P.J. Gallagher


First Published November 2017

If all I ever knew about P.J. Gallagher was how passionately he feels about animals and their welfare, that would be enough for me to know I’d go into battle at his side without even a moment’s hesitation should such an hour ever come. But that’s not all I know about him. There’s also the fact that he considers Donald Trump to be looney, so we’re on the same page there, too! And there’s a couple of other things that most folk probably have no idea about, but, no more than both of the points already mentioned, really shine a light on P.J’s character as a human being.

For as long as it was possible for him to do so before his work shifts with Classic Hits 4FM ruled it out, P.J. was a volunteer with Blood Bikes East, meaning he was on call at a moment’s notice to transport blood supplies for hospitals in case of emergencies. And not only that, but since moving to Dun Laoghaire, P.J. has become a volunteer with the R.N.L.I. (Royal National Lifeboat Institution, as opposed to the I.N.L.A, but more on that anon!), because he believes in giving back to the community where you live. 

And on top of all this pure soundness, of course, there’s the fact that P.J. is one of the funniest men in the land. And on December 2nd he’s bringing his latest tour to the Tullamore Court Hotel. I had the pleasure of catching up with P.J. recently for a chat about the new show, and life in general. Now, most comedy shows usually go for some kind of witty play on words to get peoples’ attention when it comes to a name. And P.J. has definitely got peoples’ attention taking his ‘Dickhead’ tour on the road! Only one question to kick things off with then…..!!!

“Ya know somethin’? I wish I had a really good story for this, I really do! I come from when, in stand-up, you didn’t really name your show, you just said, ‘P.J. Gallagher will be ‘live’ on this date and at this time’, and that was it. But at some stage a few years ago somebody started namin’ all these tours! So I started callin’ mine all these stupid names that meant nothin’. And this year the show is about a bunch of stupid stuff that’s happened to me over the last two years, and I said I’m just gonna call it ‘Dickhead’, it’ll be grand! Of course I was thinkin’ nobody would pay any attention. But then you have to have a poster, and suddenly I’m Ireland’s most popular dickhead! [laughs]. So it’s a title I’ll wear with pride, I guess [laughs].”

So the show title doesn’t necessarily indicate what fans will be getting on this occasion? 

“Well, no, I think they will [be getting it]. Because in the last couple of years, since I’ve hit forty-two, I’ve realised I am a bit of a clueless dickhead, so that’s exactly what they’ll get. And what they’ll have to bear with for at least an hour and ten minutes! [laughs].”

How long does it generally take to put together a new show like this? 

“Ah God, it can take up to a year to get a show right. And then, as soon as you get it right, and get out and start actually tourin’, it changes every bloody night anyway! So it’s always a work in progress, ya know. Like, if you saw the first gig I did on this tour – and the last gig is going to be in Donegal on the ninth of December – if you saw those two shows you’d be like, ‘Whaaaaa?!’ Cos’ they’d only be vaguely familiar! But they definitely wouldn’t seem like the same show, ya know that kind of way? So it changes all the time. It’s a really weird process, to be quite honest with ya. Someone like Neil Delamere can just write a whole new show, from start to finish, in a couple of months. For me, it’s probably a year, realistically. That’s how long it takes me.”

So it’s definitely a case of the show evolving as it goes along?

“Yeah, jaysus, I’d get sick of the sound of my own voice if it was the same every night. I wouldn’t be able for it! I did a play last year in the Dublin Theatre Festival, so I had to say the exact same words for a week and it nearly killed me! [laughs]. I was there, how do people feckin’ do this?! How do they do it every single night! I was like this is a disaster of a job, thank God I never made it as an actor! [laughs].”

Between stand-up, tv, and of course radio, being in front of an audience is something P.J. is something that’s second nature for P.J. by now. But is there one of those areas in which he feels most comfortable now and would be quite happy doing forever if it came down to picking just one?

“Yeah, there is, and it’s really surprising for me, to be honest because I would have said no to that a year ago. But now it’s radio, one hundred percent. It’s radio that I enjoy the most, and it’s what I hope I can do for years and years. And if I had to pick one, I’d pick radio in a heartbeat these days.” 

And why radio? 

“Well, ya know with telly ya have to wait so long to get a result. Like, we’ve just finished filming ‘The Young Offenders’ but it’s still gonna be well into 2018 before we know if anybody likes it or not! With stand-up, it’s instant. But you spend so much time on your own. A stand-up comedian is a van driver, essentially! You get into your car or your van, you drive for four hours, you tell some jokes – you deliver jokes instead of parcels – then you go and drive home! You’re on your own all the time. And when you finally do talk to people, they’re not allowed talk back to ya! But radio, it’s so interactive. And it’s got the same sort of instant thing you get with stand-up. Basically, you get to go into the same place, with your friends, and have a laugh every feckin’ day! And radio as well, it’s such a thrill to everything else I’ve done before, too. At least I haven’t had that and been paid for it! I’ve had it in other jobs and been sacked for it [laughs]. But actually gettin’ paid for it is a different thing.” 

P.J. has stated before that he does comedy because he’s good at it, but his real passion in life is bikes. Unfortunately, P.J. fell victim to some shameless scumbags earlier this year, who first of all stole his beloved motorbike and then tried to sell it back to him! I asked P.J. how that all played out in the end? 

“Well, I’ll tell ya now, it actually did play out alright in the end because the insurance company paid up almost straight away, which was grand! So then I went and I got another bike, but the bloody bike I got is so uncomfortable that there’s actually another bike that I’m lookin’ at at the moment! It’s in me Ma’s front garden where the last one was robbed from, and I’m lookin’ at it as I’m talkin’ to you. So the saga continues, but I’m nearly there [laughs].” 

As mentioned in my opening paragraph, P.J. put his love of bikes to positive use for the greater good of his community when he served as a volunteer with Blood Bikes East for a time.

“Yeah, I had to stop when I started the radio show because the shifts crossed over, so that’s why I had to give it up, unfortunately. But I loved it. And I’ve just moved to Dun Laoighaire, so I’ve just joined the R.N.L.I. now, I joined them a couple of weeks ago. I love the social side of it, but also it’s nice to be able to contribute to where you live, at least I think it is. Like, we can all do comedy gigs to help out different things, but it’s rare you’ll actually get to see the effects of where that money goes, so it’s great to be a part of something like that, that you can actually participate in, ya know. And it’s gas, right, cos’ this is only two weeks ago, so I came back to the house here [his mam’s], and I said, Ma, I’m after joining the R.N.L.I. and she was, ‘Ahh feckin’ great, good for you’, ya know. But then I heard her talkin’ to her neighbour, over the garden wall, and she goes, ‘He’s after joinin’ the I.N.L.A.’ (Irish National Liberation Army), she goes! [laughs]. She said, ‘Yeah, he met a fella on the pier and apparently there’s a great social side to it!’ [laughs].”

Like P.J., I’m a huge dog person, and indeed animals in general. And one of the things that really annoys me about this country is how slack, to the point of non-existence sometimes, our animal welfare laws are. I wondered if this was something that ever bothered P.J., too?

“Yeah, it’s a disgrace. It really bothers me. Like, I love the I.S.P.C.A., but when ya hear the stories that the inspectors will tell ya, it would shock ya what goes on in Ireland. To be honest, when it comes to dogs especially, and the way people breed dogs, it’s just a disgrace. I love being Irish, and I love Ireland, but some things are an absolute disgrace and our animal welfare is just….It really upsets me, it actually gets me down, ya know. What I’d say to people is, if you’re gettin’ a dog, please go to the shelters. They’re amazing dogs. A rescue dog, there’s just nothin’ in the world like it. And get it neutered, everybody needs to do their part. Cos’ we’re puttin’ down as many dogs in a month as Scotland puts down in a year! And we’re roughly the same population! Like, it’s so hard to comprehend…If you think of that in numbers, like…The world isn’t good enough for dogs, it really isn’t. We owe them a lot more. I’ve got a Weimaraner and a Collie-cross, she’s actually here lookin’ at me now wonderin’ why I’m not givin’ her attention! She’s from Dogs Trust, she is. But she has a bit of a face on her now, she’s not happy with me [laughs].”

