Brian Cunningham

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. 

ENDS

Cassadee Pope

First Published December 2020

ALWAYS RISING HIGHER, SHINING BRIGHTER

It’s said – and more often than not it’s true – that you can tell a lot about a person by knowing who their friends are. Likewise, for an artist, you can tell a lot about someone by paying attention to who they’re often spoken about in the same breath as. 


Floridian singer/songwriter CASSADEE POPE has one heck of a crossover of folk who show up in both those two groups. There’s guitar wizard Lindsay Ell. There’s the runner-up from season ten of American Idol, Lauren Alaina. There’s RaeLynn, whose 2017 debut album Wildhorse introduced itself to the world by way of the Top Ten on Billboard’s All-Genre album chart, whilst also debuting in the top spot on Billboard’s Country album’s chart, which made RaeLynn the first female country artist to do so since Maren Morris with her major-label debut long-player, Hero, in 2016. And there’s Maren herself, one of the Highwomen, a Grammy winner, and thanks to collaborations with Niall Horan and Zedd and Grey, a name known worldwide as well as being one of modern country’s superstar names. 


If Cassadee happens to be a name new to you, then knowing such artists are both her friends and contemporaries should be your first clue to her greatness. And not just as an artist, by the way, but as a person, too. And let there be no doubt, that greatness runs deep, and exists independently of anyone she might know. 


Cassadee was the winner of The Voice US back in 2012, when she was coached by country mega-star Blake Shelton. That same year, her version of Over You from the show became an iTunes #1, knocking Gangnam Style back into the #2 spot. In 2017, Cassadee became the first ever contestant from the show to be nominated for a Grammy, thanks to her duet with Chris Young, Think Of You. She’s also toured with Chris, with her friend Maren, with Tim McGraw, and with Dierks Bentley, to name but a few of the marquee names who have invited her on the road. Funnily enough, though, Cassadee’s musical journey began in what might be described as a world away from country, in a pop/punk band called Hey Monday whose big break came when Pete Wenz – bass player with Fall Out Boy – discovered the group’s demo in his manager’s office. Hey Monday’s single, Candles, even featured on an episode of Glee. 


Quite apart from her list of achievements as an artist, however, what always stands out about Cassadee – certainly to this writer – is her authenticity. She is, to put it simply, real to the bone. That was always how she came across to me before I actually had the pleasure of spending some time in her company. And, wouldn’t you know it, a little time in conversation with Cassadee proved that hunch to be right on the money. 


There were so many reasons why I was looking forward to chatting with Cassadee, and when that opportunity came my way a few weeks back, there was nowhere better to start than with the remix to her single Rise And Shine, from her EP of the same name. Now, for those who may not know, remixes in country music are generally more the exception than the norm. So when I first heard about the Rise And Shine remix, what made me most curious was why Cassadee might have wanted to present that particular track in a different light. But then, I heard Cassadee talk somewhere about when she heard that Dave Audé wanted to do the remix, which made it sound more like the idea might have come from outside of her camp. So, I asked Cassadee how, in fact, it did all come to happen…


“Well, my manager, Daniel Miller, texted and said how would you feel about a remix of ‘Rise And Shine.’ And at first, I was like, this doesn’t sound like a song that would lend itself well to a remix [laughs]. I’m thinking, you know, of it being turned into a Calvin Harris kinda remix – uuugh! – and that doesn’t seem like it would make sense. And then they said that Dave wanted to do it. Obviously I know his work, but I looked into more, and I was like ah, ok, he’s got a different vibe and it’s not super-clubby all the time. So I said ok, let’s try that. Then I got sent a verse and chorus of what he was thinking for the song. And that was so exciting, because it really just added this whole other anthemic level to the song that I wanted the song to have. But it being acoustic obviously, it only could go so far. I really felt like he took it to the next level, with a lot of the kinda big 80s snare sounds, and it was very ambient. I just felt so excited about it, I said yeah, definitely, let’s go ahead. And he was really great to work with, he was open to some tweaks. I wasn’t sure because I’ve never done a remix with somebody, so I wasn’t sure how the process would go. But it was really collaborative and I’m super happy with how it turned out.”

As Cassadee mentioned there being some tweaks involved, I wondered if it was a case of Dave sending her along some different versions as he worked on them to see what she liked and make sure she was cool with the direction the track was taking? 


“Yeah, definitely. And like honestly, there weren’t that many things. There were two little notes that I had, and they were really minor changes. For instance, the beat was coming in a little later on the second verse, and I wanted it to come in a little earlier. He sent me what he had, kind of the first round of what he felt comfortable sending me, then I had a couple of tweaks, and he did it in like an hour! And that was that [laughs]. That was the extent of the back-and-forth as far as tweaking the song [went].” 

Cassadee has described her Rise And Shine EP as being, “emo-country, acoustic record”, a description I happen to really like. As an acoustic collection, it’s obviously going to be quite different to a full-band affair anyway. But coming so soon after her album Stages (February 2019), it seemed clear to me that Rise And Shine is also a record she values just as much as her Stages long-player, and creatively-speaking, is a side of herself that Cassadee thought important enough to share with her fans right now…was I right? 


“Yeah, definitely. This album was a product of the pandemic, it was me really wanting to release something – not just for the fans and hopefully helping them out – but for myself. It was a tough year, you know. I’ve felt a big jolt in my lifestyle in not travelling and meeting fans, playing shows. So I was thinking about what I could do that would be safe, but that I could still get new music to people. And I also felt like the world at that time [early in the pandemic] was in such an acoustic state, of there not being a lot of things to be able to distract us from our problems, with not being able to go to shows, and not being able to go to house-parties or to clubs or whatever. So, I felt like it was a kind of parallel to where we were in the world, and I was really happy to see that people were appreciative of some new music and were connecting with some of the lyrics, too.” 

I wanted to move on to ask Cassadee about her songwriting. In speaking about her song How I Feel Right Now, she described going into that writing session that day with no real ideas about what to write, but then telling her co-writers on that session about a relationship she was in, and in doing so saying something like, “…and that’s how I feel right now.” And in that moment, there was their song! How important is it for Cassadee – as a songwriter – to be able to allow herself to open up like that about her personal life? And also, and perhaps more importantly, the importance of having co-writers with whom she knows she can be so open? 


“I’ve definitely learned that unless you’re willing to completely open up and share things, you’re not gonna get the depth that you want to get in a song. When I first came to Nashville, that was a really weird thing for me. I wasn’t completely trusting in the process. Telling people about my personal life felt really odd. I mean, at that point, I hadn’t been to therapy ever, so I just wasn’t used to opening up to people to that extent. But once I started, and I started to get the songs that are still my favourites – some of the songs on my first record, ‘Frame By Frame’ – I realised, well, that’s what you have to do in a session. Now, going into the sessions – and this year I’ve been writing on Zoom a lot – I’ve really been super, super intentional with the direction. I’m definitely going more pop/rock for the next full-band record. I’ve been going into these sessions with a clear, focused idea of that sound. And then also, I’ve had so many ideas that have just come up for me, maybe like two seconds before a session! Then I’m like I want to bring this up in the session. So it really depends on the day, but I’ve definitely felt so inspired, especially with the year we’ve had. Socially inspired, but also with this new approach that’s pop/rock and heading in that direction. It’s opened my mind up to a lot more ideas. If I feel a certain way that day [of a session], but someone says something that makes me want to write a different idea, then I’m being open to doing that.” 

Something else Cassadee once said is that, “I will probably never stop writing about my first love and my first heartache.” As a songwriter, I wondered if what Cassadee meant by that is that she returns to old relationships a lot to almost mine those memories for songs, looking at things from slightly different perspectives, or focusing on a slightly different emotion each time? 


“Yeah. I mean, I think that first love and your first heartbreak will stick with you, it will be so vivid, and it will be the first time that you’ve felt that thing, that deep, deep pain or that deep, deep obsession with someone. I think the first time is always the most vivid in your memory. Obviously now, fast forward to being thirty-one, and I’m writing about all relationships I’ve been in, so I’m not discriminating against the other ones [laughs]. The first time of anything is so vivid in your mind. For me, it’s so easy to go back to that feeling and write from that place. I think that’s always going to be something that people can relate to as well. I don’t ever want to just write love-songs, or just write life-songs or whatever. I want all my projects to be pretty well-rounded as far as the lyrical content goes.” 

