First Published January 2021
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
In order for there to be ‘stars’ of any show, there must first, of course, be a show. And for the last twenty years Donegal man BRIAN CUNNINGHAM has been making sure that stars from all around Ireland – both established and rising – have had stages to perform on. As an agent, a manager at times, an MC, and a radio presenter too, there are few men around with a greater depth of inside-knowledge on the Irish country music scene. And, thanks to Brian’s close ties to Tullamore based menswear store Guy Clothing and its owners Anthony and Kara Kearns, there are definitely few around who are as consistently sharp in their appearance as they are in how they go about their business.
And indeed, it’s that sense of business and music acumen which has seen Brian’s Country Shows prove so successful over the last twenty years. OTRT had the pleasure of catching up with the man himself last week, and we began our chat by talking about the fact that he has a brand new album in the shops right now celebrating those twenty years of his famous Country Shows. The album is called TWENTY YEARS OF COUNTRY SHOWS, and as the shows themselves always tend to as well, it features a brilliant combination of household names and rising stars, so I asked Brian to tell me all about it…
“Well, I suppose I’m very lucky in that we’re the twenty years doing the Country Shows now. And many of the artists that we’ve worked with over the years, as you mentioned there, are household names. So this album is one of four albums that we’re releasing in 2021. This first one has twenty-two tracks, and of course it features some of our regular people who are seen at our shows; we have Dominic Kirwan, Philomena Begley, Louise Morrissey, Ray Lynam, and all of those acts have been with me for the twenty years. Then there’s been newer acts that have come on-board as well, and other acts that have joined along the way too. Over the years it’s been an incredible journey. There’s been good days, there’s been bad days, happy days and sad days. But out of everything, music has – I know in my case – helped me to get through many difficult times and hard times in my life. All of the albums we’ll be doing will have a country theme, but one of them will focus on the Irish acts that we’ve worked with. And when I say Irish, there’ll be a bit of traditional music, as well as country. It was only when we went to write down all of the acts that we’ve worked with over the years, or that we currently represent, that we realised that putting them all together would mean four, if not more, albums. And as well as the well-known household names, there’ll be some other acts that people may be less familiar with, and then, like we’ve always done, there’ll be some of our younger acts as well.”
For anything to last twenty years in the music business is an achievement. But from what I know of Brian personally, and indeed of his shows from having the experience of some of my own acts taking part over the years, there’s always been something that stands the Country Shows brand and event apart from similar nights. I asked Brian to tell me about how the Country Shows first hit the road, and also about the importance of what he tries to make sure his audiences take from those wonderful nights…
“It’s very much about the audience with us. And it’s very much a family-orientated thing too, and you know that from having experienced it with us. When we go and do shows, there’s a great atmosphere between ourselves (the entertainers), we’re a very close-knit organisation. We have a great team on the road, but we have a great backroom team as well. We love entertaining people. We love having the craic ourselves. We love showing that craic on the stage in a professional manner. And in terms of the acts who have been with us for twenty years plus, you know, you have the likes of Philly and her son Aidan Quinn, Aidan would always be in charge of putting the shows together with me. And we all enjoy people. We enjoy seeing the people who come out to our shows. We enjoy hearing their stories, and we’ve made so many friends over the years. And we’ve been with them in the good times and the happy times, and we’ve been with them in the sad times and the harder times that people have had in their own lives. I’m a big believer, from a mental health perspective, in music giving people a wee bit of solace, and being a distraction for a while. When people come to our shows, we want them to sit back, relax, forget what’s happening in their own personal lives, and enjoy themselves! Every act might not be to their satisfaction, they might have their favourites…and we always hear who their favourites are [laughs]. But what we want them to do is to take that time, at the shows, for themselves. Music is a great comfort for people. Everyone has enough pain and hurt going on in their lives, but music can heal that in a large way.”
Brian is a country boy from Donegal, and pretty much like down here in Offaly – certainly once upon a time anyway, maybe not so much anymore – ‘showbiz’ was hardly top of the list (if it even made the list at all!) of career choices for most people. So, how did an innocent, wide-eyed country boy like himself end up in the world of ‘showbiz’?