When he first started being recognised in the streets P.J. recalled how he found it hard to get his head around – that complete strangers would know who he was – for a long time. So is ‘fame’ something that he’s settled more into over the years? 

“Well I don’t really know if I’m famous, as much as it is that people just sorta go, ‘Alright there P.J.’, ya know! People kinda know my face, but they never treat me like I’m ‘famous’ or anything. But yeah, ya get used to people knowin’ ya, and ya get used to people chattin’ ya. Ya just have conversations everywhere ya go! Sometimes the motorbike helmet is the best thing in the world, it’s the only way to be anonymous! If I ever want some peace and quiet I just stick on the motorbike helmet, even if I’m drivin’ the car! [laughs]. I’d either look like a very nervous driver, or an I.N.L.A. man, God knows which! [laughs].” 

If the powers-that-be at Classic Hits 4FM came to P.J. in the morning and told him he was in luck, for one show only they were going to be able to get him whatever three people he wanted as guests for his show, who would he choose to fill those spots? 

“Oh man! Jeez, that’s a good question. Well Donald Trump anyway, cos’ I just want to sit down with the man and see if he’s actually that looney and that mad! And I’m sure I’d get some great comedy material out of him. And if I didn’t, there’d still be enough outrage for me to enjoy it [laughs]. So Donald Trump….and maybe Louis Walsh, because I think they might be related! And maybe Shergar, the horse. I want to get his testimony of what the IRA did to him. So Shergar, Donald Trump, and Louis Walsh. I think that could be the best dinner party actually ever!” 

As a comedian, does P.J. believe that there are some things which just shouldn’t be joked about, or which can possibly be joked about too soon? As we spoke, it was just a few days after James Corden had found himself in hot water over comments he made in relation to the Harvey Weinstein scandal that’s rocking Hollywood. Corden, incidentally, was defended by Russell Brand, who pointed out that comedians are needed in life to find and point out the funny side of things.

“Yeah, I’d be more with Russell Brand on that one, I think. I don’t think there is a ‘too-soon’, as such. The problem is if you do something and it’s just not a good joke, then you’re up for a bigger fall. I think that was Corden’s biggest problem, that it just wasn’t a great joke. Like, if he’s made a better joke, it probably wouldn’t have even got that much attention. I’d agree with Russell Brand, I don’t think there is a ‘too-soon’ time. I mean, you can tell a joke, right, and at the same time not be completely insensitive about something. You can always tell a joke, I really do believe that. In fact, I don’t think we’d get over tragedy at all if we didn’t tell jokes. Jokes are how we find our way out of tragedies, or out of scandals, or out of any of these things. Of course, I’m biased, aren’t I, I make jokes about everything for a livin’ [laughs]. But I do genuinely believe it, I don’t think there is anything that shouldn’t be joked about to some degree. That doesn’t mean that you go out and do racist jokes, but that you can go out and do jokes about racism, ya know. There’s ways of doin’ it.”

When I was growing up CHIPS was one of the biggest shows on tv, and Erik Estrada, who played the character of ‘Ponch’, was one of the show’s top stars. P.J. actually got to meet Erik Estrada in real life a few years back, and turns out the man is as much of a legend in real-life as his tv character ever was.

“We were doin’ the series ‘Makin’ Jake’, the Jake Stevens [one of P.J’s characters in ‘Naked Camera’] spin-off series over in L.A., and one of the set-ups was to go and meet him [Erik] in his house.And even though he didn’t know we were filmin’ him at the start, he was just the soundest bloke ever. And when he did know, he started actin’! He was givin’ us shots on the bikes and everything! He goes against all the rules about never meet your heroes! He breaks them all! He’s just the nicest bloke in the whole world, just such a great fella. Now he’s nuts about himself, but I suppose if you’re Erik Estrada you’re allowed to be nuts about yourself! So ya may leave him at it [laughs]. There was talk of him comin’ over here to do somethin’ with the Guards, cos’ he loves cops, but sure it never happened which is a shame. But if he ever does come to Ireland I’ll be queuing up to meet him again, because what a deadly fella!” 

Has there ever been a celebrity whom P.J. has met that was the exact opposite to Estrada, as in, well…not cool?! 

“No, I haven’t actually. No, wait, I did, and do ya know who it was? Brett ‘The Hitman’ Hart, the wrestler. I met him one day in RTE years ago. I used to love wrestling when I was a kid. So I seen him and I said to him, ‘I used to love you when I was a kid’, and he just said, ‘Yeah’, and he just walked past me. Just ‘Yeah’, and then shook his head like I was a pathetic little pain in the ass, and walked on. I was like, holy s&it, man, that hurt! That really hurt. You’re after stampin’ on my childhood, ya asshole! [laughs]. But that’s the only time that’s happened really.”

Last question, and another one where P.J. could put his imagination to use. If he was to get a phone-call from Leo Varadkar asking P.J. to do him a huge favour and stand in as Taoiseach for him for one day, but in return, P.J. could sign into law, with immediate and everlasting effect, any one thing….what would it be?

“Ah, this one is easy and obvious. Immediate and long-term jail sentences for animal cruelty. That would genuinely be it. Absolutely. And public floggings for them! If you do something to animals, then you have the same done to you, at the Central Bank, in front of a crowd while they cheer! That’s absolutely what I’d do. If I had that one chance on that one day, then for my day people who abuse animals would be whipped up and down the street!”


Nathan Carter

First Published November 2020


If you’ve ever been to a NATHAN CARTER show then you’ll understand exactly why the man himself says, “I live for the gigs.” Sold-out and jam-packed venues, excitement all round, laughter, fans singing along with every song, and smiles everywhere you look, whether that’s from the stage looking down into the audience or from the audience looking up at Nathan and his band on stage. More than just Nathan have lived for those nights. 

A Nathan show, you see – and I’ve often said this – is more than just a night-out, it’s a celebration of everything that’s great, powerful, and positive about music. And you’ll see that too at the end of each show when fans queue for as long as it takes to get a moment at Nathan’s side and have their photo taken with the biggest draw in Irish country music. What those moments at the end of every show also illustrate perfectly is exactly why Nathan has become the superstar that he is. As long as there’s someone waiting to meet him, Nathan will be there ready to meet them too. But as Nathan will tell you, that success didn’t arrive overnight. It’s been a decade in the making. 

I had the pleasure of catching up with Nathan again last weekend, with the main reason for our chat being his brand new album which celebrates the last decade in his career, THE BEST OF THE FIRST TEN YEARS . This anniversary collection drops tomorrow, November 12th, and is essentially a greatest hits album, a huge milestone in the career of any artist. Now if there’s one thing that 2020 has given Nathan in bucketloads, it’s time to look back over those first ten years. So, when he does, how does he feel to have reached the point in his career where he is today? 

“To be honest, it’s been a great journey over the last ten years, gigging and playing and going from small pubs and clubs, to dance-halls, to theatres, and then the 3Arena, and the SSE Arena. It’s been a journey that I never imagined really, that it would be so successful. Looking back over the last ten years, which I’ve had to do picking these tracks, it’s brought back a lot of great memories of the venues I’ve played, the people I’ve met along the way, the ups and the downs of the music business and show-business! But yeah, we’ve put together twenty tracks, some of them from when I first started out to the most recent singles that I’ve released over the last couple of years, and there’s some newly recorded songs especially for this album. So it’s an album filled with the old and new, something that I’m very proud of, and it’s been nostalgic looking back over the last ten years at where I’ve got to.” 