Cassadee had mentioned this year in the context of what’s been happening socially, so I wondered if she found herself taking on any of those subjects in her lyrics? Not necessarily in a protest song style, but still directly relating to what’s been happening in the world this year, on the socio-political side of things as well as with Covid…


“Yeah, I’ve basically got a song where I’m calling people out who are basically being judgemental about someone’s lifestyle as if it’s affecting them. The actual hook-line is, ‘If you were happy, you would mind your own business’, [laughs]. I just was so frustrated with seeing my friends who are gay, or who have a new baby and posted a picture only to have people commenting saying ‘you’re not holding it right!’, or whatever! I just got so fed-up with people that were so invested in someone else’s life, especially my friends. So I just wrote a song that day and it’s turned out to be one of my favourites actually! It’ll be something people hear, for sure.” 

On Cassadee’s song Distracted, she’s joined by Lindsay Ell, Lauren Alaina, and Raelynn, all of whom Cassadee said came in to record their parts during CMA Week in Nashville, which is, of course, one of the craziest times of the year for country artists. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lindsay a couple of months back and what I noticed about her – not just during our chat, but in other interviews I’ve seen with her too – is that she always takes every chance she gets to give a shout-out to her friends who are also artists. And I’ve noticed that same trait in Cassadee. I asked her to tell me about the importance of that community of friends who are also artists.


“Oh man! I mean, it’s really saved me in so many ways. I remember really not leaning into it until three, maybe three and a half years ago. I had gone through a really weird year of transitions, getting out of a long-term relationship, getting out of a record deal, really doing all of those things at the same time. And I needed friends to really help me through that. So I leaned on my friends because I just wanted to connect with them on a level I just hadn’t been able to yet, just because of my own mental capacity I wasn’t able to really lean into those friendships as much as I could have. And also, just having someone that I was with for so long, who was my person to go to for everything, and now all of a sudden I was single, so I had to lean on my friends. The friends that I felt like I had the most common ground with are my artist friends. And it’s really the best decision I’ve ever made because now there’s just this group of girls and women that are there for each other, even when I just need to vent. Or if I just need to have a drink with someone and have it be light and easy. It’s a group of women that are going to be whatever we need to be for each other in whatever moment they need us. Lindsay and Raelyn, and Lauren, and Maren [Morris], those are the friends that I’ve really connected with over the last few years that have helped me through some pretty tough times.” 

Speaking of character traits and personality traits, from her time on The Voice on Cassadee has had some amazing opportunities to work with some equally amazing artists; Blake [Shelton, her mentor on The Voice] obviously, Chris Young, Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley, Maren, and of course, Sam Palladio. In working with and being around those guys, what did Cassadee learn from watching how they do things that she’s been able to apply to her own career or take into her own life? 


“I think there’s a certain level of confidence that all of those guys that you mentioned have. There’s confidence, and there’s also humility. I’ve noticed that most of the people I’ve come into contact with – especially in the country world – are so humble, and so family orientated. They just want to be your mentor. Somebody that I’ve been really lucky to work with on a personal level, but also on a music level, is Karen Fairchild, from Little Big Town. She’s kind of been like a ghost-mentor for me [laughs]. It’s not like when we hang out there’s a slew of selfies and stuff. When I see her, I’m like a sponge. I’m like ok, tell me everything! [laughs]. When I had that year that I was talking about earlier, when I was really transitioning and not having a team around me, she was the one I called and I was like, can you meet with me and can I pick your brain about stuff? I asked her about a manager I was thinking of hiring, and she knew about him and was able to tell me things. And she has that humility. She has the confidence, but she has that humility. I think that’s something that is kind of a constant in the biggest country artists. There’s that relatability. And when you see them and meet them, and hang out with them, I think they all have that thing in common. And I’m lucky to have people like that that I can look up to and ask questions.” 

And speaking of Sam, with whom Cassadee is in a relationship – and who duets with her on the song California Dreaming on Rise And Shine – the pair had an actual show at the City Winery in Nashville just the week before we spoke. I asked Cassadee how it felt to be able to perform again.


“I haven’t had a full-band show since December [2019], so I was really excited to get a full-band show! [laughs]. I had done a couple of acoustic things this year, but yeah, nothing like that. We had a really good time! But it also made us realise, hey, we could do this! You know, if we want to do a co-headlining tour someday or something like that. It felt so good to be up there in general, but to be up there with him was really fun. He sang harmonies on my songs, I sang harmonies on his songs. It was just a really fun collaborative night, it was amazing.” 

Did Cassadee and Sam have an audience there with them to enjoy the show? 


“Yeah. So City Winery basically had a big outdoor tent with tables, two-tops, four-tops, and six-tops. So if a household had six people in it and they wanted to come to the show, they were taken care of. The crowd was set up…gosh…like a good twelve feet from the stage, so we were never exposed to anyone. The crowd had to wear masks, too. Sam and I, we’ve been pretty on the cautious side of things this year, and haven’t really gone anywhere or done anything. We went to a friend’s show, that was kind of a big deal for us, and we hopped up for a couple of songs at City Winery. And that’s when we realised that they were doing such a good job. So we actually said to them that if they had any open dates we’d really love to do a show because we thought they were doing such a good job. And then yeah, fast-forward to it happening and we sold it out, and it was awesome.” 

Cassadee is an independent artist now, coming from a pop/rock background from her time with her band Hey Monday, and she has the most magnificent arm tattoo that’s both beautiful and hard to miss. Plus, Cassadee and Sam live over on East Nashville, somewhere I learned all I know about from listening to the brilliant singer/songwriter Todd Snider. So it’s probably fair to say that Cassadee is far too free and independent a spirit to fit nicely into the kind of categories and products that country radio often seems to prefer. Only the actual music itself should ever matter, of course, but has Cassadee ever found that country radio can be a battle for an artist like her? 


“Oh yeah! I mean, I’m at the point in my career – and especially this year – where I’m just writing the stuff that makes me really happy. Like, my next full-band record, I’m going more pop/rock and I’m not focusing on making sure I tick all the boxes that country radio has. There has to be a country accent in the voice, you know, and there has to be a banjo, there has to be steel [guitar]. I’m really not focusing on any of that, because I know deep down that I’m a country artist and that my sensibilities lean country. But I also love pop/rock, and I don’t want to ever feel like I have to compromise who I am to fit in a box, or in a format. Just because I would love a country radio hit, that can’t be what drives my creative process, I know that now. I know that if it does, I’m not gonna get the song that stands out. Yeah, it’s definitely been a struggle over the years. I’ve had success, and I’m proud of that for the things I’ve accomplished. I definitely think if I were a little bit more what country radio is used to from a female, I would maybe get better attention and radio-play. But I also know there are women that are seemingly the perfect country-radio female specimen, and they still don’t get played. I think that’s all I really needed to realise this year. Like, wow, why am I really trying so hard and giving things that I think are perfect for country radio…and they still don’t play it? So why don’t I just do what I want, and just do the most authentic thing I can think of and just see what happens? It’s a lot more creatively rewarding that way, so it’s been nice to just do that this year.” 

Cassadee had a very special virtual Thanksgiving planned with her fans, so we wrapped up our chat by talking about that, and also her hopes for what 2021 might hold in store…


“The meet-and-greets have been so fun. I’ve been doing them through an App called Loop, and it’s basically I think twenty-five or thirty fans at each meet-and-greet. Everybody is in a line but they get to go into a chat-room and talk to each other, and I popped in there as well. It’s really kind of fun and casual. I did a Halloween one where I wore my Halloween costume, being a ghostbuster [laughs]. And I picked a few fans whose costumes I loved and I sent a little merch-bundle to them. You get a merch-bundle when you purchase a meet-and-greet anyway, but I threw in a couple of extra little things that I thought people would like. Then for the Thanksgiving one, it’s just gonna be more of a conversation, with the theme of what we are grateful for, trying to take the positive from all of the heaviness that’s been going on. Talking about the silver lining of this year and what we’ve learned. That’ll be nice. I’ll probably do a Christmas one [laughs]. I’ve just really loved being able to connect with the fans, even though I haven’t been able to in person. Then the rest of the year, I mean, I’m going to continue to write but I have a pretty solid group of songs to start recording a record, getting into a studio that’s big enough so that we can do it safely, all socially-distanced and with temperature-checks. It’ll definitely be a different recording process than what it’s been in the past, but I want to get started and also keep everybody safe. So that’s on the horizon, for sure. Then just enjoying the holidays. My mom and sister are in Nashville, so I’ve been able to see them. I want to lean into the fact that there’s a new year looming and we can all exhale after this past weekend [of the US Presidential election], and just take comfort in next year being a different year!” 

