Hugo Duncan: King Coll paved the way for Tyrone's country superstars
It must be something in the air, but Tyrone appears to have weaned more high-profile country singers than most other counties. I was reminded of this the other day when I appeared in a concert at which every other artist appeared to be from the O'Neill county.
Tyrone can certainly pride itself on its output of talent. Philomena Begley, Brian Coll, Frankie McBride, Dominic Kirwan, Eamonn McCann, Jim Devine, Cliona Hagan and Barry Kirwan are among those who are natives of the county. Let's not forget, either, the late Gene Stuart.
And it was while I was engaged in conversation at the concert that I set about thinking about my great friend, the person whom I regard as the daddy of them all when it comes to putting over a country song.
Long, long before many of today's stars were born, legendary Omagh entertainer Brian Coll was wooing crowds north and south of the border with his distinctive singing voice, his never-ending yarns and his engaging humour.
I can remember Brian and The Plattermen playing in the Palindrome in Strabane in 1967, a short time before he formed the Buckaroos and went on to attain fame.
Yet, as he now looks back on more than 50 years in the entertainment business, Brian remains the same self-effacing, warm-hearted, laid-back person who won his way into the hearts of countless fans.
Brian never lost the common touch. He may have chalked up a string of hit records, played to capacity crowds and helped to pioneer the country music boom that was to grip Ireland, but he always had a word for everyone and never forgot his roots.
His tales of life on the road are hilarious, his quips succinct (to put it mildly). I well recall him telling me that, after a dance in Castlebar in Mayo in the 1970s, three young men approached him and asked for a lift home. Brian, as was his wont, duly obliged.
After they had travelled a certain distance, the front-seat passenger informed Brian that they had reached their destination and doors were opened as they took their leave of the most famous taxi-driver they were ever likely to engage.
But imagine Brian's surprise when he arrived home to Omagh and suddenly discovered one of the lads sleeping soundly in the back seat of his car.
Amid much confusion, the 'visitor' was put to bed, then given his breakfast and the bus-fare home.
On another occasion, a group of singers - myself included - were discussing the issues of the day (Brian was never short of a word... or 2,000) when the-then fragile state of the economy was mentioned in much the same breath as attendances at dances were being discussed.
But Brian had his own take on the latter issue. "Here we are, lads, talking about dances and the country up to its waist in the sheugh," he declared to all and sundry. Cue uproarious laughter.
As he proved in Enniskillen no later than last month, Brian is still in fine voice and has not lost the ability to hold an audience in the palm of his hand.
Certainly, Philomena Begley, Frankie McBride, Gene Stuart, Dominic Kirwan and Jim Devine have carried the flag for Tyrone down through the years, while latterly Cliona Hagan and Barry Kirwan have come to the fore as a new generation of stars begins to gain traction, but, for me, Brian Coll will always occupy a special pedestal.
He was a trailblazer, a fiercely driven performer, who scaled an entertainment peak.
Yet, perhaps his greatest attribute is that, despite the heights he reached, his feet never left the ground.
Jimmy Shand's story brought to life by brilliant Brandon
Brandon McPhee is a wizard on the accordion, a country singer of note and a genuinely nice guy.
So, I could not think of anyone who is better qualified to take the lead role in The Jimmy Shand Story, the musical extravaganza which will be presented in Ulster this weekend.
From a very young age, Scottish musician Brandon seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Sir Jimmy Shand, who sold millions of records during his career.
Brandon, who has just released new album All I Want To Do, has been conquering new horizons in recent times, and his tour this weekend will see him reach out to new audiences.
He recently appeared with Daniel O'Donnell in the Opry le Daniel Young Country Show, which was televised from the Millennium Forum in Derry.
Brandon is understandably excited about his new album, which he has painstakingly complied over a lengthy period.
The album is captivating - particularly its fusion of country and Scottish music - with the numbers having been hand-picked by Brandon.
"This album says everything about me, my life and my future. My whole life has been a stage where I have been able to live and breathe music. I have met many wonderful people along the way to date too," Brandon tells me - and there is certainly no doubting his sincerity.
Crawford Bell is one local musician who has been a long-time admirer of Brandon and he believes he can go on to greater things. Crawford was delighted to write the sleeve notes for the new album and predicts that The Jimmy Shand Story will prove a winner with audiences here.
The show will take place tonight at the Central Hotel in Donegal town, the Tuar Ard Arts Centre in Moate, Co Westmeath, tomorrow night, and the Armagh City Hotel on Sunday.
Lisa's dazzling arrival was a farm favourite
Wasn't that a spectacular entrance that Lisa McHugh made immediately prior to her performance at the Farmers' Bash in Belfast's SSE Arena last Friday?
Descending gracefully through the air from a great height, Lisa not so much grabbed the attention of the many thousands of onlookers below as she held them captivated.
Yet her spectacular arrival on the stage, where she joined her band, was just one of the highlights of a superb country extravaganza.
Lisa's punchy, lively contribution to what was a memorable night's entertainment was complemented by the singing of Philomena Begley, the versatility of Johnny Brady and the stirring vocals of the Hit the Diff man himself, Marty Mone.
Cliona Hagan's career is thought to be about to take a new direction, but this did not stop her belting out some of the numbers which have earned her numerous accolades to date.
And then there was Derek Ryan. The Carlow singer-songwriter is undoubtedly a class act and showed once again what a consummate professional he is by the manner in which he performed his numerous hits and introduced some of his self-penned numbers.
In a comparatively short period of time, Derek has scaled the heights and is now one of the hottest properties in Irish entertainment circles.
He has helped to take country music to a new level through his creativity, innovation and ability to hold an audience transfixed.
Last year, I joined good friends Gerard Dornan and Stevie Hamilton on stage at the Farmers' Bash to let rip with some of the songs with which we have become synonymous.
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience on that occasion, and I would have to say that last Friday night's show provided further evidence that the spectacular event is firmly set to become an annual affair.