Rock me Mama - three gifted young Irish women making country cool again
Irish country music is revelling in a surprise (and super stylish) revival. Forget Nathan Carter - our reporter meets three of the gifted young women making country cool again.
'Renaissance' is perhaps too strong a word, especially considering that it never really went away - but there is something big happening on the Irish country music scene. Over the past five years in particular, the genre that was once seen as naff - the sole preserve of the token 'mammies and daddies set' at weddings, and whose biggest icons were Daniel O'Donnell, Big Tom and Foster & Allen - has undergone a rebranding of sorts.
Blame Wagon Wheel if you must, yet while the über-charming poster boy of Irish country, Nathan Carter, and his ilk have certainly brought the genre to a new, younger audience - with an appetite for jiving and an aversion to stetsons and bootcut jeans - there are plenty of women doing their bit too.
The likes of Philomena Begley and Margo O'Donnell may have laid the groundwork back in the day, but now it's time to hand over the reins. It would be remiss to disregard the impact that the new female stars of Irish country are having on its revival so, with that in mind, we spoke to three of Irish country music's rising stars ahead of their appearance at the Harvest Music Festival later this month, to find out what makes them tick, where their place is on the scene and what's next for both them and Irish country music.
The Harvest Music Festival will be held at Westport House, Co Mayo, and Enniskillen Airport, Co Fermanagh, on August 26 and 27. See harvestcountrymusicfestival.com
Donna (31) from Omagh, Co Tyrone, has released two albums to date but found mammoth success last year when her cover of American country musician Jenn Bostic's song Jealous of the Angels went viral on Facebook. To date, it's racked up an incredible 97 million views.
To say that Donna Taggart's life was slightly different this time last year would be to understate the case just a smidge. Last summer, she was on maternity leave and preparing to return to work in the health service after giving birth to her second child, Matthew. Then she took the advice of her ever-encouraging husband, Colm, and uploaded the video of her cover of Jealous of the Angels to her Facebook page. Within days, it was clear that something big was happening with the song that has helped many process their grief after losing a loved one.
"When it first went viral, there was 20 million hits within a week - that shows you how crazy it was," she recalls, smiling. "The emails and messages were constanty pouring in. Shock was the initial feeling, but now that things have settled, I'm able to take on board the magnitude of what happened, and we've certainly built on it. Videos go viral all the time - but I suppose it's what you do with the wind when it's in your sails that really counts."
Taggart had long loved singing, and particularly country music, but it had always been a part-time endeavour. "Being from Tyrone and up north, country music is very popular," she explains. "I would have been very much into Mary Black, Maura O'Connell... but also [American] country artists like Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, all of those wonderful female singers. I loved bands like The Corrs, too - but because country music, and Irish music and folk music were always played at home, that was embedded in me from a young age."
She agrees that it feels like there's been a shift in how the genre is perceived. "I suppose it feels much 'cooler' now," she nods. "Also, the talent that's in the country at the minute speaks for itself. I suppose things go in and out of fashion all the time, and it feels like country is fashionable at the minute - but at the same time, I don't think it ever really went away. Maybe it just wasn't in the media as much."
With the third installment of her Celtic Lady series already in the works and a UK tour on the horizon, 2018 is shaping up to be another crazy year. The majority of the comments, messages and stories she receives these days are from American fans and a trip Stateside is inevitable, she says - including a planned stop-off in Nashville, the home of country music.
"Everything that I've done in the last year has sort of exceeded what I ever thought I would do, so it's about building on that," she smiles. "Every door that opens, I'm just going: 'My God, this is brilliant!' The demand and the market is certainly in the States and in Canada, so to go over there and perform to all of the people who are continuing to message me would be the dream.
"I've never really craved the spotlight, the press, all of that - but now that it's come, I feel that what I've done with music has great purpose behind it. And with that comes great fulfilment."
Niamh (38) is from Dublin but based in Cavan. She has been described as "Irish country's answer to Imelda May", thanks to her distinct style and her penchant for putting her own spin on a classic country sound - best heard on her debut album, An Old-Fashioned Song, which was released last November.
It often takes time for a person to uncover their true calling in life. Niamh Lynn had been through various incarnations, from her early days with the Dublin Gospel Choir, through her time as a teenager singing for residents in old people's homes and even fronting a wedding band. But one thing was for sure: she was always going to be a singer.
After spending four years in her early 20s in a wedding band, real life - going back to college, getting married, having kids, building a house - got in the way of her music. "Then Wagon Wheel came out and I was down in our local in Mullagh [Co Cavan]," she explains. "They were like lunatics, dancing on the bar to it - it was unbelievable."