RISE AND SHINE, the brand new EP from CASSADEE POPE, is out now on all platforms. 

ENDS

A Christmas Catch-Up…

A Christmas Catch-Up…

First Published December 2020

As much as we’d love to, there isn’t always the time or the space to cover everything we’d like to in this column sometimes. But every now and then, along comes a week like this one, where a little gap in the normal schedule of things appears and presents us with the perfect chance to have a little catch-up…! 

Given the time of the year it is, we couldn’t but cast an eye in the direction of some festive favourites to begin with. And in doing so, we need look no further than one of Irish country’s greatest servants of song, the gentleman that is singer/songwriter JOHN HOGAN. John has just released his version of the old Christmas carol, the Little Drummer Boya  superb reworking of the Bing Crosby and David Bowieclassic. This festive number has been a big favourite of John’s since he was a young lad. And whatever age you might be yourself, dear reader, hearing John perform this classic – in the way that only John can – will leave your heart all a-swirl in the spirit of the season. What a gift, indeed. 

Following his recent appearance on the Today Show with Daithi and Maura on RTE 1,John is now looking forward to joining a host of artists on the HOT COUNTRY TV Christmas Special – An Irish Country Christmas – which will be aired worldwide on December 24th. John has also been busy writing new material and laying down tracks for this forthcoming new album, with part of that process including the shooting a video for his recent self-penned recent hit, The Old Dance Hall.

Speaking recently about that very release, John said, “I wrote this song some time ago, and looking at a non-existent entertainment scene over the last number of months, I felt the time was now right to release it. The song is all about the good old days when people flocked in huge numbers to the dances from far and wide. Being a lively number, I hope it lifts people’s spirit during these uncertain times and brings back great memories.”

Like many entertainers over the last number of months, John has missed the live entertainment scene. But to keep in touch with his many fans and followers, the Offalyman regularly uploads (to his Facebook page John Hogan Singer/Songwriter) acoustic videos of himself singing songs from his large catalogue of recordings, with the count of such performances standing at wellover 70 to date. And  needless to say, they’re going down a treat with his many fans all over the world, from places such as St. Lucia, UK, Canada, Australia, and Sri Lanka.

Staying with the Christmas theme, here’s another lady who we’ll be bringing to the OTRT pages for a proper introduction sometime in 2021, the brilliant GRACE FOLEY from Kerry. As well as writing one of the best – and I think by far and away the funniest – letters of introduction that I’ve ever had the pleasure of receiving, Grace is also a classical crossover singer with what is perhaps the rarest female voice type; a contralto. According to the lady herself, “This basically means I have a classical style of singing… but a dark edge!” Grace said she’s made her way through this challenging year with music as her guiding light, and I have a feeling that her presence in the lives of those who know her has been every bit as much of a guiding light, too. 

With luck on her side, Grace confessed to being, “Blessed to get my music videos for the year recorded the day they announced the school closures back in March. I quickly turned to online platforms like Facebook and Instagram for performances, and this really was so important as it allowed me to continue to reach my audience to keep singing.” She wrote the song Together Apart about the lockdown back in the spring, recording it in her wardrobe, which, not surprisingly, she described as being,“… a new experience!” One of Grace’s favourite experiences of the year was when she performed Songs of Hope and Healing in an empty St. Mary’s Cathedral Killarney, a performance which was broadcast via Parish-Cam and which was, according to Grace, “…the most beautiful experience.” Like John, Grace also performed on RTE’s Today Show with Daithi and Maura, live from her living room with her little dog for company! 

Grace was also granted Arts Council funding to write and record her own music earlier this year, heading for Balbriggan to record two songs in back in September, just before Dublin went into lockdown. One of those songs – Goodbye To Dublin – was a Christmas one, so Grace decided she would release a Christmas EP. That collection, A Time For Christmas, Volume 1 – which features her own song and four festive favourites – met the world for the first time on November 27th, with the video, which was funded by the Arts Council, recorded literally on the day the Dublin lockdown was announced. As Grace remarked,“Basically, I’ve been creating a lot and narrowly avoiding lockdowns all year!”

We can’t wait to catch up with her in 2021, but in the meantime, add some Kerry flavoured cheer to your Christmas by adding Grace’s EP, A Time For Christmas, Volume 1, to your collection. 

Next up is HUBERT MURRAY is a Galway-born, Tullamore based folk and roots musician, best known as front man of two genre bending old time bluegrass bands: the Hot Rock Pilgrims – who have mostly seen action in the UK – and Lands End, who will be a name well-known on the ‘live’ circuit here in Ireland. He has toured the length and breath of Ireland, the UK and Europe, playing some of the most prestigious venues and festivals out there along the way, such as the Cambridge Folk Festival, Isle of Wight Festival, The Royal Southbank Centre in London, and the Wilderness Festival, to name a few. His discography to date includes three EPs and one album. Hubert’s newest musical adventure saw him departing the familiar territory of old-time and bluegrass sounds, choosing instead to further develop his voice as a singer-songwriter. 

That adventure, entitled Heaven Cried and released back in mid-November,is a song for those who sway on the balance of life, lost, as Hubert points out, “…in a never ending search for meaning.” Heaven Cried is a metaphorical idea about a person trying to help those who are having a hard time, who perhaps feel lost, or whose heads are not in the right place. It’s a caring soul reaching out to someone in need, to someone being held captive by the infamous ‘black dog’. The song asks the listener to slow down their thoughts and remember a time when they felt peaceful, and to grasp that positive memory. “Peace of mind”, declares Hubert, “will happen, there is someone out there who will help, unconditionally. You must not lose hope.”

Interestingly, Heaven Cried was recorded on digital-tape at Hellfire Studios in the Dublin mountains, and featured some of Ireland’s crème-de- la-crème when it comes to musicians, including; Pat Daly on Violin (has also worked with Ham Sandwich, Fionn Regan), Robbie Walsh on bodhran (Daoiri Farrell Eleanor Shanley), folk musicians Paddy Kiernan on banjo and Niall Hughes on double bass (both of Navá). The song was produced by Tony Byrne (Julie Fowlis, Danú) and mastered by Josh Clark (Kate Rusby), with artwork created by Tullamore native Claire Guinan.

Meanwhile, HALLE KEARNS is an emerging artist quickly making a name for herself in country music over stateside. As a songwriter, Halle differentiates herself through her controversial storytelling, melodic sensibilities, and authenticity. As a performer, she has over three-hundred shows under her belt resulting in an undeniable ability to captivate her audiences, instantly connecting them to her passion for music. Despite only being in Nashville for a year so far, Halle has already had the opportunity to open up for legendary country acts such as Trace Adkins, David Nail, Eli Young Band, William Michael Morgan, Tracy Lawrence, and The Oak Ridge Boys, to name but a few.

By all accounts, Nashville has been a-buzz with this young ladies name since her debut release, Pick Me Up, back in July. That track was featured as Song of the Week on a number of stations, including Radio Disney Country and Country Hits Radio UK. Follow-up singles I Drink Whiskey and Shoes To Fill have certainly kept that buzz going, leading to a huge – and justified – sense of anticipation around her debut EP, Finally, the five-track collection which dropped on December 11th. We’re looking forward to catching up with Halle and introducing the lady herself to OTRT readers in the new year.