As Nathan mentioned, there are twenty tracks on the album, four of which are new songs. And one of those – Wings To Fly – was to see its video premiered later in the evening on which we spoke. Nathan had mentioned on his social media that this song was dedicated to a good friend of his who is sadly no longer with us. I asked Nathan if that might be the late Nicky James, and also if he’d tell me a little bit about writing what must be one of his most personal songs…

“It is, ya know [one of my most personal songs]. I don’t write songs that often, and I wouldn’t consider myself as a great songwriter or anything like that really, I consider myself more of a singer. But I do a bit of writing, and I’m very proud now of this song in particular. As you say, it’s written about a good friend, Nicky James, who unfortunately passed away at the start of this year. I kind of put pen to paper and came up with this song, ‘Wings To Fly.’ It was very emotional really, writing it. But I’m so glad I did. And we recorded a video there in a castle not too far from my house where I live in Fermanagh, a castle called Belle Isle Castle, we were lucky that it was empty last weekend. There were no weddings obviously, due to Covid, so we took over the Castle for the whole day and did a load of filming. That video, as you said, is being released tonight online. I’m very proud of the song, so looking forward to peoples’ reactions to it and just seeing what they think of the lyrics and the actual recording.” 

I wondered if recording the video and putting himself back into that emotional space of what the song is about, was a hard thing to do? Or was Nathan able to distance himself from what the song was actually about until the recording was in the can? 

“I kind of tried to distance myself from it a little bit, ya know, cos’ I’d only end up getting emotional doing it. But at the same time, I did want a bit of emotion in the video. To be honest, the guys I work with, Mick Bracken and the crew who do the filming, they’re good fun. They had me laughing hysterically most of the day, so to try and then be serious again for the song was quite tough [laughs]. But I’m very proud of the video as well, and I’m looking forward to people seeing it this evening, so hopefully people will check it out on Facebook and YouTube and let us know what they think.” 

Another of the new tracks on the album is Sarah Jane, and as it so happens, OTRT will be talking to Sarah Jane herself – the wonderful Sal Heneghan – in the next few weeks. I asked Nathan to tell me how he and Sal came to link up for that project…

“Basically I wrote that song at the start of this year, and we were shooting a video in Dublin. So we needed a fiddle player who was preferably good looking! [laughs]. A friend of mine, Peter Maher, who owns a studio in Tipperary, he knows Sal from through the years. He sent me a picture of Sal, and a video of her playin’ fiddle, and I said that’s our one! [laughs]. She looks great, and she sounds great, so we got in contact with her and asked if she’d mind playing a role in a music video. And she said she’d love to. So Sal Heneghan ends up being ‘Sarah Jane’ for the day, and it turned out really well. She’s a great girl, and very talented as well.” 

Nathan said in a recent interview that back at the beginning of lockdown, when he didn’t really know what to be doing with himself, some people told him to just go and use the time to write some songs. Nathan, however, replied that he just had no interest at all in music there for a while around that period. I wondered if he’d rediscovered that spark since the, and if putting this album together had helped him to do that? 

“Yeah, I definitely had kind of just lost interest in music for a while when lockdown did kick-in. I just had no want really to do anything. I kind of live for the gigs, to be honest. The gigs are the thing, being on stage and with a live audience, interacting, that’s what I do it for really. When that was taken away, it kind of just felt like a big hole was there. But no, definitely, when I started picking tracks for the album, and I’ve been doing a bit more writing there recently, that’s definitely helped, a lot! Just in getting inspiration again for music, and wanting to be involved in the whole music business side of things.” 

One of the things that a new album always usually means – at least in normal times – is a new tour as well. That, of course, is impossible right now. But Nathan, his manager John Farry, and their team, have been working hard to try and put a show together for Nathan’s fans in Crumlin Gaol. Having already had to be rescheduled a couple of times, it’s now set for January 16th. Is that really looking like being the next time Nathan actually gets to perform? 

“Unfortunately, it is. I’m actually recording a TV special for BBC at my home, myself and Jake, my brother, in the coming weeks which is going to be shown at Christmas. I haven’t actually told anybody that yet, you’re the first guy I’ve mentioned it to. But when it comes to actually performing in front of an audience, I think, yeah, that really is going to be the next time I’ll be lucky enough to perform in front of people, next year in January. If we’re lucky! Keep everything crossed, fingers, toes, legs and everything [laughs]. To be honest, until we get a vaccine and get this thing [Covid] kicked into shape, I don’t think ‘live’ music is possible until we get that sorted, ya know.” 

While it’s very difficult to look too far forward at the moment, in terms of looking back, could Nathan remember the last show he played before all of this began, back in the ‘good old days’? And on that occasion, did he have any idea at all that it might have been his last show for at least a while? 

“The last professional gig I did was on a cruise ship in February, myself and the band, and a lot of other different artists were on the ship as well. Mike Denver, and Daniel O’ Donnell, and The High Kings. That was our last gig. And looking back now, we definitely didn’t imagine this! And even if we did, when we first heard about it we thought it was going to be three or four months, and then, ah sure we’ll be back in May or June, ya know. That’s what we were sayin’. We’ll get the festivals in, and then we’ll be back doing a Christmas concert tour. But obviously all that went out the window! We are where we are, and all we can do is hope and pray that this time next year it will all be a distant memory and a thing of the past, and we’ll be back to normal.” 

When we do get back to normal, and Nathan gets back out on the road again, and back up on stage around Ireland and around the world, will 2020 have changed him as far as how he approaches and enjoys his music career? 

“Definitely, yeah. Yeah. I will definitely appreciate it a lot more, I think. I’ve had a lot of time to spend at home the last nine months and I don’t know if I’d go back gigging as much as I had done previously, because I’ve kind of enjoyed just being able to do other stuff, other than music, and airports, and tour buses, and travelling. There is more to life. And I’ve kind of realized that over the last year. So I will appreciate the gigs I do a lot more, and I probably will do slightly less of them than what I had been doing.” 

Is there anything in particular that Nathan has found himself doing in this ‘time-off’, which he’s really enjoyed and just wouldn’t have had the same time for before this? 

“I took to bike-riding, and doing a lot more exercise in the gym, that’s something that I’ve really enjoyed and it’s definitely helped mentally, keeping me focused and keeping me busy. Which I need to be, because I’m the type of character that can’t be doin’ nothing, can’t have no projects or aspirations. I always have to be doing something. So all of that has helped for sure, exercise and staying busy.” 

One high-point of this year for Nathan was winning the UK Male Country Singer of the Year Award. But apart from Covid, there have been several sad moments for him too, with the passing of his great friend Nicky James whom we already spoke about, but also the founder of The Irish World newspaper Paddy Cowan, and of Highland Radio presenter Pio McCann, three men who all played important roles in Nathan’s career in their own ways. I wondered if, when looking back over the last ten years that this new album celebrates, Nathan could pinpoint one high-point and one low-point that were each in their own ways very significant moments in the shaping of his career? 

“Over the last ten years? Yeah, well definitely losing Nicky James has probably been the toughest thing. Just because Nicky has been involved with me since I was a kid. Music is my whole life, and he basically put me on that path. So that’s been the low-point. The highest point, I’d have to say, is probably playing the 3Arena, with that many people. And we were very lucky to have been able to do it twice. That’s something that I never, ever would have dreamt would be possible, me singing country songs and old folks songs [laughs], at a venue like that. So that’s definitely been a high-point. And for me, longevity is key, ya know. And if I can still be singing and entertaining people in ten or twenty years time to come, then I’ll be a happy man!” 

Nathan had briefly touched on the subject of his mental health, and indeed, that’s one thing that everyone is trying to be especially careful about this year. But his profile as one of the biggest entertainers in Ireland seems to mean that he’s also ‘fair-game’ on social media. I see some of the stuff that’s often written about him, andit usually ranges from the utterly stupid to the utterly disgusting. I assumed that Nathan himself must see some of it as well from time to time, so I asked him how he makes sure that abuse like that doesn’t end up getting to him? 

“Yeah, I mean that is one thing with social media. It’s great for advertising, and it’s great to chat to people, but it also opens a lot of floodgates and doors for people to just pull ya down straight away. As you say, that’s the problem with being in the public eye. I do see a lot of those comments. And years ago, it would have affected me a lot more. Nowadays, I still would take them on board, and I’m not gonna say it doesn’t annoy ya, it does when ya see someone having a right go at ya for no reason. And you don’t even know them, generally, the person having a go at ya. And you’re never going to meet them, because they won’t come to a gig. And the funny thing is, they would never say it to your face either. Most of these people are just keyboard-warriors, and they love to just comment on stuff. So I’ve kind of learned that during the last few years. I’d like to think that now I’m a bit more accepting of it, and just go well listen, everybody’s entitled to their opinion. You’re never going to please everyone, that’s a given fact. So yeah, I’d like to think that nowadays it doesn’t affect me as much as it did.”

