Why we just won't admit we're crazy for country music
Malachi O’Doherty on the secret passion behind those oh-so cheesy lyrics
Hugo Duncan deserves a place in local broadcasting history for the miracle he performed. He was brought in by Radio Ulster to redeem a slot in the schedule that was perpetually weak.
Just after lunch was a kind of on-air desert. Talkback ended at 1.30 and people turned off. The BBC had tried Mary Johnston, Rose Neill and other popular broadcasters in that hour but there was a fixed small available audience and that was that.
Then in came Hugo and he not only lifted the audience on Radio Ulster with his chirpy ways and country music, he lifted the audiences for other stations as the traditional post-lunch audience fled, appalled.
Which would seem to confirm the theory that the world is divided into two camps on country music, those who love it and those who hate it.
There is another theory, that everybody loves country music, that the person who truly in the heart detests those predictable rhythms and and their rustic moralising hasn't yet been born.
It might embarrass us that we like it because we are more sophisticated and we can see through the emotional tug to the triteness of the language and the melodic devices, but hey, something still communicates to the educated emotions.
I go along with that to an extent. Willie Nelson singing Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground is my kind of country, or The Eagles' Desperado.
This is music of a nostalgia for an idea of manhood, and that is one of the themes that pervades country music, a genre that is essentially moralistic and homespun.
Even the solitary cowboy on the range, suffering for the need to answer his heart's call is an advertisement for a warm fire and an attentive wife, by virtue of his not having them.
Just listen to the stuff Hugo plays, and the messages over and over again are about home, and fine young women and ‘living and dying with the choices I made'. They are about respect and tradition, mother and God.
Rock can do rage and sleaze; Country does nostalgia and core values, and nostalgia for core values. And those aren't the values of diversity or even something as American as the entrepreneurial spirit.
They are the traditional white Christian ones.
Even when prostitution is a theme, as in The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp, the point is that a good woman was driven to do what she had to do and the boy turned out well.
Having a tramp for a mother isn't an excuse here for having turned out a drug addict or a car thief.
Country is about how good folks are good at heart and stay that way.
I have encountered some of this music in parody. I used to love the New Riders of the Purple Sage singing Working Man's Woman. ‘She's strong through the hard times and soft through the night ... I thank God she's mine'. But I always thought it was a joke and I hummed along in that spirit.
Even Desperado, which can still bring a tear to my eye, hovers on the very precipice of a cloying sentimentality. Country music that isn't wonderful is, to my ear, unbearable.
Okay, 90% of it is rubbish but then there is another little theory to be accommodated here: 90% of everything is rubbish. Not every rocker is Springsteen and not every country gal can be Dolly.
Ralph McLean plays the kind of Country I can listen to but all those lonesome whistles and trains through the night suggest to me a world that I can fantasise my way into but have never really known.
I grew up like most of Ralph and Hugo's listeners on an east Atlantic island, where no train ever travelled more than two hundred miles, no one ever rode boxcars and where the wide open prairie stretches to the garden wall until you stop dreaming cowboy dreams and get out there and mow it.
Yet this is our music. Passing ethnographers who think that they will find the authentic sound of Pomeroy or Castlederg in the reels and jigs of Irish traditional or in the wail of the pipes are looking in the wrong place.
There is a music that this country inherited and which Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann would like us to cherish as our spiritual legacy and it is beautiful but what the people are listening to is Country.
Why do they like it so much?
Well some will say it really is our indigenous music. One account says that Irish migrants brought the songs and rhythms and instruments out to the Apallachians and it has all just come back home. It's not so simple.
Country is hybrid and has touches of the blues and other migrant strains than the Irish in it.
But perhaps one of the reasons we really like it, the unbearable secret, is that it is not our own, for what really belongs here is always divisive.
I know a Protestant from the Shankill who used to play Irish folk in bars on the Falls Road before the Troubles and converted to Bluegrass just to stay in business without causing offence when he had to retreat back behind the peace line.
Country music carries with it a sense of identity of its own. And where would that be more eagerly relished than in a place where identity is always a problem.