A few weeks later, a musical acquaintance encouraged her to get back into singing, and specifically country music. "I've always been told I have a country voice but, living down in Dublin, it was not 'cool' to be singing country songs," she says. "But me and my best friend used to sit in my room at 14, 15 years of age and listen to Patsy Cline - although we didn't tell anyone," she laughs. "I was just always comfortable singing her songs."
Trial runs of Lynn's country set in Cavan led to her partnership with LCM Promotions, who advised her to "get a good song, a video, and to record it properly for radio. And they said: 'You need to get an image,'" she says. "I thought, 'All right,' so I went off and that's exactly what I did." Her debut song and video - a cover of Billie Jo Spears' 1976 hit Sing Me an Old-Fashioned Song, complete with her impressively retro-glam style - proved a hit, as did the subsequent album, which Lynn says is best thought of as "an introduction". "I've written loads of original songs, but I've never had the confidence to go in and record them, so I'm in the middle of that now, and looking forward to getting it finished."
Although attention is focused on the Nathan Carters and Derek Ryans of the genre, the tables are turning for Irish female singers on the country scene too, she believes. "I think that no matter what industry a woman goes into, it's always going to be harder - that's the reality of it," she shrugs. "You just have to work, you have to push and you have to fight. And not everyone is singing the old songs anymore; they're doing their own thing. But I thought there was a niche for something different: this is what I like and what reflects me."
As far as ambitions go, Lynn plans a trip to Nashville, but when the time is right. "I don't want to go over empty-handed - I want to have my songs down properly; I want them recorded properly," she says. "I'm getting a lot of feedback from America, and people appreciate that I do the old Nashville songs, not the new rocky stuff. So I want to be ready for them, and when the time is right.
"What I would love to do is sing in the Grand Ole Opry. I suppose everybody would - but to stand on the same stage as Patsy Cline and all the greats... even just to get a photograph taken," she sighs. "Just to get there would be amazing."
Megan (27) is from Kildare but now lives in London. She has released one solo EP and one album with her band, The Common Threads, and has already played for Hollywood royalty at the annual Oscar Wilde Party in Los Angeles.
When Megan O'Neill first started travelling to Nashville to write and play with local bands and artists, they had a name for her. "I kind of got known around town as 'The Irish Girl'," the Ballymore Eustace native recalls, laughing.
"I've worked with loads of great people over there and I love going over; it's like my second home now. They think I'm 'full of soul' is what I keep getting told. I'm not sure what that means - but it sounds like a compliment, so I'll go with it."
Although O'Neill grew up in a musical household and was involved in musical theatre as a child and teenager, she went on to study psychology at UCD. While there, she "ended up getting a scholarship with the UCD Choral Scholars, which meant that I spent most of my time singing while I was studying, anyway", she laughs. "So by the time I graduated, I knew. I was like: 'I have to give this a go for a while.'"
Although US artists like Patsy Cline, Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks were a staple of her childhood - alongside Irish artists like Mary and Frances Black, both of whom she cites as major influences - it took time for her to find her way into country. A temporary move to Nashville after graduating set her on that path. "Moving to Nashville gave me a whole worldview of songwriting - and not just songwriting for country," she says. "Then I moved to London two years later, and I've seen the country scene in the UK go from being nothing to being one of the most popular genres right now. I think that's leaking into the Irish scene massively and I think that it will continue to do that."
She's already caught the ear of some high-flying Hollywood types, too: in 2015, she performed at the Oscar Wilde Awards - the annual pre-Oscars party held in Los Angeles and hosted by director J.J. Abrams - while a song of hers narrowly missed out on being included in the soundtrack of a big Disney movie last year. "It was just absolutely mind-blowing," she recalls. "We were in LA for a week and we had showcases with Disney and Warner and loads of different people. I was walking around in a dream, non-stop. That was a big highlight - shaking hands with loads of very successful people and them really enjoying the music."
There's more music to come, too. Although she released her solo EP in 2015 - and followed it with an album with her band, Megan O'Neill and The Common Threads, last February - next on the list is a full-length solo album, which she's flying out to Nashville to record immediately after the Harvest festival. "There is a place for the 'Irish girl'," she says resolutely, with an emphasis on both words.
"If you look at the American country music genre at the moment, it's all male - there are no females in the Top 10," she says, shrugging. "But in the UK, it's all females who are doing way better than the men; we're all getting the top spots, the radio plays, everything.
"I think it ebbs and flows in that way, and I think in Ireland, because there's been a really good influx of female artists, the tables will even out."
Photography: Fran Veale
Hair: Aidan Darcy, Brown Sugar Make-up: Lyndsey Mullen, Brown Sugar, South William Street, Dublin 2, (01) 616 9967, brownsugar.ie
Location: Garage Bar, Essex Street East, Dublin 2, (01) 679 6543, garagebar.ie
With thanks to: Microphone provided by Like A Version. For gigs and bookings, see likeaversionmusic.com