It’s been a while now since Nathan last had a chance to play for his fans here in the midlands of Ireland, and it might well be a little while longer yet before he gets a chance to again. So, until then, what message would he like to send to his fans…apart from please buy the new album?! 

“[Laughs] Well, I’d like to say that obviously every year we would normally play Mullingar, and Tullamore, and a lot of other shows around the midlands, Ballinasloe as well, and I’m definitely missing that. And we look forward to the day when we can get back and play a good few shows, and hopefully bring a new show to all of those towns. We’ve got some new music from this album. So we want to get back on stage, entertaining, and putting smiles on peoples’ faces. I want to wish everybody a happy Christmas, and stay safe. We will all get through this, and I look forward to seeing everybody on the other side.” 

~ Nathan’s brand NEW album, THE BEST OF THE FIRST TEN YEARS, is released TOMORROW, November 12th, available on all platforms and from all good record stores nationwide. 


Gerrie O’ Grady

First Published May 2018


As we all remember, Jennifer Byrne made history in the historic Dome in Tralee last year by becoming the first Offaly woman to be crowned the Rose of Tralee. And it’s hard to believe, but Jennifer’s year of representing Tralee, Offaly, and indeed Ireland, is entering its last stretch of road. Very soon a new Offaly Rose will be on her way to Tralee.

One woman with a better idea than most of what life has been like for Jennifer during the last year, is Cork’s Gerrie O’ Grady, the 1999 Rose of Tralee. Gerrie and I happened to cross paths at the Hot Country Awards recently and as well as enjoying the pleasure of her company on that particular evening, she very graciously agreed to have a chat about her own experience as the Rose of Tralee. And as it happens, Gerrie was also involved in the process of selecting Jennifer as last year’s winner. So with the selection night for the new Offaly Rose due to take place on Saturday, May 26th, what better time than now to hear from someone who quite literally has been there, done that, and worn the tiara – and sash! 

As someone so steeped in the Rose of Tralee festival, being a former winner herself and now being involved in the selection process, I began by asking Gerrie what the festival means to her….

“Well really what it means is it’s an opportunity for every woman who enters to bring her own personality and identity to the festival. I think sometimes that’s where people misinterpret what it’s about, because they think there’s a mould that you have to fit into. But I always say well all you’d have to do is come along to a Rose of Tralee reunion and you’ll see the variety of personalities that actually are there from previous years. It really is about every single person who enters bringing their own personality, and advancing it a little bit more. And in that way, it has evolved over the years. And that’s what the beauty of it is, that nobody can discount themselves as not being somebody who should be a contestant. Because that’s certainly what I had thought. I thought I was the farthest thing from Rose ‘material’, ya know [laughs]. But really it’s wide open.” 

Does Gerrie think that what it means to be the Rose of Tralee has changed much, in terms of what the Rose does or is expected to do, from when she wore the crown to the present day? 

“I think that social media has definitely changed expectations, in terms of accessibility, with people expecting to be very connected these days. And I think that’s part and parcel of being a public figure in 2018. I didn’t have that, so I always think of that particular challenge that’s there for a new Rose. For me, I was straight out of college, I was twenty-two, and it was an entirely different world. Suddenly you’re into liaising with the media, and with the public, and it was all a bit of a learning curve at the beginning. But now it’s even more so, because you have to be always vigilant, and conscious that more than ever, you are very accessible and anybody at any time can interact with you. So it has changed from that point of view, I think. But in some ways it’s still the same. It’s just those sort of things that really do change the nature of it.” 

I wondered would something like that – thinking about how people might deal with, and react in, and be able for certain situations – play a big part in the selection process, and what the judges have to consider? 

“That’s such a great question! And yes! That’s the short answer [laughs]. The longer one is that now on every Rose panel there’s a former Rose of Tralee – I’m judging Cork now in the next few weeks – that’s how it is nowadays. And it’s absolutely essential [that the chosen Rose is capable of handling such situations and circumstances] because you have to be ready to hit the ground running. You don’t get a lovely long lead-in where it’s like, ‘O.k, we’re going to do six months of prep with you now…’, ya know! It just doesn’t work like that [laughs]. Throughout the judging process you have to weigh up so many different things, and one part of it is is this person resilient enough, and I suppose clued in enough, too, to be able to respond straight away and instinctively at whatever is thrown at her. Because now you just can’t be sheltered. Even before, pre-social media, back in the dinosaur days when I was doing it [laughs], I had to be prepared. Because you could be faced with any sort of question at any time, so you have to be able to speak up and think fast. So definitely, when you’re in the judging process, that’s one part of what you’re considering, how would a person navigate those sort of situations.”

Given that Gerrie is so entwined in the festival herself, what does she think about the view that some people have (wrongly, I believe) of the Rose of Tralee as being almost outdated, or pretty close to what was portrayed in the ‘Lovely Girls’ competition in Father Ted? Because that is a view that’s out there among some people….

“For sure. And every year the same thing comes around again and again. Some people have this idea that it’s a very retrograde thing. But the Rose of Tralee is a platform to speak and the voice of the woman who wins is very important. So I would say well look at the people who are entering, look at their accomplishments, look at what they’re doing and what they’re achieving, and what they go on to achieve afterwards, and all of that speaks for itself. The evidence is all there. The women who enter are accomplished women, confident women, and it’s not just all one ‘type’ of woman, it’s very diverse. The Rose of Tralee doesn’t squash anyone into a mould. It doesn’t insist that you are a certain ‘type’ of woman, nor do you emerge from it a certain ‘type’ of woman. And again, I always go back to the reunions and say if only people could come along and see how different all the former Roses are it would allay a lot of those fears or concerns that people express about it. And often times what’s interesting is when you sit on a judging panel with someone, and they’d say, ‘God, this is completely different from what I expected!’ That can be a very eye-opening experience on the inside, and I suppose maybe that’s not always as apparent on the outside. The other thing too, which surprises me, and I really got to know properly as a contestant and then as a judge of the international qualifier two years ago, is the sense of international pride that’s out there, with people coming from second and third generation Irish families entering it, and learning what it means to them culturally, too. That’s sometimes missed, that kind of connection. There’s a lot more to it than somebody just having to be a ‘nice’ girl and being able to nod and smile. And all you have to do is look at any interview with previous Roses to know that’s not the case at all.”

Getting around to Gerrie’s herself, how did her own Rose story begin?

“Well, as I said, I thought I was atypical when it came to Rose material! [laughs] So I was in my final year in college, I was doing a feminist dissertation when it was first suggested to me. My dad, who was a Guard, and he said in Macroom, where I’m from originally, the Guards have been asked to put somebody forward to the Rose of Tralee and we all want you to do it. And I literally laughed at him, and said sure I’m completely not what they’d be looking for! [laughs]. I thought I’d be far too outspoken and different from the preconceived notion of what I thought they’d be looking for. So I took a lot of convincing! [laughs]. And in the end, it was really for my dad and for the Guards that I did it, because I felt, oh lord, they’re after going to all this trouble already so I felt like I should honour that. But right up to the last minute I was going, I don’t know if this is a good idea at all! [laughs]. But I did it. And a lot of people you’ll find do it like that, where they’re thinking, ‘Really?! Me?!’, ya know! So during my Cork Rose interviews and all along I spoke really from the heart about what was important to me and what my passions were, and the thesis I was doing, and people were so open to that. It was a really positive experience.” 

What did it actually feel like when she was announced as the winner? Did she have any sense at all that it was about to happen? 