Also back in November UK pop-country duo, EMMA & JOLIE, announced the release of their sophomore single, Cry For You, on, of all days, Friday 13th! November 2020. But given the huge few months for the new duo had just had – with a performance at the C2C Festival’s Country Music Week under their belts, along with the release of their debut single – I Don’t Need A Man – that shot to the number one spot on the iTunes country chart, and number thirty-two all genre charts, plus a feature on Apple Music’s Today’s Country and Country Wide playlists – a little matter like superstition was hardly likely to slow their groove. This second single again saw the duo partner with long-time collaborator and producer Johnny Douglas, and was a Nashville co-write with Lena Stone, during the duo’s first trip to Music City, one that has proved to be a formative part of Emma and Jolie’s journey. 

The tune was one of the girls’ quickest writing sessions, taking only about an hour to get out this raw, emotional ballad that speaks universally to the healing process post-breakup. Of the track, Emma said “Everything we write about has always stemmed from personal situations we’ve both been in. This song comes from a place of pain we have both experienced. The two of us, and a lot of people we know have felt this way after breaking up with somebody, and so we just want to say that if this is you we see you and you’re not alone, you can’t always shut it off because it’s so difficult.” Jolie continued, “There’s also an element of frustration in the song, when you see your ex seemingly moving on no problem but you’re still finding it difficult to keep going. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that things can take a bit longer when you have a big heart and you love deeply. It’s okay to still cry for them.”

Cry For You very much shifts gears in production when compared to the anthemic, fun summer track that was their I Don’t Need A Man debut hit. This go -round producer Douglas has created an emotional, yearning sound complete with a strings section that puts the duo’s stunning harmonies at the forefront of the song. The duo – whose full-names are Emma Walker and Jolie Harvey – met back in 2015 at music college and have been singing together ever since. Influenced by the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Taylor Swift, the pair bring together a mix of storytelling and modern country with sensational harmonies. A universally heart-breaking track, Cry For You will quickly become a song you return to again and again. Expect even more and bigger things from Emma and Jolie in 2021! 

After recently receiving international acclaim with a number one on the Ignition Country Charts for previous single, Thinking About Last Night back in April, UK country star HAYLEY McKAY returned with another uptempo country-pop banger, Breathe, in November.

Written in lockdown in May, and co-written and produced with Newcastle based Hattie Murdoch over Zoom, the song features pulsating rhythmic guitar, flowing drums and big melody with slick production, and deep backing-vocals. Inspired as it was by the lockdown, Breathe is about being able to enjoy the smaller things in life and taking that all-important breather that we all need sometimes, and something that was very much needed in 2020.

Hayley is an accomplished and insightful songwriter with an incredible vocal range. Blessed with a distinctive all-round style, she can effortlessly leap from earthy and soulful raw emotion, to soaring and ethereal angelic tones, which, not surprisingly, have seen her likened to Eva Cassidy, Joni Mitchel, LeAnn Rimes and Kate Bush. Over the last few years Hayley has been co-writing songs with award winning songwriters such as Nashville’s twice Grammy-nominated Jan Buckingham who has written for Whitney Houston amongst others, and Bill DiLuigi and Claire Hamill, who have written for Eva Cassidy and Wishbone Ash.

Hayley decided to release Breathe after the great international response to her previous single, the aforementioned Thinking About Last Night, which garnered radio support in Ireland and the UK, and was voted in the Top 10 Valley FM Indie charts in Australia. That track also earned support via BBC Introducing, and saw Hayley named artist of the week on various international radio stations in the US and the UK, earning features with Country Line TV, BMCA and the ISSA (International Songwriters Association). 

With the big day itself now only hours away, there’s another few Offaly artists with releases that should be on everyone’s holiday playlists. For the traditionalists out there – for all of us really, given the kind of year that it’s been – the news that Clara woman NOREEN RABBETTE had recorded a very special version of one of the most famous Christmas songs of all time, O Holy Night, brought not only excitement and expectation, but immeasurable levels of comfort as well. The Glór Tire finalist from 2019 – who hopefully has an album on its way to us next year – has what is unquestionably one of the most beautiful voices Ireland has ever produced. Whether her name eventually graces billboards around the world, or whether Noreen remains one of our best kept secrets just doesn’t matter. None of that changes the fact that her voice is golden, and will forever be so. And be assured if you haven’t already heard it for yourself, it makes her version of O Holy Night an epic moment. You could leave aside presents, trees, movies, turkey, nights-out…anything else that you might normally associate with the Yuletide season, and as long as you could hear Noreen – who, I should point out, is joined in a beautiful video for the song (filmed in Clara Church) by her brother Joe and her sister Claire – sing O Holy Night…you would still have Christmas in your heart, and all the Christmas feels. 

Another Offaly family who you need to check out at some stage over this festive season are the fabulous ROSNEYS! Headed up by my good friend Stephen Rosney – who also fronts the Irish/Americana outfit The Back Axles – the Rosneys have released an original from Stephen himself, entitled Come On Santa. And whereas Noreen’s wonderful rendition of O Holy Night slows the world to a standstill and is deeply reflective, Come On Santa really lets the reins off Santa’s reindeers and cranks the Christmas cheer right the way up to eleven in the most joyously playful expression of the kind of fun that Christmas should always be. Stephen is majestically assisted on this track – as indeed he is on his current single, Something We Can Work On – by his wonderful wife Helen, and the couple’s three children, Mark, Luke, and Jade. Rosneys…take a bow, one and all, and may there be many encores like this in the years to come! 

And last, by no means least, a long-player that should be on every music fan’s Christmas wish-list, This Kinda Love, from the brilliant SIMON CASEY. It’s not a Christmas album, but it’s clearly been a labour of love for Simon, and it’s definitely a collection that is – as the title suggests – full of heart. Featuring a title-track written by Simon himself, and which was recently play-listed by RTE Radio 1 and has been receiving extensive air-time all around the country, This Kinda Love sees Simon turn in what might well be his most accomplished vocal performances ever. At this stage in his career, Simon, with nothing to prove to anyone when it comes to his talent, and fast approaching the horizon beyond which lies the title of ‘national treasure’, is simply a joy to listen to, no matter what he’s singing. But as it happens, this collection is filled with songs you’ll simply adore him singing. From the magic of the Extreme chart-topper More Than Words, where Simon is joined by his Take It To The Limit bandmate, Johnny Brady, to the Lady A crossover-classic, Need You Now, where a delicately stripped back version of the song sees Simon and Irish country star Cliona Hagan ramp things up to an emotional high that even the American super-group couldn’t match, to the achingly beautiful Elliott Park and Walt Aldridge penned, I Loved Her First…every song is a gift in itself. Perfect for right about now really! 

ENDS

The Late Late Show Country Special 2020

First Published December 2020

HO, HO…NO!

It’s honestly hard to know where to begin when it comes to talking about another Late Late Show Country ‘Special.’ And it’s nothing short of frustrating in the extreme to actually need to talk about it again. But I have to. To not do so would be to simply ignore the fact that, at this stage, I believe this yearly event – as it is and as it has been organised and presented nearly every year so far – is actually doing more harm than good to the country music scene in Ireland. 


Look, if all you were expecting, looking for, or hoping for from last Friday night’s show was an evening’s entertainment, then sure, your expectations were probably met and similarly your hopes fulfilled. But, if you’re someone who works largely in or around the Irish country music scene, then this show will have left you lost in feelings of deja-vous and despair. If these ‘Specials’ are being billed as the biggest night in Irish country music, and they’re taking place every year, then they have to be viewed in a context much wider than just one night, and not just on how well they fill two or so hours of television every twelve months. One of the most important questions that has to be asked is this; Do they serve well the Irish country music scene as a whole? And the answer to that, certainly in my opinion, is, after five years of these shows (going back to the inaugural – and so far only – RTE Irish Country Music Awards in 2016), a resounding no. 


For one thing, this is not the biggest night of the year in Irish country music, nor should it for even a moment be considered as such. In terms of its potential audience reach, then yes, of course, that fact alone rightly places it amongst what can be considered the biggest nights – plural – of the country year. But it seems to have been created – and certainly year on year it has been maintained – as something much more akin to an exclusive members-only affair than anything that even attempts to be truly reflective of the Irish country music scene. It is not inclusive of the many artists – older and younger – and other important players who have helped to make the country scene what it is, and who tend to have been around well before RTE and The Late Late Show deemed country music worthy of any serious attention in 2016. 


