THOUSAND-ONE-HUNDRED-AND-EIGHTY-FIVE PLAYS. One of the songs Olivia is perhaps best known for now, Leaving Tipperary (released in March 2018) has amassed an equally phenomenal EIGHT MILLION PLUS IMPACTS on Irish radio, made up of 2,442 spins. That’s TWO-THOUSAND-FOUR-HUNDRED-AND-FORTY-TWO PLAYS. So that’s just two of Olivia’s songs that have clocked up over NINETEEN MILLION IMPACTS on Irish radio since March 2018, made up of 4,627 – that’s FOUR-THOUSAND-SIX-HUNDRED-AND-TWENTY-SEVEN PLAYS. On just two of her songs. That’s a reflection of both Olivia’s talent and her standing within the Irish country music scene. The Late Late Show’s interpretation of that talent, however, has led them to place her in a chorus-line once, and as a backing-vocalist once.
So, either they don’t recognise her talent, or have no interest in acknowledging it. Either of those options is a terrible, yet realistic possibility. What isn’t, is that they are unaware of her talent. I can state this for a fact, because I myself have made them aware of it on numerous occasions. And not because I thought she’d be great as part of a group-finale or as a backing vocalist, I assure you.
One last point as far as newer and younger artists go where The Late Late Show is concerned. The show – and rightly so – never seems to have any problem with giving opportunities to new and younger pop acts, or rock acts, and more recently, to hip-hop and rap acts to perform on the show. That’s as it should be. Newer and younger acts, whatever their genre, deserve those breaks. However, such opportunities never come the way of country artists. Not even on shows that are supposed to actually focus on country music.
Last Friday’s show opened with that wonderful tribute to Dolly, and went on to include Christmas songs during the Circle Of Friends segment. So you can see again why some viewers might have been confused about what the central theme of the night was. On the subject of songs, and leading to the subject of songwriters, it was surprising to see that while Dolly’s songs got the night underway, and the artists involved in the Circle Of Friends segment had to perform Christmas songs, The Three Amigos were performing their new single, From A Distance. Would something from Dolly’s extensive songbook, or perhaps a Christmas medley, not have been better suited to the night for their performance as well?
Christmas covers always tend to work best with artists who are already well-known, because then hearing a Christmas tune from them becomes something that’s a little bit different and that has a fun and novelty side to it. But singing Christmas tunes essentially just for the sake of it, man…that was an idea that definitely should have been pushed back on by somebody somewhere. Margo’s turn in that round worked well, because her song choice, An Old Christmas Card – written I think by Vaughn Horton and recorded by Jim Reeves amongst others – was perfect. Country, with a Christmas theme. And anyway, ladies like Margo – and Philomena too for that matter – can sing whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want. I’ve seen Margo sing acapella to full houses of seven or eight-hundred people and hold the room in the palm of her hands, with everyone so absolutely captivated that not only could you hear your own heartbeat, you could nearly hear that of the person next to you as well!
Mike can carry off a Christmas tune too, because we’re so used to hearing him sing anyway, and because he’s an entertainer of immaculate talent. But a little thought from someone could have turned up a choice similar to Margo’s, something that was country in style and would also have fitted in with the Christmas theme. The same goes for Barry Kirwan, who is an absolute gent, and a really talented musician and performer. For someone who was being featured on the show in any meaningful way for the first time, to ask him to just sing any random Christmas song was terribly unfair. Barry has three great albums to his name; New Beginnings, Moments, and most recently – as in just weeks ago – Walk With Me. I’m absolutely certain there was a song of his own that would have been ideal for that segment. For a man to be as humble and open about how this year has affected his life and career, the very least he deserved was to be able to sing a song that also had some personal meaning or connection to him. If it wasn’t set in stone that everyone had to sing a Dolly or a Christmas tune, then this should easily have been possible…right?
And then there was Trudi, which brings us back to songwriters again. Or rather the lack of Irish songwriters anywhere in these ‘specials.’ Trudi was asked to sing Rockin’Around The Christmas Tree, and as Trudi does with every song she sings, she put her heart and soul into it. An example to every young artist out there, Trudi is the ultimate professional in everything she does. Always has been, always will be. But here’s the thing…just last year Trudi released a beautiful original Christmas song written by her husband, Billy Morrissey, another terrific Irish country songwriter, called The Old Christmas Waltz. In other words, in her own song-catalogue, Trudi has a Christmas tune tailor-made for a segment like the Circle Of Friends at this time of the year. And as well as highlighting Trudi’s impeccable voice, it would have showcased an original song from an Irish country songwriter. Who could have not thought that this was a perfect scenario? And why would they think like that?
And if you think that doesn’t matter, well then think again, and look at it like this. There were eleven songs performed last Friday night. Not even one of them was written by an Irish songwriter. Go back twelve months to the previous ‘special’, and there were sixteen songs performed over the course of the show, including two medleys and a group finale. Again, not one single song from an Irish writer was involved in that bill. In fairness to Margo, though, she did make sure to mention the great Shunie Crampsey (as she remembered to draw everyone’s attention to the late Brian Coll last week). Shunie is the man who penned another Olivia Douglas hit, I’m Off To Lisdoonvarna In The Morning. That song has over FIVE MILLION impacts on Irish radio, made up of almost 2,500 plays – that’s TWO-THOUSAND-FIVE-HUNDRED PLAYS – since its release in September 2018. That’s a fact that should matter.
The fact that not one of twenty-seven songs performed on the last two Late Late Show Country Specials came from the pen of an Irish songwriter is something that should matter, too.
And it does. All of this does. At least to some of us.
But to others, clearly, not so much.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly where the problem lies.