“[Laughs]. Well, I suppose I started off when I was quite young. I was born in, and grew up in a place called Teelin, in south-west Donegal. How it all started was I was doing a Leaving Certificate vocational programme in Carrick Vocational School. I wanted to do something for the local hospice, because basically the Donegal Hospice at that time was looking for money. So I decided to do a project around that. Now I’d always had a fondness for country music, even when it wasn’t cool and your friends were saying at the time, ‘What the hell is he listening to?!’ [laughs]. I’d be going listening to country, and they’d be off to discos or rock nights or whatever. There was a fellow at home called John Bosco O’ Donnell, many people will know him as the brother of Daniel O’ Donnell. I knew John, and I said to him that I wanted to do a CD, and John Bosco turned around and got me Daniel. Then we got some more local acts like Seamus & Collette, and Rebel Hearts. Then we said you know what, we’ll go for the jugular. We’ll go and ask some of the other popular names, the Jimmy Buckleys, the Louise Morrisseys and acts like that. And consequently, out of all that, the CD came out and raised vast sums of money. We couldn’t believe it. That CD ended up making a substantial amount of money for the hospice. My mother would have went door-to-door selling it, and we all did our bit promoting it here, there, and everywhere. And out of that, we used to do some functions and events to promote. Through that I met a fella called Jim White, the late Jim White who owned the White Hotel Group, and he asked me to come and do a few events for him. Now I was still at school at this stage. But I went and did some events at his hotel, the Abbey in Donegal town, and he had other hotels right around the country at the time. Those shows became popular, all different ones, but one of them was an Evening of Country Music. Then in September twenty years ago – well, twenty-one years ago this year – An Evening of Country Music became known nationally and we decided to tour it. Consequently from that again, some of the artists decided to ask me would I do some PR for them, would I do this, would I do that, would I do the other, ya know. And it just went on from there. When you got one, you got the next one, and then someone else would be ringing you as well.”
We could hardly have discussed the business we’re both in without reflecting on the fact that only a few days before our conversation, the milestone of three-hundred days since ‘live’ music in Ireland came to a sudden halt. Three-hundred days of silence that we would have once imagined impossible. Before talking about the music industry and the effects of that silence on the artists Brian works with, I wanted to know how the last almost a year now had been for him?
“It’s been dreadful. It’s been a horrible experience. I remember when this initially happened, with Anne in our office, we closed up shop and we said ah look, we’ll be closed for two weeks, maximum. And then we’ll be back in and all will be right as rain again. Little did we think! We haven’t done an event, we haven’t done a function [since then]…we’ve done various things online or for different radio stations, or on television or whatever, but all of that is freebie stuff. It’s not paid-for stuff. We have an events management company, we look after a lot of hospitality awards, other various awards as well. We have a travel business, and obviously we have the music business. And all three of those have been affected because they all involve people. From our point of view, we haven’t done a proper paid-for show since the 12th of March last year. Any bit of savings or money that would be in the background is dwindling down for everyone.”
Brian’s role with the artists he works with is that of an agent rather than a manager, something I asked him to explain in a little more detail…
“Yeah, I’m an agent for many of the acts and I look after them when they’re looking for stuff. And it’s basically every day that there’s something needed for some of them. But yeah, I’d be an agent rather than a manager, and I opted for that. You might manage certain acts for a small period of time and then pass them on to someone else who will move forward with them. But again, we’ve very lucky with the acts that we work with, many of them for the twenty years or more, many of whom have gone on to do great things. And some acts who have been found on the shows too. You have to remember that the likes of Nathan Carter was sitting with a lovely lady called Gill Marseilles who had brought him to one of our shows. Gill, who was a regular visitor to our shows, ended up saying that this young lad could sing. So we decided that Philomena Begley would bring him up on stage that night, and lo and behold, that gentleman blew the house down! And that gentleman was Nathan Carter. So over the years we have launched new acts, some of them have worked, some of them haven’t worked. But it’s a tough industry, so it is, at the best of times. And even tougher now because of everything that’s going on.”
And with everything that’s been going on since March of last year, how has Brian been able to help those artists that he works with. I’m sure many of them would have been turning to him for advice and guidance on what steps to take?
“Yeah, a lot of them have done that. And a lot of them have recreated new things in their lives. Some have gone into radio, some have gone back to study with adult education. A number of them have young families and have said look, we have no choice, we have families to support, we have to gp and get another job. And it’s very difficult for them to make that move from when you’re on stage and you’re doing something that you love, to going into a job that – listen, you might enjoy it – you may not love as much as being on stage, and getting that sense of adrenalin or whatever. There’s so many people affected: from lighting engineers, to sound engineers, the bands themselves, the backroom teams, the media teams, PR, road managers, there’s so many. And everything is affected. From my point of view, the phone calls all of a sudden stopped. The people who were looking for us about shows and events and all the rest of it, all of that stopped. And the phones have become silent. But those same phones will come right again. We’ll have another challenge when this is over, though, the challenge of getting people back out. Some people will have become accustomed to staying in now, and not going out. They feel safer at home. So we have to make shows a safe and inviting place for them to come back to again when that time comes.”
