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.”
“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.