Of the artists who were featured on last Friday’s show, and I make it twelve (counting The Three Amigos as one act, and not counting the six artists who were asked to be their backing-singers and who were only on-screen for about five seconds, if even that!), EIGHT of those were on last year’s Special as well. Cliona, Sandy, Philomena, The Three Amigos, Margo, Mike, Daniel, and Nathan. And most of those eight have featured on every Country Special. Many of them are also guests on The Late Late at some stage during the rest of the year too. 


Of the remaining four artists from last week’s show; Una Healy, Claudia Buckley, Trudi Lalor, and Barry Kirwan, Una and Claudia have appeared on regular season installments of The Late Late Show as well. Trudi was part of the opening sequence of last year’s Country Special, but didn’t have a chance to perform in her own right. In fact, I’m not sure if Trudi has ever been invited to appear on The Late Late Show. And as one of the greatest female voices the Irish scene has been blessed to have, how can that be right? So, of the twelve artists featured on this year’s show, only TWO did not feature last year as well. Only two. 


This is NOT – I repeat NOT – a negative commentary on ANY of those artists. I’ve interviewed most of them for this column. I admire all of them as artists in their own right. I know how hard EVERY artist in this business has to work. I know many of these artists very well and hold them in high regard not just as entertainers, but as people. 


But, this IS about the fact that RTE and The Late Late Show keep bringing back the same guests on these ‘specials’ every year, as if there were no other artists on the Irish country scene. That is simply not true. Now of course, it’s impossible to feature every single artist out there in one-go. Common sense. But no-one has ever asked for that to happen. However, it can’t be denied that since 2016, The Late Late Show has made zero effort – never mind tried and failed, they haven’t even attempted it! – to present the Irish country scene in any kind of way that truly reflects it. If they had, then over the last five years, the Irish public in general would know a lot more about many of the amazingly talented artists and great people who make up the scene. 


There are so many artists who have helped to set the standard for today’s stars, who made them dream and inspired them, and helped them to embark on their own musical voyages. And to be clear…Margo, Philomena, Sandy, Daniel…they all fall into that category too, and they absolutely deserve every word of praise and credit that comes their way. But what The Late Late Show either doesn’t seem to know or is unwilling to recognise, is that there are several more artists who have made today’s stars dream, who have inspired them, and who have helped them on their way. To name but a few; John Hogan, Shawn Cuddy, Mary Duff, Dominic Kirwan, Paddy O’ Brien, Mick Flavin, Ray Lynam. And yes, some of those have been spoken to for a minute or so when in the audience during previous shows, but never given the attention that their careers and their contributions to Irish country music have deserved. And as well as those who I’ve mentioned, I’m sure there are many more whom those with the benefit of more wisdom than I could also – and rightly – point to. 


So, why would The Late Late Show bring back some artists as guests several times over, and ignore other artists completely? It’s not because their judgement on Irish country music is definitive or deeply insightful, because it most certainly is not. They prove that fact year on year. It’s not because no-one involved in the Irish country scene has tried to make them aware of other artists that should be considered, or other ways that things could be done, because people have tried to do both those things.


And just as those older artists need to and should be remembered and acknowledged for having blazed the trails that today’s stars now travel, so too do the younger and newer artists of today need to be remembered and acknowledged when shining a spotlight on the country scene. Because today’s dreamers will become tomorrow’s stars. And I stress the younger AND newer aspect of that, because one of the great things about country music, is that for the most part, age is no limit. New artists can emerge or first come to public attention in their forties, fifties, sixties or beyond, just as easily as in their twenties or thirties. Nobody is a ‘big-name’ from day-one of their careers. Nobody. Even the biggest names of today began with little more than just their dreams. 


With a little imagination and a little vision – and that’s all this would take – there is absolutely no reason why a show that happens every year could not feature a different selection of heritage or legacy artists ( which are terms that are probably more honourable and respectful than ‘older’) each year, plus up-and-coming rising stars, and some of the biggest names of the moment. 


If we take twelve guests as a benchmark of sorts, then there’s no reason why three artists – or musicians, songwriters (more on songwriters in just a while!), promoters, journalists, etc – could not be honoured for their contributions to country music, and why three artists could not be highlighted as ones to keep an eye on over the coming year or years, and yet still be able to feature six more ‘big-name’ artists in some way. An approach such as that would easily offer a better overall view of the Irish country music scene as it is, how it came to be this way, and where it might be headed. If an approach like that had been taken or considered, then since 2017 (leaving 2016 aside as that was the year of the RTE Irish Country Music Awards), up to twelve artists (or other influential contributors to the country scene) could have been honoured, and up to twelve new artists could have been introduced to a national audience. 


And don’t let anyone tell you that there are no new artists coming along who deserve some attention, or none who are worth hearing other than those who are regularly featured on The Late Late Show. If you ever hear that from anyone, then all that’s just happened is you’re witnessed a confession that that person doesn’t know enough about the Irish country music scene to even be passing such a comment. Simple as that. 


Again, to name but a few; there’s Sabrina Fallon, who has one of the most popular songs anywhere on Irish country radio right now in Candlelight And Wine with Shane Moore, and is constantly releasing top-class material. There’s Deirdre Keane who, like Sabrina, has a voice that would fit right into place on anything being recorded in Nashville, and whose latest release, I Just Want To Thank You, Lord would have been a perfect fit for last week’s Circle Of Friends segment instead of Christmas songs that were the laziest and most predictable choices possible. There’s Alex Roe, a guy who has been performing – as in gigging, as in out on the road, as in earning his dues – all around the country for years already and is yet to even face a cake with twenty-two candles on it. There’s Colin Kenny, not just a man with a voice who can effortlessly take on any style of music, but also a songwriter of fantastic ability who is recording and releasing his own material and getting serious airplay on country radio. There’s Stephen Rosney, another songwriter of immense talent who has been adding to the canon of Irish country music culture for years by releasing original material. Likewise with Justin McGurk, whose new song, You Are, would also have been an ideal choice for the aforementioned Circle Of Friends segment. You can add Jordan Mogey and Niamh McGlinchey to that list of artists and songwriters as well. And as far as guitarists on the Irish country scene go, there are very few with as much talent as Ciaran Rosney. 


As well as all of those artists, you can count in John Molloy, Alanna Maher, Caitlin, Pamela Gilmartin, Kerry Fearon, Aoife McDonagh, Aishling Rafferty, Larissa Tormey, Patricia Maguire, Lisa Stanley, Norman Borland, Joe Moore, John Rafferty, Noel Boland, Brian Mullen…and again, these are just a few of the names that could and should be considered and given more attention. Most people who are in any way aware of the Irish country scene know who these artists are. How can The Late Late Show, when organising yearly country ‘specials’, not be? These people are not in hiding, their music is out there to be heard. And their music is worth hearing. I’ve worked with almost all of these artists at one time or another, and in one way or another. They are more than deserving of being in with a chance of having their talents, and what they bring to the Irish country music scene, recognised on the national stage at some point in time. Right now, it’s just more than clear that there’s no hope of such a chance as things stand. 

Going back to last Friday’s show, something that seemed to confuse a lot of people this year was the actual theme of the show. Was it an actual Dolly Parton tribute show? That impression was certainly given, and you could forgive people for understanding that to be the case. Was it just the annual Country Music Special, except at Christmas this year? Or was it an actual Christmas country special, where Christmas itself would be central? As it turned out, it was a little bit of everything, which made it feel a little bit messy. And to be honest, it also felt like the show was built more around the interview with Dolly than anything else, and that the Irish artists were filling in the gaps between the opening tribute to her and the actual interview at the end. 


Dolly Parton is literally a living legend. Her life and her career have more than earned her the right to be honoured on any show anywhere, be it The Late Late Show or anything else. That’s without question. And Dolly’s appearance on the show, her involvement with it in any way, or the tribute to her are not being questioned either.


