Meet two of the Northern Ireland girls who are now making country music cool
Irish country music is revelling in a surprising and stylish revival. Ahead of the Harvest Music Festival in Enniskillen, Lauren Murphy meets Donna Taggart and Niamh Lynn, two women helping the once-mocked genre to appeal to younger, hipper audiences
Renaissance is perhaps too strong a word, considering it never really went away - but there is something big happening on the Irish country music scene. In five years the genre that was once seen as naff - the sole preserve of the '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 - the massive Bob Dylan hit for the uber-charming poster boy of Irish country, Nathan Carter - and his ilk. But while they 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 a generation ago, but don't dismiss the impact that the new female stars of Irish country are having on its revival.
Donna Taggart (31) from Omagh, Co Tyrone, has released two albums but found mammoth success last year when her cover of US country star Jenn Bostic's song Jealous Of The Angels went viral on Facebook. To date, it's racked up an incredible 97 m views.
To say that her 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.
Taking the advice of her encouraging husband, Colm, she uploaded her cover of Jealous Of the Angels to her Facebook page. It was clear that something big was happening with the song that has helped many process their grief after loss.
"When it first went viral, there was like, 20 million hits within a week - that shows you how crazy it was," she recalls, smiling.
"The emails and messages were constantly pouring in. Shock was the initial feeling, but now that things have settled, you're able to take on board the magnitude of events, 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, 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 those wonderful female singers. I loved bands like The Corrs, too - but 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 perception. "I suppose it feels much 'cooler' now," she nods.
"Also, the talent that's in 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 instalment 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 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 market is certainly in the States and in Canada, so to go over there and perform to all of the people 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."
Cavan-based Dubliner Niamh Lynn (38) has been called 'Irish country's answer to Imelda May', thanks to her distinct style and penchant for putting her own spin on music - best heard on last year's debut CD, An Old-Fashioned Song.
She has been through various incarnations as a singer, from her early days with the Dublin Gospel Choir, entertaining residents in old people's homes and even fronting a wedding band. But 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.
"Then Wagon Wheel came out and I was down in our local in Mullagh in 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 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. They said, 'You need an image. I thought, 'All right,' so I went off and that's exactly what I did."
Her debut video - a cover of Billie Jo Spears' 1976 hit Sing Me an Old-Fashioned Song, complete with retro-glam style - proved a hit, as did the subsequent CD. "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 finishing it."
Lynn plans a trip to Nashville when the time is right. "I'd love to 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."
- The Harvest Music Festival, Enniskillen Airport, Co Fermanagh and Westport House, Co Mayo on August 26 and 27. See harvestcountrymusicfestival.com