Just as rockers dress in leathers and chains, Country music lovers have a whole cultural package with their music, expressed in attire and posture. It is a way of being what you are not, a cowboy or cowgirl.
The music provides not an access to the life we know and come out of but an escape from it, and some take refuge in a deeper fantasy that their roots are in a world described by that music.
But their homegrown cultural and moral perspective is affirmed by Country and finds resonance in it.
The music has more than our returned rhythms, it celebrates the nuclear family and enduring love, it endorses church and Jesus without laying the precise theology on too thickly.
Which means there's no harm in it though it can never describe the modern world in the way that Rock can.
Nor does it try to. What it replicates most of all is the ceili, the tradition of tapping our feet together. And it only works, providesthat sense of togetherness, when there is a host.
Would anyone listen to those songs Hugo Duncan plays if they were played one after the other without comment?
Surely it is ultimately only the injection of personality by the presenter that makes them more than bearable and actually enjoyable.
The community the songs celebrate has to be actually created and can be through the unique miracle of radio as a medium which gives listeners the illusion of being personally connected to the presenter in a way they can't be through television.
So he plays your requests and involves you; even when a presenter like Gerry Anderson is mociing the listener and sneering at some of the music — or you're not sure whether he is or not — he carries it off with a genuine personability that no broadcaster alive could replicate in front of a camera.
Which is the best excuse for Country I can come up with, that it is often not the music that matters but the moment.
But who'd have thought that the moment so many would most want to ceili would be just after lunch, and with Hugo?
Rhinestones and cowboys... the stars of the country scene
Who is he? ‘Big’ Trevor Campbell, Downtown Radio DJ.
Backtrack: Divorce, alcoholism, court case (accused and acquitted of assaulting a girlfriend), death of wife Linda Jayne.
In his own words: On the bad times, now behind him: “I always say there’s a country song for every occasion and it’s When the Whiskey Ain’t Working — it won’t cure you any more.”
Who? Radio Foyle DJ and country & Western singer.
Backtrack: Alcoholism, meeting his father for the first time drunk, for the second time on an Alzheimer’s ward.Revealed to have recorded song glorifying IRA man, but later |apologised, saying he’d had little work back then.
In his own words: “If I had any questions to ask (my father) at all I wouldn’t really ask him, I would be asking my mother Susie because she was my soulmate. She was there when I needed a father, she was there when I needed a mother, a brother, aunt or uncle, she was there for the whole lot.”
Who? BBC Radio Foyle |presenter of the Wee Show.
In his own words: “I’m Radio Foyle's only Aston Villa |supporter and I would eat fish and chips every day of the week if I wasn't always out playing golf or snooker, or indeed listening to Dean Martin, Dwight Yoakam, Frank Sinatra or Dusty Springfield.”
Who? Radio Ulster DJ, member of various showbands including (as a teenager) the Monarchs alongside his friend Van Morrison, later formed Clubsound.
Backtrack: Was dropped from his Radio Ulster show in 2006, then worked for U105, took legal action against Gerry Anderson over defamatory remarks in 2007 and settled out of court.
In his own words: When he left his weekday slot at U105 last month: “I don’t want to use the term retirement,” he insisted. “It’s more a case of my changing of lifestyle as such — if one can do that at my age.” Still on the road...
Who? He’s the housewives’ favourite from Donegal.
Top songs: I Just Want To |Dance With You (first UK hit in 1992, led to first appearance on Top of the Pops), The Love in Your Eyes, Secret Love (with Mary Duff), You Raise Me Up, Mother’s Birthday Song (2008- Ireland only) and Tipperary Girl.
Who? The Queen of Country Music from Pomeroy, Co Tyrone. As a fan Daniel O’Donnell said: “When Philomena sings a song, you believe her.”
Top songs: Have You Ever Been So Lonely, Hillbilly Girl with the Blues, I’m So Afraid of Losing You, Blanket on the Ground.
‘Big Tom’ McBride
Who? Singer with top showband The Mainliners from Co |Monaghan.
Top songs: Gentle Mother (no 7 in the Irish charts), Old Log Cabin for Sale, Broken Marriage Vows, I Love You Still, Four Country Roads, Jealous Heart.