“Oh none, none whatsoever. Absolutely none! There genuinely is a sense of shock. They always talk about the moment when they announce that you’re the Rose, and you can almost feel all of the energy in the room just concentrated into one funnel, and it’s all coming at you! It’s quite a profound feeling. One moment you’re just standing there, just one of the women on the stage – and I had actually had a really strong feeling that a particular one of the others was going to win – so that’s what I was thinking! So I was genuinely, to my heart, shocked when it was announced that it was me. It wasn’t expected at all.” 

Now involved in the judging process, I wondered what was it about Jennifer – from Gerrie’s point of view – that made her stand out last year?

“One of the essential qualities that we all look for when we’re judging is an honesty and an integrity. That’s what we all respond to. And Jennifer is a very authentic woman. She’s very true to herself and she has a very positive energy about her. She has a remarkable sincerity and she’s a very intelligent, accomplished woman. Her work means so much to her, and her recreational activities mean so much to her, but there’s something else there as well [about her] that’s really quite powerful to be in the presence of. It’s an authenticity, and you can see it in the way everybody warms to Jennifer.” 

Was that something that Gerrie felt and sensed about Jennifer from the first time she met her or did it kind of grow over time? 

“Jennifer makes an immediately great impression on everyone who meets her! She’s a very special woman.”

I wondered about the other side of a year as the Rose of Tralee. When it’s over, and you step back out of the limelight, is that as much of a shock to the system as the way your world changes in that moment when the crown is first placed atop your head is? 

“That’s another really good question! They’re things people don’t usually ask. But yes, it’s a transition. Everyone’s story is different, between what their life was like beforehand and what it becomes like afterwards. For me, I won the Rose of Tralee just after I finished college. My plan had been to take a gap-year before I did my masters. And I ended up thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’ve just had the most unusual gap-year you could possibly imagine!’ [laughs]. I wasn’t expecting that! [laughs]. Afterwards I had to take some time to think, o.k, where to next? What do I actually want to do next? And it does take some time to adjust to a different pace [of life] again. Because being the Rose is such an intense and wonderful year. At the end there’s a sense of o.k, I can sleep now…for three months! [laughs].” 

I wondered if Gerrie had a favourite or stand-out memory from her year as the Rose of Tralee? 

There are so many memories. I’m being flooded with them now, just thinking back. My homecoming in Macroom was one highlight. You’re in a little bubble in Tralee and coming out of that and realising that life has now changed and also impacted those around you can be very profound.  As I was coming home to Macroom after the win, my parents started beeping the car horn as we got closer to home. I had no idea that they were warning our neighbours that we were nearby. I was met by so many family friends and it was very moving. A few days later, we had the formal homecoming welcome and I was completely shocked and overwhelmed that thousands of people attended. Many of the memories that stand out are to do with my family and what the win meant to them. As I’ve gotten older, that has become even more special to me. In the years since my win, I’ve lost my dad and I’ve lost my grandparents. My win meant so much to them and  those memories are very precious to me.  And that’s what stays with you as the years go on, what it meant to people around you. That’s worth everything.”
Gerrie continued, “And then of course you have the more public experiences. The travel opportunities were amazing and Texas in particular was a stand out! You have these extraordinary, huge experiences and think my God, I can never hope to replicate these!  But there are lots of more intimate interactions as well and they really stay with you. Those personal connections.  Like, you’ll meet somebody who’s always wanted to meet a Rose of Tralee and never has and it means so much to them.” 

Has the fact the Gerrie is a former Rose of Tralee stayed with her throughout her life since that time? In the same way, for example, that Oscar winners or Grammy winners are foreverafter known as ‘the Oscar-winning…’ whoever it might be?

“Yes, definitely it has. In my day-job, I manage a deaf charity and I use Sign Language every day in work. People are often given a Sign-name in the Deaf Community so you can sign out your name in letters, or you can have a symbol that represents your name. And my symbol is a sash made using the letter ‘G’. That’s my Sign name. So in work that’s how people refer to me, and people who don’t know my story will ask’ So, why is THAT your sign-name?’ [laughs]. So even in that small way it stayed a part of my life. And of course every year I tend to be involved in one way or another [in the festival], either in judging it or attending a selection. We also have a reunion every January. So there’s always a sense of staying connected.  And people will often say as well that they remember something about when you were the Rose. You’d be surprised that people can have such long memories.”

So what advice would Gerrie offer to the Offaly Roses as they prepare for their selection night this Saturday, and indeed, to whoever goes on to become the eventual Rose of Tralee for 2018? 

“What I would say is to leave all of your preconceived ideas aside. Go in to show people who you are. And use it as an opportunity to explore who you are as well.  You love, as a judge, getting to meet all of these wonderful women and getting to hear their individual stories, so make sure you’re telling your story. That’s the most important thing you can do. And for the new Rose, both whoever ends up winning the Offaly Rose and the Rose of Tralee as well, I would say the same. Maximise your opportunities throughout year. Remember everything. Keep a diary! [laughs]. I always wish I’d kept a better diary to record all of those moments, because it goes by in a blur! Soak in every part of the experience because this is once in a lifetime!”


Eímear Noone

First Published November 2020

“MUSIC IS WHO I AM” (Part 1)

Those of us who are of a certain vintage in life will be familiar with the name Lynda Carter. The American actress – who was also a singer, songwriter, model, and beauty pageant title holder (Miss World USA 1972, and placed in the Top 15 in the Miss World finals that same year – brought to life the DC Comics superheroine Wonder Woman. That tv show aired first on the ABC network, and later on CBS, from 1975 to 1979. For so many around the world, Lynda, and Wonder Woman, were both inspirational figures because they showed that yes, a woman could be a superhero, too. And a damn
good one at that.

Well, Irish composer and conductor EÍMEAR NOONE is a real-life, real-world, Wonder Woman. And just like Lynda Carter did back then, Eímear – through her enormous musical talent and her pure, magnificent, dream-warrior spirit as a human being – has become a hero and an inspiration on a worldwide scale. And for the record, I definitely count myself among that number, even more so since having the pleasure to spend some time in her company. 

Last February, the Galway woman wrote her own page into the history of the Academy Awards when she became the first woman to ever…that’s EVER… conduct the orchestra at the Oscars ceremony. And that was just the latest in a long-as-your-arm list of accolades Eímear has to her credit. Her work has been central to the World of Warcraft, which once held the title of highest grossing video game of all-time, at an astronomical $8.5 billion dollars. She has conducted the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic in London, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and even the Los Angeles ballet, to name just a few of the world-class ensembles she’s held in her charge. Eímear has also toured the world as principal conductor for the Zelda Symphony, a full, four movement symphony, and also with the Video Games Live Tour. As well as a real-life Wonder Woman, make no mistake about this, Eímear is, in essence, a rockstar!  

Eímear had asked me to give her a call around 1pm on the day we spoke, and as we began our chat, she explained why. That was when she put her baby down for its nap. So yeah, just take a moment to read that again and let it sink in. One of the busiest and most influential women in the world of music, a history-maker, a woman whose life is destined to become a movie in its own right some day, also had the kindness, the humility, and the grace to grant an interview in the hour or so that her baby was taking a nap. Like I said, Wonder Woman, superhero, and rockstar. 

We began our chat around Eímear’s performance at the Oscars earlier this year. Ahead of that event, in speaking about the Rickey Minor, the musical director of the Oscars, Eimear remarked that he was, “…an amazing kindred spirit who endeavours to elevate music and musicians at every possible turn”, and spoke of how generous he was “…to hand over this incredibly poignant moment.” What struck me about that more than anything was Eímear’s selfless grace in turning the spotlight on someone else in what was her own moment of glory. I asked her would it be accurate to say that as a conductor who has to care about everyone in her charge, that sense of care actually reflects an important part of who she is as a person as well, something which reveals itself so easily when she so often takes the time to speak so highly of people? 