It’s also without question that the opening sequence of the show, featuring Una, Cliona, and Claudia, was outstanding. It was spectacular, and hearty and sincere pats on the back are due to everyone who made it happen. It’s also true, however, that artists like Olivia Douglas, Sabrina Fallon, and Deirdre Keane for example – none of whom have ever featured on The Late Late Show before – could also have stepped into those roles and done Dolly, her songs, and Irish country music proud. To be absolutely and unequivocally clear, Una, Cliona, and Claudia DID do Dolly, her songs, and Irish country music proud. Personally, I’m a massive fan of all three ladies, as artists and as people. My interviews with each of them on the OTRT website will clearly show that. I’m just further reinforcing the point that The Late Late Show relentlessly turns to the same artists all the time. 


Having mentioned Olivia Douglas above, I cannot for the life of me understand why she – and five other artists – were asked to sing backing-vocals for The Three Amigos. First of all, there was no need for backing vocals. Robert, Jimmy, and Patrick were more than capable of giving their version of From A Distance everything that it needed, as they proved. And there was certainly no need for six artists to provide backing-vocals (seven, if you count both Ennis Brothers, together with Olivia, Clodagh Lawlor, Marc Roberts, Niamh Lynn, and David James). They got about five seconds on screen. There’s hardly any other way to see that than as a token gesture, simply a way to say six more artists were involved in this ‘special.’ And yes, involved they were. But included? That’s a different story. And a different question. And the answer is no. 


Olivia was invited to be part of the grand-finale of last year’s ‘special’ as well, another segment that is little more than a token gesture, involving people – as you would involve a prop in something – but not genuinely including them. At least they got more screen-time out of it last year. But of what worth to any artist is a camera panning past you a few times? 


Olivia is one of the most exciting new artists to appear on the Irish country music scene for years. She has another of those voices that you could put on any record that comes out of Nashville and it would sound like it belongs there. And by that, I don’t mean that she sounds American – an accusation often levelled at Irish country artists – I mean she would sound perfectly, authentically country. She has multiple awards to her name, has toured with both Nathan Carter and Derek Ryan several times, and as a musician is in a league of her own on the accordion. 


Not only that, but Olivia’s most recent release, A Hug Or Two, has racked up over ELEVEN MILLION IMPACTS on Irish radio since March of 2019, made up of 2,185 plays. Thats TWO-THOUSAND-ONE-HUNDRED-AND-EIGHTY-FIVE PLAYS. One of the songs Olivia is perhaps best known for now, Leaving Tipperary (released in March 2018) has amassed an equally phenomenal EIGHT MILLION PLUS IMPACTS on Irish radio, made up of  2,442 spins. That’s TWO-THOUSAND-FOUR-HUNDRED-AND-FORTY-TWO PLAYS. So that’s just two of Olivia’s songs that have clocked up over NINETEEN MILLION IMPACTS on Irish radio since March 2018, made up of 4,627 – that’s FOUR-THOUSAND-SIX-HUNDRED-AND-TWENTY-SEVEN PLAYS. On just two of her songs. That’s a reflection of both Olivia’s talent and her standing within the Irish country music scene. The Late Late Show’s interpretation of that talent, however, has led them to place her in a chorus-line once, and as a backing-vocalist once. 


So, either they don’t recognise her talent, or have no interest in acknowledging it. Either of those options is a terrible, yet realistic possibility. What isn’t, is that they are unaware of her talent. I can state this for a fact, because I myself have made them aware of it on numerous occasions. And not because I thought she’d be great as part of a group-finale or as a backing vocalist, I assure you. 

One last point as far as newer and younger artists go where The Late Late Show is concerned. The show – and rightly so – never seems to have any problem with giving opportunities to new and younger pop acts, or rock acts, and more recently, to hip-hop and rap acts to perform on the show. That’s as it should be. Newer and younger acts, whatever their genre, deserve those breaks. However, such opportunities never come the way of country artists. Not even on shows that are supposed to actually focus on country music. 


Last Friday’s show opened with that wonderful tribute to Dolly, and went on to include Christmas songs during the Circle Of Friends segment. So you can see again why some viewers might have been confused about what the central theme of the night was. On the subject of songs, and leading to the subject of songwriters, it was surprising to see that while Dolly’s songs got the night underway, and the artists involved in the Circle Of Friends segment had to perform Christmas songs, The Three Amigos were performing their new single, From A Distance. Would something from Dolly’s extensive songbook, or perhaps a Christmas medley, not have been better suited to the night for their performance as well? 


Christmas covers always tend to work best with artists who are already well-known, because then hearing a Christmas tune from them becomes something that’s a little bit different and that has a fun and novelty side to it. But singing Christmas tunes essentially just for the sake of it, man…that was an idea that definitely should have been pushed back on by somebody somewhere. Margo’s turn in that round worked well, because her song choice, An Old Christmas Card – written I think by Vaughn Horton and recorded by Jim Reeves amongst others – was perfect. Country, with a Christmas theme. And anyway, ladies like Margo – and Philomena too for that matter – can sing whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want. I’ve seen Margo sing acapella to full houses of seven or eight-hundred people and hold the room in the palm of her hands, with everyone so absolutely captivated that not only could you hear your own heartbeat, you could nearly hear that of the person next to you as well! 


Mike can carry off a Christmas tune too, because we’re so used to hearing him sing anyway, and because he’s an entertainer of immaculate talent. But a little thought from someone could have turned up a choice similar to Margo’s, something that was country in style and would also have fitted in with the Christmas theme. The same goes for Barry Kirwan, who is an absolute gent, and a really talented musician and performer. For someone who was being featured on the show in any meaningful way for the first time, to ask him to just sing any random Christmas song was terribly unfair. Barry has three great albums to his name; New Beginnings, Moments, and most recently – as in just weeks ago – Walk With Me. I’m absolutely certain there was a song of his own that would have been ideal for that segment. For a man to be as humble and open about how this year has affected his life and career, the very least he deserved was to be able to sing a song that also had some personal meaning or connection to him. If it wasn’t set in stone that everyone had to sing a Dolly or a Christmas tune, then this should easily have been possible…right? 


And then there was Trudi, which brings us back to songwriters again. Or rather the lack of Irish songwriters anywhere in these ‘specials.’ Trudi was asked to sing Rockin’Around The Christmas Tree, and as Trudi does with every song she sings, she put her heart and soul into it. An example to every young artist out there, Trudi is the ultimate professional in everything she does. Always has been, always will be. But here’s the thing…just last year Trudi released a beautiful original Christmas song written by her husband, Billy Morrissey, another terrific Irish country songwriter, called The Old Christmas Waltz. In other words, in her own song-catalogue, Trudi has a Christmas tune tailor-made for a segment like the Circle Of Friends at this time of the year. And as well as highlighting Trudi’s impeccable voice, it would have showcased an original song from an Irish country songwriter. Who could have not thought that this was a perfect scenario? And why would they think like that? 


And if you think that doesn’t matter, well then think again, and look at it like this. There were eleven songs performed last Friday night. Not even one of them was written by an Irish songwriter. Go back twelve months to the previous ‘special’, and there were sixteen songs performed over the course of the show, including two medleys and a group finale. Again, not one single song from an Irish writer was involved in that bill. In fairness to Margo, though, she did make sure to mention the great Shunie Crampsey (as she remembered to draw everyone’s attention to the late Brian Coll last week). Shunie is the man who penned another Olivia Douglas hit, I’m Off To Lisdoonvarna In The Morning. That song has over FIVE MILLION impacts on Irish radio, made up of almost 2,500 plays – that’s TWO-THOUSAND-FIVE-HUNDRED PLAYS – since its release in September 2018. That’s a fact that should matter. 


The fact that not one of twenty-seven songs performed on the last two Late Late Show Country Specials came from the pen of an Irish songwriter is something that should matter, too. 


And it does. All of this does. At least to some of us. 


But to others, clearly, not so much. 


And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly where the problem lies. 

ENDS

Joe Cooney

First Published October 2019

THE MAN BEHIND THE MIC

Hundreds of thousands of radio listeners and country music lovers around Ireland know and admire JOE COONEY as the voice of the Country Roads show on Midlands 103. And if there’s a country music event happening, then chances are Joe will be there too, up on stage holding it all together as M.C. And that’s a role he’ll be taking up once again on November 4th when the IRISH ENTERTAINMENT AWARDS take place in the Tullamore Court Hotel. 


