Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Why it's time for the begrudgers to leave Daniel O'Donnell alone

Daniel O'Donnell

Not Elvis. Not the Beatles. Not the Rolling Stones. Not Madonna. No, but our own humble Daniel O'Donnell. The Donegal man has made chart history by becoming the first singer to have a different album featured in the UK Top 40 each year for the last 25 years.

Which, no matter how you cut it, is a pretty impressive feat from a figure many regard as an embarrassing national joke.

(BTW, fact fans, Daniel's had 33 hit albums during the last quarter of a century with his latest, Songs From The Movies and More, entering the charts at an impressive number seven. Add on 19 hit singles and you're talking about an extraordinary career.)

Who on earth is buying this? Undoubtedly he sells well in the Republic (Daniel being one of the few things that unites this island), but those sales won't count in the UK chart. So, surprisingly we're looking at a hefty number of units sold in England - ex-pats? - as well as a big uptake here. In other words, your mum, granny, auntie and uncle (admittedly probably for your auntie). And who knows? Your friend? Your sister?

Yet despite such astonishing commercial success, Daniel is the voice of unfashionable Ireland, north and south. Small wonder, then, news of his achievement amounted to little more than a press release and a quote from the Kincasslagh man as opposed to a media frenzy. No huge features in the newspapers. No celebratory documentaries. No retrospectives.

Because Daniel's face just doesn't fit. He's a reminder of a stubbornly untrendy place that BTs 7 & 9 and Dublin 4 would rather forget about, or sneer at. In a world where any old dross can reap critical plaudits as long as its badgering us, lecturing us, is "edgy" or "controversial", Daniel is just too ... ordinary.

A "lovely fella" straight out of Fr Ted central casting, he's an old Ireland parody. Handsome but not too handsome, a pleasant voice but not a great one. He can sing across a variety of genres, yet is no Frank Sinatra when it comes to interpreting and owning a song (can you think of a signature Daniel O'Donnell song?). All in all, he is "too middle of the road". He is "just a singer".

It's sad, though, that Daniel's success is barely accorded any respect here. On the contrary, at best he gets a kind of post-modernist derision. Why? Because he recalls an Ireland that is supposed to be dead and buried. He summons up memories of Ireland's Own, daffodil teas, Tidy Towns, traybakes, never giving cheek back to the priest and of the need to be comforting and "nice".

Even worse, O'Donnell's basic metier is an MOR Country 'n' Irish. No stetson - just a nice suit and tie as if going to church. It's a far cry from Bono whinging on about global poverty or Van getting in touch with oneness. Nope, nothing special here...

Judging by the sell-out concerts on both sides of the border, many people like this stuff, yet how come we never see it on TV these days? It's been largely banished to the satellite station Showcase.

Where is Make Mine Country (with George Hamilton IV)? Even Uncle Hugo rarely makes it onto TV these days, with our caviariosi treating his hugely popular radio show like an Ulster Folk Museum exhibit - "This is how they lived in the old days, folks ..."

Maybe it's just me, but I miss Boxcar Willie, Philomena Begley et al. The first records I fell in love with were my dad's Big Tom and the Mainliners LPs.

Singing songs about heartbreak and hard times on the North Antrim prairie may be embarrassing, but it says something about the people we are. Sentimental, deeply imbued with traditional values, family-orientated (how many songs about mothers mending and making do and fathers who died before the crops came in?) and happy to listen to a foottappin' tune rather than some rock juggernaut. Everyone knows a Queen of the Silver Dollar, a man who has had a wheel come off the wagon.

Isn't there something profoundly rock 'n' roll about Daniel and all that he represents. After all, he's taking an American genre and making it his own, defying the self-appointed arbitrators of taste and not giving a hoot what anybody else thinks.

The more I think about it, the more of this I'm sure, to quote Merle Haggard: "I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee, A place where even squares can have a ball..."

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