Sunday 25 September 2016

Country to Country: How Country and Western will take over Dublin next weekend

All the talk this week has been about Electric Picnic, but next weekend Dublin belongs to Country and Western. Our reporter on the music revolution nobody talks about

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

Blown away: American superstar Carrie Underwood is topping the bill at the Country to Country festival in Dublin next weekend.
Blown away: American superstar Carrie Underwood is topping the bill at the Country to Country festival in Dublin next weekend.
Country fans: Donna Cloke and family.

All eyes were on Electric Picnic this week as the line-up for the annual arts and music pilgrimage was finally revealed.

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As The Chemical Brothers and LCD Soundsystem packed their bags for Stradbally however, and Sunday tickets predictably sold out, other music fans were busy unearthing their stetsons for another three-day festival instead.

Three years since launching here, country music spectacular Country to Country - or C2C for the initiated - is once more set to pack out the 3Arena in Dublin next weekend. Yet within the Pale, most people have never heard of it.

Topping the bill, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Eric Church are just some of the world-famous artists set to help heal the achy breaky hearts of those left devastated by 'Garthgate' two years ago.

After missing out on seeing Garth Brooks at Croke Park over the notorious planning row, Wexford woman Donna Cloke is hoping to be 'Blown Away' by another of her guitar-plucking idols.

"I'm a huge fan of Carrie Underwood," says the mum-of-three, who writes and records country music with her husband. "Myself and Michael are hoping to go see her on the Sunday night, and our kids love country music too.

"Our oldest son Cameron, who's 12, especially loves Garth Brooks, and for years, we promised him that if he ever came here we'd take him - so you can imagine how heartbroken he was when the gigs were cancelled."

Few though were more disappointed than Nathan Carter, Ireland's new king of country who was set to open for the Oklahoma hit-maker before the plug was plugged.

"I was gutted," the 'Wagon Wheel' singer tells Review. "I was more looking forward to the gig than my support.

"But I still think he'll come back some time. He's obviously a genuine fella and will want to please his Irish fans at some stage."

Since hitting the big time with his cover of the Bob Dylan track in 2012, the Liverpudlian, who comes from an Irish family, revealed how his audience here has grown bigger and broader.

"Without a doubt, I've seen the age group change a lot," continues the 25-year-old, whose new album, Staying Up All Night, hits shelves here next month. "When I started out six-and-a-half years ago with the band, it was the maturer age group coming to the gigs. Now a lot of young people are coming out to the gigs.

"The Garth Brooks thing proved how big country was in Ireland," he says. "It's not seen as embarrassing anymore if you go to a country gig or listen to country music."

Growing up in Sligo, line-dancing instructor Gary O'Reilly confesses to keeping his hoedown habit a secret from school pals. Today he's proud to be a country bumpkin.

"When I was about six, my mother brought me to a line-dancing class, and that was it," says the 27-year-old, who graces the cover of this month's Linedancer digital magazine. "I never stopped.

"In school, I always thought if anybody ever found out that I line danced I'd die. It is probably seen as a culchie thing - the ones from the country going round with their cowboy hats.

"Country music doesn't have to mean you're dressing up as a cowboy. For me, I just prefer country music. I think there's more to it than pop music, which is just kind of all recycled."

Giving new meaning to country blues, the music fan was "raging" to discover he'd miss Carrie Underwood in Dublin next weekend.

The country spectacular clashes with the European Line Dance Championships taking place at Jackson's Hotel in Ballybofey in Donegal.

"I'm absolutely raging I'm not going to see Carrie Underwood," adds Glenn native Gary, who attended Country to Country last year. "Really something that I love has taken me away from something else that I love.

"Her new album is just great. If I could have, I'd have been the first one there."

But C2C isn't the only event keeping it country in the capital. Right now, Ticketmaster Ireland has almost 100 upcoming country or folk gigs listed on its website, among them Dierks Bentley, who plays the Olympia Theatre in Dublin next month, and Dixie Chicks, who are sure to once more pack out the 3Arena in May.

Meanwhile, country legend Hank ­Williams is set to be resurrected by Tom Hiddleston in biopic I Saw the Light, which hits big screens nationwide later this month.

After playing a string of sold-out gigs in the Big Smoke last year, Nathan Carter insists country music is no longer just for country dwellers: "I think there was a slightly rural-urban divide [in country music in the past], but I think that's been addressed now, especially with the likes of RTÉ doing a country music special.

"I've noticed it changing a lot in Dublin in the last year and I think TV and radio are helping towards that. The more country is on the TV, the more it's accepted."

Winning around 740,000 viewers, or more than half the audience share, the Late Late Show country special certainly earned its spurs when it aired last October.

Featuring a performance by the young crooner, as well as country icons Daniel O'Donnell and Big Tom, the programme was overtaken only by the annual Toy Show the following month, and even caused listeners to Shannonside Northern Sound to crash the radio station's system when it ran a competition for two tickets.

Long-running TG4 talent hunt Glór Tíre, documentary series At Home with Country Music on TV3 and RTÉ's Stetsons and Stilettos, showing the country-themed wedding of Crystal Swing's Dervla Burke, are just some of the other shows which have struck a chord with city slickers and culchies alike.

Despite immortalising everything from alcoholism to cheating spouses in song down through the years, Abbey Hotel boss Paul Ryan said it's the family-friendliness of the genre that's generating serious cash. The Donegal venue hosts regular country music weekends, with all-inclusive packages starting from €199.

"When we started doing our country music weekends six years ago, we were doing three or four a year," he explains.

"Now we have one a month. People come from all over Ireland, England and Scotland to see acts like Derek Ryan and Mike Denver.

"At a Nathan Carter weekend recently, there was even someone from Holland.

"On one of those Sunday afternoons, you could come into the hotel and see 1,000 people dancing," continues the country music lover. "There's young, there's old, there's middle-aged, there's everything.

"It's kind of a family occasion and it's actually lovely to watch."

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