At any event of this size – with star names such as CHARLIE McGETTIGAN, TOMMY FLEMING, FOSTER & ALLEN, MIKE DENVER and many more performing – the master of ceremonies is one of the most important roles, and needs to be in trusted hands. So what exactly does Joe’s job on nights like these entail, and how does he prepare for them? 


“Well thankfully this is something I’ve been doing for quite a number of years, so it’s pretty easy now in terms of preparation. But there’s a lot of things to do. You need to know your subject matter, which is each of the recipients of an award so that you know their history and when you introduce them you’re not bringing someone on stage who you know nothing about. That’s very, very important. So I always do my homework on everyone. I make sure I’m at the venue three, four – maybe even five hours – before the event, to make sure everything is where it should be and nothing is amiss from my point of view. There’ll be so much going on, you’ll have the sound-engineers there, the lighting guys, the band, and they’ll all deal with their own stuff, so I have no need to worry about that. But it’s important that each of them know where I am, and when I’m coming on stage during the night, who will be calling me on, who’s taking me off, little things like that which are all so important. But it’s something I love to do. And when it is, it doesn’t become a job, it becomes fun, ya know.” 

I wondered what’s Joe’s favourite part of nights like these? 


“The most important thing for me, and my favourite part of any night, is seeing the people who have paid their hard-earned money to come in, actually enjoy themselves. To see them clapping, and singing along with smiles on their faces. That, to me, more than just presenting special awards to different people – who deserve those awards, of course – is the most important part of the night. That the people who come along have a good night, and are happy, and are showing that happiness in their faces.”

Many artists have little routines that they always go through before going on stage each night, from finding a few moments to spend just by themselves, to sometimes having to do a certain few things in the same particular order. Does Joe have a routine that he tries to stick to when he’s hosting an event like the Irish Entertainment Awards? 


“Well my routine is kind of a weird one really! [laughs]. A lot of people need a few moments to compose themselves, but for me, I just go into the Green Room and mingle with the stars, and chat away with them. Because you never know, you see, you might get some new angle on someone just by talking to them. There might be something that just comes up on the night, and it becomes something that you can then add into your introduction. Or it might become a question you might put to the star on stage. So that’s what I do, I just mingle with the stars. That way, I’m familiar with everyone. I mean, I’m familiar with everyone I play anyway, of course. But you don’t actually see them that often during the year. So it’s always good and nice to go in and catch up with them, so to speak.”

The Awards on November 4th boasts a phenomenal line-up of star performers, including a few who Joe knows well, including Mike Denver, Sabrina Fallon, and Stephen Rosney and The Back Axles…


“Aah, Mike Denver in my book is one of the finest guys in the business. Lovely, friendly, down to earth, very thankful, very obliging. And definitely, as a live performer, is one of THE best I have seen in many years. And how he treats his fans is something else. He treats everyone with the same respect. From the people who play his songs, to the people who listen to his songs, to the people who go to his gigs, and every ordinary man and woman. Mike comes from a very nice family as well. Good stock! And you can’t beat good stock!” 

And Joe has great time for Sabrina Fallon as well, as he explained…


“Yeah, Sabrina and I, we’ve known each other since she started really, since she first sent in a cd and I listened to it. I’ve always liked her voice. But I didn’t know for a long time that she was related to Mike, so she’s played purely on merit, on the basis that she’s a great singer and the songs she brings out are terrific. My first involvement with Sabrina apart from playing her songs, was the song we recorded together. I found the song, ‘Stumblin’ In’, and I was looking for someone to do that duet with, and I picked Sabrina. And I’ve always been so happy that I did, because I couldn’t have picked better. And I’m looking forward to singing that on the night with Sabrina.”

Singer/songwriter Stephen Rosney and his band, the Back Axles, are also held in high regard by Joe…


“Again, I know all of these lads and girls through music. There isn’t really anybody that I would have known outside the business, except for Keith and Lorraine McDonald, I would have known their family long before I came into work on radio. But yeah, Stephen and the lads. He was playing with another band called Rsolyn, and that’s how I knew Stephen, from getting his cds sent into me and playing them. I met him one night then, it must have been at a gig somewhere, and he handed me a couple of the songs he had written himself. I played them on-air, and I’ve been playing them ever since. Stephen did the video for Sabrina and myself, for ‘Stumblin In’, too. And since then we’ve been involved in different bits and bobs together. I’d certainly use Stephen’s company, Rosney Media, when I’m doing the videos for any of my songs. And lots of people I know use them as well. Stephen is a lovely guy. All the lads in the Back Axles are lovely guys. And they have this great down to earth – I call it earthy music – bluegrassy type music. It’s so homely. It’s like sitting around a fireplace, or sitting around a camp-fire somewhere in America when you’re singing those songs. I have great respect for the lads. And especially as Stephen is a songwriter as well. Because you know what? There’s not a huge amount of songwriters. There’s lots of guys who are singing other peoples’ songs, but there are not many writers producing songs at the rate that Stephen is. And along with, of course, Derek Ryan as well. Stephen’s songs are songs of the earth. They keep you grounded.” 

In the last year or so, Joe’s music career has expanded from being the man behind the mic while presenting, to being the man behind the mic while actually performing, as a series of singles and a debut album have changed the trajectory of his musical journey…


“Well ya know, it’s kinda weird [laughs]. My mum sang when I was a kid, and I used to love singing along with her for the craic. But I never went out and sang publicly. But I decided when I reached sixty years of age that one of the things on my bucket-list was to go out and record a single. And that’s what I did with Sabrina. And ya know what? It’s a disease, and I mean that in the best possible way [laughs]. And people who know what I mean will laugh at that [laughs]. My end was always playing the artists, and listening to them, picking out good songs, always showing their best side on my show. But I’ve gone from that, to going out and recording an entire album myself, which I did about six months ago. ‘Stumblin In’ was the start of the bucket-list. Just record a single. And that one did it nicely. But once I recorded the single, I started to get a grá for it. Then I decided to do a ten-track album! And I have to say a big thank-you to Seamus Cullinane in Roseland Studios for guiding me along the way as well. I mean, what a great guy to go and record with. And with Stephen then, I’ve got videos for ‘Stumblin In’, as I mentioned, and ‘A Thousand Miles From Nowhere’, and ‘She Believes In Me’. So there’s a few videos running around out there on the internet, so there is, all produced by Stephen, and great job he’s done on them all. Look, you get the bug. I didn’t expect to get the bug! But I got the bug [laughs]. And all you want to do then is sing! It’s mad, isn’t it! [laughs].” 


Joe is a man of more than one passion, though. His wife and family are definitely at the top of the list, but after them, as well as music, cars and Liverpool FC also have very special places in the presenter’s heart…


“Yeah, I’m very much a family guy. If I had nothing else in this life, and if I died having nothing more in this life, then I’ve had everything in having my wife, our three children, out three grandchildren, and a fourth on the way! They are the rocks of my life. That’s what I build everything on. Cars, well I’ve always worked on cars since I was a young lad. I remember working as a sales-trainer/teacher with a company where I was training and developing people for four and a half years. A lovely clean job, earning good money, a briefcase, a suit, in at 9am in the morning, home at 4.30pm in the evening. And I still just had to roll up the sleeves, and get oil on my hands, and oil on my face and my hair, working and playing with cars! My latest thing now, that I’ve been doing for a few years, is I buy 1950s cars and restore them. Now if you could just see a photo of a couple that I have there, people would think that I was stone mad [laughs]. Most people say when they see them that they should be dumped. But I love it! It’s hard work, and it’s very labour intensive, but at the end when it’s done and you’re looking back on the finished products, it gives me such heart. Even if the car ends up being owned by someone else, as long as I get to drive that car and feel that I’ve made this – from start to finish – it gives you great pride.” 

And Liverpool? 