But Brian’s sphere of influence isn’t restricted to just this side of the Irish Sea. As many midlanders will remember, one of the special guests at last year’s annual charity fundraiser, The Show – organised by Brian’s good friends Anthony and Kara Kearns, owners of Guy Clothing and KODE – was Coronation Street star Samia Longchambon, who plays the character of Maria in the hit soap. And how exactly did Samia find her way from the cobbles of Corrie to the town of Tullamore? You guessed it. Only thanks to Mr. Cunningham himself…
“Yeah, we do, we have many people [that we work with], and in fact we’re making a big announcement in March of this year. We’ve obviously looked after a lot of singers and musicians, and we’ve always looked after some television and radio personalities, sporting personalities as well. And that’s all going to increase from March. Well, it’s supposed to be March! [laughs]. We’ll hope that it is anyway. Certainly, by the second half of this year, we’ll hope that things will be much improved and we’ll be doing it. And that announcement will be connected to people in the UK, and it will also be connected further afield as well, in America and in Australia. We’ve brought in new shows to Australia, we have The Face of Australia, like we had The Face of Ireland here many years ago. So yeah, we’ve got some very well-known names that are joining the agency as well, that will open it up in a new and exciting direction. And again, that’s down to our staff too. I have probably the best staff going. They’ve stuck by us through thick and thin, through a lot of difficult times, and less happy times in our lives. And they’re a real credit to the work that they do, coming up with new ideas and fresh ideas on a daily basis to make sure the acts get something, and to keep us busy.”
I wondered how does Brian see 2021 playing out? We’ve had the hope of the vaccine first on the horizon, and now here, but it arrives at the same time as case-numbers sky-rocket. It’s so important, even in the best of times, that the flames of hope are always fanned and kept alive. But part of doing that responsibly, of course, means being realistic at the same time. So with all of those factors taken into consideration, what did Brian think of where we are, and where we might be going?
“I think we’re very slow in where we’re going. Listen, there’s positives. And there are positives in that the vaccines are there. But I’m disappointed that the vaccine is not being rolled out quicker, more effectively, more efficiently. We’re a great country, even though there’s only the five-point whatever million it is of us living here. So it should be relatively quickly to vaccinate people, should they wish to do so. Some people will opt for it, some people won’t. We’ve lost some amazing people in this country because of Covid in the last year, many people who have come to our shows and who have become friends, great friends of ours over the years. There’s a lot of things that I get very angry over, and this is just one of them. They [the government] need to be pushing this. There needs to be a plan in place that makes these vaccines readily available. It’s like hand-picking certain people in our hospitals that are getting the vaccine first, or in our nursing homes, yes, it’s a welcome decision, but surely we should be in a position to do this a lot more quickly, and a lot more efficiently? There’s so many people suffering from various illnesses, and they’re having their operations cancelled. There are people this very morning who are waiting on serious life-changing operations, and those operations are being postponed, cancelled, transferred, you name it. And that is not right in this day and age.”
Going back to the music side of things again, twenty years is a long time to be involved in any business. It allows for plenty of opportunities to observe how things and people work, and how both change – or don’t – over time as well. If Brian was to somehow wake up tomorrow morning and find that he had the whole of the music industry in Ireland in his charge – but with country music foremost in his thoughts for the sake of this particular question – are there two or three things that come straight to his mind that he would make sure were done differently?
“100%. I think the first thing is that I would love to change our national broadcaster. I would love to see that when RTE are doing country specials that it’s not limited to the same acts [all the time]. I would love to see a situation where fairplay is given to all individuals in the country music industry, not just to some individuals. And I’d be even more encouraging to young acts. Because if we don’t have young acts coming up, then when our older generation are no longer fit to do it, then our industry is dead. We have to encourage, we have to embrace, we have to give advice to people as well to try and encourage them into the industry. But what’s happening now at the minute is, as it currently stands – in my opinion – is there’s a limited number of people getting all the coverage. And fair play to them. But, it’s not a fair and equal system. And I’m saying that all the time. But, on the other side of it, we have a lot of artists out there starting off and they need to remember that they need to work in the industry, and start off where all the acts started off, in a one-piece. they’re not all going to become superstars overnight. You have to work at this industry. And you have to work for this industry. You have to get to know it inside out. Many acts, in particular younger acts that I see coming through our doors at meetings, when you ask them what they are hoping to achieve in the next year, they’ll turn around and they’ll tell ya they want to be as successful as Nathan, or Derek, or Mike, or whoever. They want to have that success. And you try to explain to them that you have to work at this industry to get that, and that sometimes it’s about luck, too. Sometimes, you can be lucky and get a great song. And sometimes you just have to work hard to get to your end goal. And when you put the effort in, it’s like everything: sometimes it will work, and sometimes it won’t. Something else I would say to people is this. There are many, many good singers out there. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be on a stage every night of the week. Sometimes other people might be encouraging artists which is great in itself, but they can become almost delusional and end up, many of them, with depressions of all kinds because they’ve failed, But it’s not that they’ve failed, it’s just that there’s so much competition, and strong competition, out there.”