“Well, I think there’s nothing wrong with showing gratitude. And when somebody bestows an opportunity like that upon you, it’s not just about you. You’re given this spotlight for a moment, but it’s about all of the people that helped you get there as well. Nobody gets there on their own. It’s a moment for humility, and it’s a moment for gratitude. Ricky Minor is just one of those soulful people who believes in good people doing good things. I was there because of my colleagues. There’s another colleague of mine, called Chris Walden, he’s the principal arranger for the Oscars. A lot of the musicians in the orchestra I’d worked with many, many times. They gave me strength. They gave me the courage to get up there and to really, really possess the moment. Not to just get through it, but to really, really live it, enjoy it, and own it. I could do that because standing next to me, filming me on his phone at my feet at the podium, was Ricky Minor, one of the greatest music directors of all time. He was doing that so that I could have it for myself, to watch it afterwards! And then I had the harpist, Gayle Levant, who’s played every Oscars for decades, she’s like my big sister in music ever since I moved to L.A. So any time I just glanced down at her I’d get a big smile and lots of good energy and love. So many of the players I knew. And the tough guys, the brass players who take no prisoners, they’re all pussycats that I’ve worked with forever, ya know! So when you realise that you’ve got there because of your own work, but also because of being championed by your colleagues, I think it’s a moment to celebrate that. And I think it’s a moment for other musicians as well to appreciate our community, and to see that we really do have a professional community. We are a big global family. I also was aware that that moment was a moment I was sort of inhabiting on behalf of female members of my composing and conducting community. It was something that I took very, very seriously. That moment belonged to our community, rather than just to me alone.” 

While the Oscars brought Eímear to the attention of the world most recently, she came into the world in Kilconnell in county Galway, where her grandfather, Joseph Shea, a celebrated Irish trad musician, and where also lived until the grand old age of 102, Paddy Fahy, often spoken of as the most lauded composer of the trad music scene. Eímear has said before that she wanted to be a conductor from the age of just seven, so the environment she grew up in, I reasoned, must have greatly shaped her love of music? 

“Well, I think just having space, and space to think, and this beautiful east Galway scenery, ya know. I also grew up in a very historic village. The ‘new’ Abbey is from the 13th century, on the site of a 6th century settlement. But Paddy, I mean, having somebody who was a composer in the village, it made it a really normal thing to want to be! I suppose deep down in my mind [I was thinking], Paddy was a composer, so that was a thing you could do [laughs]. And he was an absolutely wonderful man, I adored him. But for me, what really drew me in, was the sound of the orchestra. And I mean, my first experience of the orchestra was on telly, ya know. It says a lot for our national broadcaster RTE that they support the orchestra, because that was my – as an Irish child – first experience [of an orchestra], it was seeing an orchestra on television. I decided wow, this is just the most exciting and beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, I have to be a part of it somehow, some way.” 

Eímear once referred to music as being “my friends on the page in front of me”, so clearly, music is a huge passion in her life. But I was wondering if she could look back on any specific moment in her life when music first became so much more than something that was just an interest, and instead, became as she has described it, “friends on the page in front of me”

“I can’t ever remember music being a hobby. It was always who I was. I can never remember all of a sudden going, ‘Oh, maybe I could do this as a career.’ I don’t remember thinking that at all. I just always remember thinking this is who I am. No even thinking, just knowing, that was it.” 

As wide-ranging a question as it is – possibly one that it’s not even possible to answer – why does Eímear think it was that way? Why was it music and her? 

“I have absolutely no idea. Absolutely none. I just loved it so much. It was exciting to me on an emotional level and an intellectual level. And it also was so deep, with so much to know and so much to learn. Every day I’m learning something new. And I don’t just mean new pieces of music, I mean I’m learning something new about music. It’s just so fascinating. It’s like this magical world to me. It just never stops giving back, there’s so much music to discover, and so much about music to discover. It’s a life-long pursuit. But as a kid, I don’t ever remember it being a hobby, it was just…who I am. Like every child, my first instrument was my voice. I remember…[laughs]…I remember my first time on stage…and I don’t think I’ve actually told this to anyone in an interview before. I was four years old, singing at my aunt’s secondary school in Castleblakeney. There was a talent show [laughs], and I think I was shoved out on stage at four. I sang a song called Little Mammy Birdy [laughs]. And my mother still has the dress I wore my first time on stage, yeah. I was only four, but even then I felt like, yeah, this is what I do. This is me! [laughs].” 

Well when Eímear is doing what she does, when she’s conducting, she can have up to ninety people in the orchestra in front of her, and as she had when working on the Warcraft updates a few years ago, a choir of fifty or sixty more people on top of that. What kind of mental preparation does Eímear go through prior to something like that to get herself into the frame of mind she needs to be in? 

“It’s important to me to be physically strong. And like a lot of musicians, I’m not super-fond of the gym [laughs]. But I try to be physically strong. But I also do some meditation based on the teaching of a guy called George Mumford, who taught the L.A. Lakers meditation. He understood what it was like to be ‘in the zone’, and to be at your best with a lot of pressure on your shoulders, and a lot of stimulus, and a lot of moving parts. I love his work, so I’ll just sit and listen to him give a lecture on guided meditation. The other thing is I prepare, I prepare like crazy. I will spend a lot of time with the music. And sometimes I don’t get to do that! When we recorded for Warcraft, and when we’re recording in general, I won’t see the music ahead of time. So we’re straight into it in the recording studio, a giant stack of scores lands on the music stand, and we just go from there. Dive straight in. But yeah, I do mentally and physically prepare. There’s no way around that one. You feel so much stronger and so much more in control, and so much better able to serve the audience with adequate preparation.” 

Is there a big difference in how Eímear would prepare for something that might be happening in the studio as opposed to for a ‘live’ event, like the Oscars? 

“Yes, there is. I mean, when we’re in the studio we don’t have rehearsal. But when we’re ‘live’ we don’t get to do another take [laughs]. And yes, the Oscars is ‘live.’ Everything you heard, we were playing ‘live.’ I try to bring something from what I’ve learned from the ‘live’ performance to the recording studio, and something from the recording studio to the ‘live’ performance. And here’s what I mean by that. When the red light is on in the recording studio, I try and get that electricity, that frisson of energy from myself and from the ensemble, as if we had an audience in front of us. Because it’s a different energy when the audience is there. And you see that right now, where in order to keep some performances going during the pandemic, you see a lot of filmed performances by all kinds of artists. And it definitely feels a little different when the audience isn’t present. And what I bring from the recording studio to a ‘live’ situation is that focus on detail, and that level of detail in the performance that I use in the recording studio. Because I know that it has to be absolutely perfect to live in a recorded format. Otherwise, you spend a lot of time in post-production tidying things up. And when you have hours of music, and millions and millions and millions of notes, you want to avoid that kind of thing because you do have to deliver a project on a deadline and so on. So in a studio, I’m very, very detailed orientated because you also need to know what can and can’t be fixed after the fact. So I bring that kind of head-space to the ‘live’ performance. I want that level of perfection, as if everything I do is being recorded. And it just turns out that at the moment, everything I do is being recorded! [laughs]. So that’s good! I’ve been lucky enough to work in some of the most amazing recording studios on the planet, like Skywalker Ranch, Abbey Road, the Newman Scoring Stage at 20th Century Fox, Sony Warner Brothers, Capitol Records, just being really spoiled.” 

And in the same way that she would prepare for a show or a recording session, does Eímear have any rituals for afterwards, to kind of come-down from that high of performance, and to help her unwind after the intensity of being ‘switched-on’? 