“Liverpool have been a part of my life since before I had my family, and always will be. I’m a passionate Liverpool fan. I just love the team. But I hate the way things go for them sometimes in so many situations. So many Premier League titles have gone-a-begging because of silly draws, struggling to get more goals. The one game that really broke my heart was the Crystal Palace game, where we were 3-nil up – 3-NIL UP – and we let Palace come back to draw. I think we lost the league by two points that same season. They kept pushing for more goals to get a better goal-difference, but they ended up drawing, and could even have lost in the end. You would not want to be beside me when I’m watching Liverpool play, because I go ballistic. Even my missus goes, ‘I’m going off to visit your mother, I’ll leave you alone to your battles!’ [laughs]. And that’s what it is, it’s an emotional roller-coaster, I don’t know how I don’t get a heart-attack. In fact, Will Faulkner recorded me – and I didn’t even know he was doing it – one time I was in one evening and Liverpool were playing. They were playing so bad that my language was…my language was choice! [laughs]. He recorded it and played it back with the expletives bleeped out and it was very funny. He caught me at my best! [laughs].” 

Probably hundreds of thousands of people around Ireland will know Joe as the presenter of Country Roads on Midlands 103, one of the most popular country music shows on Irish radio. Now I’ve met Joe many’s a time going into studio to present his show, and every time with armfuls of cds keeping him company for the night ahead. I asked Joe how much preparation goes into each show, because that’s something that a lot of people might not appreciate…


“Well for me, and number one, it’s very important that new artists get airplay. Now, in saying that, there is one little condition that I put on things. That’s that they can sing and that they’re single, or album, is recorded professionally. Sometimes people send stuff in, and they can sing alright, but the recording is awful. Or the other way round, the recording is brilliant, but they’re out of key, out of tune. So I won’t play those. I have to be very careful. I go through every single and album that’s sent to me, and I pick the very best of them. So even if I get in, let’s say for example, an EP of four tracks. I won’t just listen to the first one. If the first one is awful, I’ll still listen to the second and the third, ya know. I won’t be dismissive of anyone. And sometimes some of the people, the artists, who are around a long time, will send in a song that I think doesn’t suit them, so I won’t play it. I need to make sure that I put their best foot forward, so to speak. For them, and for me, and for the listeners as well. Sometimes too, people will ask me to give my honest opinion about a song, and I will. And I think I’ve only had one person who gave out about something I said. But, they did go ahead and change the way they were doing things after that and they improved a lot.”


“And it’s not just because I’m a professional”, Joe continued, “but look, I listen to all of the songs and all the singers. So who better to offer a comment as to whether something is good, bad, or indifferent, than the person who is playing them year-in, and year-out, for the past twenty years. Not all of those with Midlands 103, I started up in Dublin in 2000. So this year I’m actually twenty years in broadcasting. It’s not about insulting anyone, you never want to do that. It’s just about playing the very best of what’s sent it. So yes, there is a lot of preparation involved. Say Michael English brings out a new song, while I’ll play the bones out of that until it’s stuck in peoples’ minds and it’s branded as Michael English’s song, if you know what I mean. So what happens then for Michael, is people will say to him at a gig, oh will you play such and such a song, I heard it on Midlands 103. And that’s why they’ll ask for him to play it, because they’ve heard it. If they don’t hear it, they won’t know that any singer – be they old or new – have a new song out.”

Who, I wondered, is Joe’s own favourite country artist? If he was to do a one or two-hour special on someone, for instance, who would it be? 


“Well now…,that’s a very difficult question to answer! Because I want to be fair to everyone who’s sending me their records. But, I’m a massive fan of Mike Denver, and of Robert Mizzell, and Michael English, too. Derek Ryan, as well, Cliona Hagan, Lisa McHugh. Who would I go to to listen to as a fan? Well all of those artists. And The Back Axles, I’d sit all night and listen to those boys playing! If I was to look at this like making a cake, putting a few different ingredients in, and then making a decision as to who I thought was one of the very best in the country…I would say Mike Denver. Why would I say Mike Denver? Well let’s talk about those ingredients. There’s a lot of things. Mike is very approachable, a friendly guy. He could be away in Spain or somewhere when I play one of his songs, but a bleep will come on my phone, either from Mike or his manager, Willie Carty, to say listen, we heard you played the song there, thanks for the airplay. Now nobody has to do that, nobody. But Mike does. He’s so humble. He’s one of the biggest names in entertainment in this country, and yet, he carries himself like he’s just another ordinary guy. And I absolutely love that about him. So answering your question, it’s by adding all of those little things into the blend that I get Mike as my answer. I mean look, there’s so much competition out there. Michael English is off this planet, he’s brilliant. Robert Mizzell has that real American country voice, brilliant. Derek Ryan, in my opinion, is one of Ireland’s finest songwriters. And so can Michael English, for that matter. But Derek Ryan has album after album of self-penned tracks, and lots of other people are using his songs, too. Daniel O’ Donnell has recorded them, Michael has, Robert has, Mike has, all of these people have recorded songs Derek has written. An amazingly talented young man from Carlow. So I’d go to all of these lads. And Rosie Flanagan, there’s a local girl who is an absolutely superb singer. She had a duet out with Johnny Brady, which was gorgeous. Their voices blended so well together.”

Of the newer, and younger country artists on the scene, who has Joe been impressed by? 


“Eoin Mac, I don’t think anyone else will pass him for his vocal talent. He’s unbelievable. Well there’s lots of local talent around who have been catching my ear. There’s Colin Kenny from Banagher, there’s Alex Roe from Clara, who is starring on Glór Tíre at the moment. And it’s funny with Alex, when I first got his record in, there was one song I really liked so I kept playing it. So I said to him one day, Alex, will you send in more country songs to me, you have a great country music voice. I met him then at a fundraiser over in Banagher recently, one that I was singing at as well. Alex was on before me, and I was blown away by his Kenny Rogers, and his Merle Haggard, and his Willie Nelson songs that he was singing, songs that he hasn’t recorded yet at all. So that young man, in my opinion, he has massive potential. On the female artist side, there’s Olivia Douglas, of course, and Sabrina Fallon. Rosie Flanagan, too. Olivia is absolutely amazing. Herself and Sabrina. But they’re two different singers, but two powerful singers. And well able to get a crowd going, something that’s very important in the business. I was at another fundraiser recently – because I like to do some when I can, to give something back – and I was only meant to sing three or four songs, but they asked for one more. And that’s brilliant for a singer, to be asked to do another song. But what I loved even more was that the floor was full with people out dancing, and singing every word of the song with me. And that meant they must have been listening to the record that I released, my album. That’s the same kind of audience connection that I see with Olivia, that I see with Sabrina, with young Colin Kenny, who is a great little songwriter as well. Colin has written some songs that are very, very powerful. One of them was for Darkeness Into Light, Let’s Step Together, fabulous song.  And John Molloy is another man like that. A very talented guitar player, and a great ballad singer. There’s so many, many more out there that I could name. I love all the new people out there that are coming on board with country music, because they’re making my job easier. New people are refreshing my show all the time. There’s so many extremely passionate and talented young people, and new artists, out there. Not only making my job easier, but making it a pleasure. You have to have something new to play. I’ve never been bored in this job because of the amount of new, up-and-coming Irish talent that has kept coming along over the last twenty years. And of course, as a presenter, it’s also important for me to keep in mind the lads who trail-blazed over the years, like Larry Cunningham, Gene Stuart, Mick Flavin, Shawn Cuddy, Louise Morrissey, Susan McCann, Philomena Begley, people like that from way back in the day, but a lot of whom are still out there doing to this very day. You can’t forget them.” 


“And you know what”, concluded Joe, “I just want to give a mention to my mum, too. She’s eighty-six years of age now, her name is Patricia Cooney, but she’s known as Bernie Cooney. She sang all around the midlands years ago to keep us alive, and that’s exactly where I got my inspiration from to sing. She got the name Bernie – because she wasn’t Bernadette – years and years ago, I remember her telling me this story, when their dresses had to be down around their ankles! But Mammy wore dresses that were at her knee. This is a funny story, but it’s a fact. The dress was down to her knee, but when she’s sit down it would come up above her knee, and she got the name ‘bare-knee’! [laughs]. And that eventually became Bernie!”

~ You can tune into Joe on his show, Country Roads, every night of the week at 8pm on Midlands 103.

ENDS