As Brian looks back over the last twenty years, what would he say his proudest moment has been?
“There’s a lot of them. I’ve been very lucky to work with incredible names that I grew up listening to, in particular people like Phily, and Dominic, and Louise, Kathy Durkin as well. I’m very lucky to be able to work with younger acts as well, like Chrissy [Mac] and Stacey [Breen], and to progress them. And there’s so many more too. Cliona Hagan, Barry Kirwan, so many. I’m very lucky that we’ve made a difference to many organisations, many charities. And I’m very lucky to have met some of the people I have. I’ve met some great people over the last twenty years, like Anthony and Kara [Kearns] there in Tullamore. And I’m very lucky to work in radio there in Tullamore too, at Midlands 103 with Albert [Fitzgerald] and Will [Faulkner]and Joe [Cooney]. And I’m very lucky to have come through some bad health battles as well. I’d never take that for granted. By losing people in my life, I never take anything for granted anymore. Your health is your wealth. And indeed Philomena Begley has that very song on this album, ‘Your Health Is Your Wealth.’ You have to go out there and smile, and sometimes it’s not easy to do that, to put the smile on. But you do it. And I’m extremely proud of the team I have, and of the people that we represent, who have all embraced the other acts that have come in. I’m really grateful to be in this position where we’re twenty years later in Country Shows.”
And his biggest regret?
“Loads of regrets! I have so many regrets, where do you even start?! Biggest regret, I suppose, is that there have been acts we haven’t been able to help, or acts that have chosen not to continue with Country Shows, which is equally fair enough. My biggest regret in music is when you see someone who is trying, and trying, and trying, and you can’t wave a magic wand to help give them the kind of success that the effort they put in – and their talent – deserves. You’d love to be able to do that when they’re working extremely hard night and day. My attitude in life is to try and help people. I got it from my mother. If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all.”
I suspected that Brian might just have answered my next question right there…the best piece of advice to have come his way along the way?
“Yeah, my mother! I’m very lucky to have two great parents, but I suppose I’m a mammy’s boy [laughs]. And the best bit of advice is exactly what she said, that if you can’t say something good about someone, then don’t say anything at all.”
His toughest lesson learned?
“That you can do everything you possibly can in life, and try your hardest at helping people, but then people will still talk behind your back. That’s very difficult. They’ll see one side of a story, and they won’t ask for the second side, they’ll just feel that they know it.”
To wrap things up, we decided to put Brian’s crystal-ball to the test by asking him to throw our way the names of some artists – new and emerging – who he feels people should be keeping an eye on because they’re likely to make breakthroughs of note in the next two to three years?
“From outside of my organisation, Claudia Buckley. I think she’s a very fine singer, and she’ll go on to do good things. From our own organisation, I think Stacey Breen will go on to do good things too. I think there’s a very bright future for the industry…provided…that they get fair play. Going back to the national broadcaster again, I remember knocking on doors within RTE for many years and we were being laughed at about country music. In the last twenty years I’m talking about now. Now listen, I’m delighted that they are now promoting country music. But next, they have to go one step forward and start promoting our young acts, and our new acts. Not just the same acts that it always seems to be. Because there’s an abundance of talent in this country, good singers who need to be encouraged because when the stars of today, the acts who have been around for so long, are no longer there, well who’s going to replace them? For the industry to survive, you need new blood [coming through].”
~ TWENTY YEARS OF COUNTRY SHOWS, the celebration album from BRIAN CUNNINGHAM, featuring Philomena Begley, Dominic Kirwan, Louise Morrissey, Stacey Breen, Simon Casey, Sean Keane, and many more is OUT NOW. The album is available to order from TRAX in the Bridge Centre, Tullamore, and from all good record stores nationwide.