“Nobody’s ever asked me that question. Oh my goodness. It is so unromantic, I hate to burst peoples’ bubbles. Generally when I come off stage, especially if I’m on tour, I’ll check in with my family. And when I’m on tour, there will most likely not be anyone in the audience that I know personally. So I’ll come backstage, I’ll see the crew, say hi to all the orchestra managers, the stage-managers, that kind of thing, go into my dressing room…and pack! [laughs]. Then I go back to my hotel room, have something to eat, look at the news online, and stare at the ceiling [laughs]. So unromantic! It’s really hard when you’re on tour as well, because your adrenaline is going after the concert, and you’ve got to get up and travel the next day and do it all over again. So you come back from touring and your adrenal glands have just given up and died! When I was a student in Trinity College, a huge part of doing rehearsals and doing a concert was so you could party afterwards! And nobody told me that when you’re a pro you don’t get to party afterwards, only rarely. Very rarely do you actually get to do that. I remember when I started working at the studios in L.A. first, we’d do six-hour sessions, and afterwards your adrenaline is going mad, and you’re like, ‘Let’s go everybody, what pub are we goin’ to?!’ But everybody’s just like, ‘Ok, see you tomorrow!’ And you’re there like, ‘What?!’ [laughs]. I suppose that’s an Irish was as well. And it’s a healthy thing as well, to go and have a couple of drinks after a show and let that adrenaline just peter out, ya know. But if I have to get up the next day and do it all over again, I won’t even have a glass of wine. I need every brain-cell working at its optimum! Yeah, it’s weird. Especially if you’re dealing with jet-lag as well, things like that. You become this sort of energy-camel, it’s like you’re storing energy for the concert, and you won’t give it up for anything else!”Eímear continued, “I’m looking forward to doing something here with the Symphony Orchestra soon, and even after that, I mean, oh my God, I finally thought I’m doing something in Ireland, I can finally go and party afterwards, but nobody’s partying right now, at all. We can’t. At the moment, we’re waiting for restrictions to lift just so we can get the players together! Let alone the audience. You can’t even put an orchestra on the stage in Ireland at the moment because of the restrictions. And you know what? That’s all fine. We all need to keep each other safe. And we need to keep our musicians safe. That’s absolutely necessary. But it’s tough on all the players, not getting to be together, and not getting to play together. I saw some things about telling musicians to re-tool or whatever, and I thought it was hilarious. God, you may as well tell us to breathe through gills! That’s absolutely futile. You’re also talking about, in an archestra, everyone – every single person – has at least one post-graduate degree. The hoops that they jump through to actually get that seat in an orchestra, to be there…it’s just astronomical what they go through to get that job. Every single person there, they’re not there because they’re good at music, they’re there because they live, breathe, eat, and sleep it!” 

~ To stay up to date with everything that Eímear is working on, you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Watch this space for Part Two of our chat coming your way in the weeks ahead! ENDS

Jim Lauderdale

First Published October 2017


It’s not too often that you get the opportunity to speak to someone like Jim Lauderdale, where most of the names that come up in conversation have all secured their own places in the music history books, too. Harlan Howard, Buck Owens, Ralph Stanley, Buddy Miller, Robert Hunter, Patty Loveless, George Jones, Harry Chapin, John Oates, Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell, John Levanthal, Emory Gordy Jnr. And for good measure, a tale relating to John Lennon that almost steals a beat of your heart when you think about it for a moment.

Nope, it’s definitely not too often that you hit lucky enough to chat with someone like Jim. Hardly surprising, though, given the fact that there aren’t many like Jim out there. In fact, when we talk about Jim Lauderdale, we’re into talking about once-in-a-lifetime talents territory. And it was my good fortune, and great pleasure, to talk to the man himself recently.

Sadly, when we spoke it was only a few days after the shooting at Jason Aldean’s concert in Las Vegas, followed by the untimely death of a true rock and roll icon, Tom Petty. It would have been impossible not to begin by touching on both for a moment, so I asked Jim if he’d like to share what was going through his mind on either event? 

“Yes, oh my gosh. It was mind-numbing, both of those different tragedies. What happened in Las Vegas was just unfathomable. I’m still, and I think everybody is really, we’re just reeling from it. And then Tom last night. I mean, he’d just wrapped up a very successful leg of his tour and seemed to be very healthy. His music really brought a lot of enjoyment to millions of people. He was a real master [entertainer] and he’s really gonna be missed.”

Jim’s new album, London Southern, is his 29th, an extraordinary output by anyone’s measure. It includes a song co-written with John Oates, called If I Can’t Resist. Now Jim has described Oates as being, “More hungry than most guys that are on their way up.” I put it to Jim that, given his vast back catalogue, that same could be said of him. And I asked him, what keeps him hungry to keep on writing and recording? 

“It’s just the desire to get these songs out as they come to me, or if I’m collaborating with others. It’s just a need I have. Something I have to do is to write, and then to sing. So I stay in the studio frequently and I tour more and more these days. It seems like both the recording and the touring has continued to grow through the years, and I’m  really glad about that. So writing songs and recording them, it’s just such an intense, challenging, but wonderful process. And like I said, I just have to do it.” 

I’d read somewhere once that Jim never ‘refuses’ a song if he feels one coming on, even if it has nothing to do with whatever specific project he might be working on at that time. If the song comes to him, Jim takes it. 

“Yes, that’s right. And I often wonder if my mind plays tricks on me, that when I’m working on a particular project, that’s when I get song ideas for a different style of music [laughs]. If I’m working on more of a soul type thing, then I might get an idea for a bluegrass song, or a traditional country type song, or vice-versa. But that’s o.k! I let my mind play those tricks! [laughs].” 

Whenever I’m thinking of buying an album by an artist I don’t really know much about, one of the first things I do is check out the song titles and the songwriting credits. That’s how I first discovered an amazing Texan artist called Sunny Sweeney, she has three of Jim’s songs on her Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame record. In other words, if I see a Jim Lauderdale song on an album, that’s good enough for me: sold! And Jim is often referred to as a ‘songwriter’s songwriter.’ I wondered what it meant to him to be the subject of such a description? 

“It’s very flattering. But I try not to…well, I feel like I’m still in the beginning stages of my career, so I don’t let that stuff go to my head because I’m always onto the next project. And it’s always challenging for me to get through those projects and come up to the level of other writers that are out there. So I’m always kinda doing the next thing and not thinking too much about my past work.” 

As a writer Jim is nothing short of prolific. A few years back, he released a staggering FOUR records in just ONE year. How does something like that work on a business level? 

“[Laughs] It doesn’t! It doesn’t work that way [laughs]. And even though I get told that by people trying to advise me, I just do it anyway. And actually, this record that’s out now, ‘London Southern’, those records came out after I’d recorded ‘London Southern’ and I was waiting for the right home for it. So these other things were kinda coming out, these other songs and project ideas, and I thought, well, ‘London Southern’ will hopefully be out in the spring-time so I’ve got to clear the decks and get these others out. And this went on for three or four years. So finally, I found a home for it which is in the U.K, on a label called Proper Records, that really liked the album a lot. I knew from their enthusiasm about it that it was in the right place at last so I’m really happy about finding that home for it.” 

Another area in which Jim moves at an astounding pace is when he co-writes with Robert Hunter, lyricist of The Grateful Dead, with whom Jim has recorded and released a number of albums. Once, they wrote EIGHTEEN songs in just EIGHT days! And another time, a phenomenal TEN songs in a day and a half! In those instances where Jim and Robert write together, are they going in with ideas ready to bounce off each other, or does every song start from scratch? 

“Starting from scratch, usually. In the early days when Robert Hunter and I started writing, I was doing my first album with one of my bluegrass heroes named Ralph Stanley. So I contacted Robert just on a whim, thinking, you know, he’s probably not going to return my message but I’ll at least try. But I think he and Jerry Garcia were such fans of The Stanley Brothers that he agreed! So we went from there. And either he would give me a completed lyric and I would write the music to it, or I would give him a melody. And when we’re in each other’s presence he would either hand me a lyric or a melody would just come out, which I would record quickly and send to his computer. Then he’d work in one room, while I’d work in different room coming up with another melody. Usually one or the other of us gives our contribution to the other to get things started. But during those circumstances we’re both usually pretty fast with each other. And it’s something I still have to pinch myself about, to realise that I’ve written with Robert. I think we must have written about one hundred songs together.” 

J.T Osbourne, of The Brothers Osbourne, observed recently that he feels like Nashville songwriters these days might be thinking too much about what they think people want to hear, and not enough about what they, as songwriters, actually want to say. What was Jim’s take on this? 

“He might be onto something there. I think that there are so many talented songwriters in Nashville. And I think that it’s hard to know what’s going on in their creative process. But in a lot of circumstances when you’re co-writing the goal is to get someone to record that song. So I think that’s sometimes how trends happen in the music market, when one thing is successful then it’s followed by a lot of things that sound like it, whether it’s melodically or thematically. So, it could be a conscious or a sub-conscious thing with writers sometimes. But there are just so many talented songwriters that end up in Nashville and write with each other, and with commercial music in general, even the most mundane type songs will be written by great writers who are still more than capable of writing profound and deep songs. But these other ones ended up kind of making it through the cracks and somehow being commercially successful. But those writers, there’s more than meets the eye as far as their abilities go. Does that make any sense?” 

One of my favourite songs of Jim’s – and one of my fav country songs, come to think of it – is The King Of Broken Hearts. I love the story of how Jim wrote it after hearing Gram Parsons describe George Jones as being just that; the king of broken hearts. But what’s always intrigued me is the story of how George himself came so close to recording the song….

“That’s right, that’s right. I was working on an album that was being co-produced by Rodney Crowell and John Levanthal and I got a call at the studio from Emory Gordy Jnr., who’s married to Patty Loveless, and is a very talented producer and bass player, and he told me that George wanted to record the song. So I was totally overjoyed. Then Emory said, ‘But there’s a problem. George is having a hard time singing this part of the song, could you change the timing of it?’ So I thought for a minute, and I think I said well, yeah, sure, sure. But then I think I thought for another minute more and I said, ya know, it just won’t work. Unfortunately. That’s like such a huge part of the melody of the song. So I had to say gosh, ya know if there’s any way he can do it that’s great, but I can’t change it. And it wasn’t a matter of principle or stubborness or anything, it was just that it would it would totally change the song. So it wouldn’t be what it was if I did that. But I did get to perform that song in front of him at one of his birthday celebrations at the Grand Ole Opry house so that was really special. And there was a play that was in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium, about Tammy Wynette, and I actually portrayed George Jones in that. And that was a real thrill for me. And he came to the show, too. I’m a George Jones…freak, I guess [laughs]. I just love his music so much, and his voice.” 

Harlan Howard, even today, some fifteen years after his passing, is still regarded by many as the master of country music songwriters. And naturally, there’s another great story here about Jim, and when he and Harlan wrote together. I’m sure there’s probably far more than one, indeed, but one I particularly love concerns the song You’ll Know When It’s Right. Essentially, Jim was telling Howard his story of one particular heartache and Howard reassuringly replied, “You’ll know when it’s right”, and went on to craft the song from the rest of the details of Jim’s pain! That, folks, is songwriting genius! But what was it, in Jim’s view, that made Harlan Howard so special as a writer? 

“Well, he was very in touch with mankind. He had worked in a factory in Detroit before he ended up moving to California for a while, He was roommates in California with Bobby Bare and kind of got into getting cuts with Buck Owens and things, so eventually moved to Nashville. But I think that when he worked at an auto-factory in Detroit at like a eight-to-five job, that he had a strong work ethic. And he wanted to get away from that kind of life and just be a songwriter. But one thing he would tell me when we wrote, was that he really wanted to go abroad, to places like the U.K, and Ireland, and just sit at a bar and talk to a guy who drives a truck. He said, ‘I just want to sit there and talk to the everyday working man.’ I just feel that he had such an understanding, and an empathy, with the everyday person, somebody that didn’t have great wealth or a title or whatever. He was more comfortable in that kind of situation. I think his understanding of the human psyche really, is what came through in his songs. He had a very conversational way of writing as well. He was really a great guy, who was very passionate about life and about music. It was a great experience to write with him and to be his friend.” 

Patty Loveless once said that Jim, as a songwriter, knew how to, “Gut an emotion, head right to the truth, and keep going.” Is that an instinctual ability, or something that can be learned? 

“Well, maybe both. I know that songwriting is something that, for me, parts of it are effortless and come easy. But then other things take a lot of effort on my part to finish. The melodies are always the easiest things for me. And sometimes titles are as well. But to really get into a song and make it work is the challenge for me.”

So how does Jim know when a song is as bare as it can be, how does he gauge when it’s ready? 

“I just kinda know. I have that feeling. There’s an expression, ‘Stick a fork in it’ [laughs], so I think you just kind of instinctively know. It’s like, o.k, I’ve said it, I’ve gotten the point across, and it doesn’t need to be edited or tweaked, or added to. Mind you, with most songs I worry if something is over five minutes! Buck Owens used to say, ‘Well, you’re only two and a half minutes away from a hit!’ Meaning that at any given time, not me personally, but a person can write something and it lasts two and a half minutes and hey…it’s a hit song! And radio has changed a lot, and records have changed a lot. They don’t have to be as short these days. But that was kind of a formula for many years in pop music and country music, that songs were roughly that length or less.” 

My last question was one I tend to end with whenever I can. One about advice for songwriters. Michael Weston King, the British singer/songwriter, said the best piece of advice he ever received came from the legendary Townes Van Zandt, and it was just two simple words: Keep going. Now Jim himself has said before that whenever he’s feeling bad or going through something a little on the tough side, he tells himself that he needs to write himself out of that situation. Which, when you think about it, isn’t too far off what Townes advised. But what is the best piece of advice Jim has ever been given? 

“I was living in New York city years ago, and Buddy Miller had moved up there at the same time. And interestingly enough, there was an influx of country music writers and singers and musicians that converged on New York city, of all places! Buddy Miller calls it The Great Country Music Scare of 1980 for New York city! [laughs]. I had just gotten a job in a house-band at a large new country venue in Jersey, and they would have national acts come and play there and we’d be the opening act. So that was a big deal for me, and I though this was my big break. But I had auditioned for a play where I was playing the banjo and the guitar – the play had a small bluegrass band – and one actor ended up being called Cotton Patch Gospel. And Harry Chapin, the singer/songwriter, wrote the music. So I auditioned, but I didn’t get it. But the man who did couldn’t fulfill his duties in the show so they offered me the role, but I turned it down. Because I said I had this new thing where I had to do my own music. And Harry Chapin said to me, ‘Well, you’ve got to do your own songs, and don’t forget that.’ He was very gracious. He said you’ve got to do your own things, don’t just do other peoples.’ And that’s what I really wanted to do, but he really reinforced it. He said, ‘Keep that fire in your belly.’ In other words, that passion, that urgency about things. And I thought that was really good advice.”

I was very fortunate years ago”, Jim continued, “I used to sing on Lucinda Williams’ albums back when her ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ album came out, and she had allowed me to open the show playing solo acoustic, then be in her band singing harmonies. So during that time I had already recorded an album and I was ready to put it out. But hearing her songs, and singing them night after night, I realised that the record I had just wasn’t up to par. Not that I wanted it to be like her record, which it couldn’t be, because nobody could do that. Now she didn’t say this to me about my record, even though she had heard it. But for me, from being around people like her, and Robert Hunter, and Harlan Howard, it’s almost like osmosis..it’s like your own kind of understanding of their process, and what they do, or the end result of their work. And in that case, with Lucinda, I just knew that I had to try harder and dig deeper. Because her songs were such masterpieces. I knew I had to go back to the drawing board, so I did, I scrapped that album. You’ve got to be honest with yourself.”

Before I let Jim back to the studio (he was recording on the day we spoke), there was one other thing I had to ask him about. I’d read before – but I was never sure if it was true or just a myth – that Jim had actually been outside The Dakota Hotel in New York on the day John Lennon was shot….? 

“That’s right. I used to have to pick up and deliver camera equipment for Annie Leibovitz, so that was the tragic day that she did that last  photo-shoot with John and Yoko. I had a gig the night before, a country gig, and I had one [coming up] that night, and I was really tired. I was waiting outside in the hope of catching a glimpse of John and Yoko, and I waited for a while but then I thought I only live a couple of blocks down the street, I’m gonna see him again, ya know.”

And did he really believe that he had actually seen Mark Chapman, standing there, waiting, as it would later transpire, to carry out his evil plan? 

“I did, I did. I know I did because part of my thoughts were was I gonna stand around like this other guy waiting for an autograph, and he had an album in his hands at the time. And there was a woman standing with him at the time, but I think she was just another bystander.”