Northern Ireland writer Emma Heatherington: My life on the road with country music star Nathan Carter
NI writer Emma Heatherington, who was thrilled when she landed the gig of ghostwriter for the star’s forthcoming biography, reveals what he’s really like away from the spotlight
I sometimes imagine that somewhere in a parallel universe I'm living my dream as a hit songwriter in Nashville where I pen chart-topping songs on my guitar, strumming along to honky tonk music, wearing my Stetson ... anyhow, you get the picture.
With such country music ambitions, it's no surprise that when it came to going on tour with the sensation that is Nathan Carter, I was in my glory to say the least.
I'd recently been appointed as Nathan's ghostwriter for his forthcoming autobiography, Born For The Road, which will be published by Penguin Ireland this autumn and my mission was to get a behind the scenes look at what life was like on the road during a four-date weekend of his UK tour which would see me shadow the man himself around towns and cities in England and Wales.
I set off early leaving my partner in charge of the children for the weekend and I arrived in Liverpool airport around 10am on the first Thursday morning in February where I was met by a smiling lady who was literally turning in circles so that whoever it was she was waiting for would know exactly who she was.
"Nan?" I said, reading 'Nathan Carter' from the back of her jacket and I was greeted with open arms and a giggle.
"You know, I'd walked from here to the door over there with someone else who said hello to me just a few minutes ago," she laughed. "It was only when we were about to go outside that she told me she wasn't the writer lady I was waiting for."
Nan, whose real name is Ann McCoy, is almost as recognisable as her grandson these days, so it's no wonder she'd been greeted by a fan who she'd mistaken for me. As well as running his merchandise stall at his gigs (which believe me, is a work of art in itself) Ann is Nathan's Irish connection that everyone wonders about.
She is the one whose family were brought up in Warrenpoint, Co Down, and whose love of Irish and country music played in the ears of young Nathan ever since he was old enough to form a tune and hold an accordion, which he did at the tender age of four.
She's the one who accompanied him, along with his parents Noreen and Ian, to Fleadh Cheoil competitions in Ireland when he made it through the British heats and when he won an All-Ireland title for singing aged 14, and she's the one who drove him round England to pub gigs, selling his CDs when he wasn't old enough to drive a car, never mind order a pint.
We'd a busy morning ahead in that we had to drive to Telford where we'd meet up with Nathan, his band, his crew and his tour bus at the Oakengates Theatre, but first we had to stop off at Nan's new flat where I had the pleasure of meeting her husband John, Nathan's delightful 84-year-old grandad, who I'd already heard so much about. John gave me a hearty welcome, made me a cuppa and while Nan sorted out boxes and boxes (and boxes) of merchandise that somehow had to make the journey with us, he and I talked books. He also showed me his extensive collection of press clippings of Nathan's extensive career which to a writer like me, were like a treasure trove of precious jewels.
All around the walls of Nan and John's flat were photos of their grandchildren, but it wasn't hard to see whose photos slightly outnumbered the others!
"They don't call him the golden child for nothing," laughed John as he gave me a who's who guided tour, but to be fair he did beam about each of his eight grandchildren equally.
An hour or so later Nan and I arrived at the stage door area of the theatre in Telford where we were greeted by the famous black and gold 42ft truck which has Nathan Carter's distinctive slogan emblazoned on the side and alongside it was a much less imposing white double decker tour bus which was to be my home for the next four nights along with Nathan, his six-piece band and five-man crew - and Nan of course. Intimidating much? Not for long when Nathan's around.
Nathan Carter oozes friendly charm and a down-to-earth personality that makes you feel like you've known him forever. He's very funny, very chatty and is full of energy and his easygoing ways made me feel instantly at ease. He introduced me to Barney, his tour manager, and pointed out a few crew members who were off loading the giant truck which carries all their sound and lighting equipment, musical instruments including a grand piano, and staging units plus a backdrop that makes up the tour's impressive set.
"I'll take your bags and show you around," Nathan said to me and after a quick glance around the first floor of the bus which has some booth like seats with tables (a bit like a train), a small kitchen type area with a microwave, fridge and sink, and a toilet which I later was told by a crew member was for 'number ones only'!
The top floor of the tour bus is lined on both sides with bunk beds and Nathan led me up to the front and pointed out my bottom bunk, laughing at the horror on my face when I saw how claustrophobic it was at first glance.
"I'll get used to it," I told him with a shudder and we set off to the local shop where we stocked up with snacks and goodies for the weekend ahead. I watched in awe as the band sound-checked at 5pm and after grabbing a quick bite to eat with Nathan, Barney and drummer Gareth, it was time for Nathan to get ready to go on stage and perform for the 800-strong audience who were already arriving to see him.
Out on the merchandise stall, Nan and her friend Carol were taking orders for T-shirts, mugs, CDs, calendars - even pillowcases - and the crowds were going mad for them. Then, when the lights went down and the audience were seated, I slipped in to watch the show and I couldn't help but get butterflies when I saw it all come to life in front of me, the atmosphere building and the crowd singing along with hits such as Goodtime Girls, Temple Bar and Wagon Wheel, but then falling to an awe of silence before jumping to their feet in appreciation when he got to the end of The Town I Loved So Well. It was truly a 'goose-bumps experience' and one of my most memorable moments from his varied set list.
Nathan and I share a very similar sense of humour, so we had some real belly laughs over the weekend - some of which are in the book - but the main thing I discovered was just how impressive his voice is when he is on stage. It's effortless, it's mind-blowing and in my opinion, it's the real reason why he is where he is today. He is so much more than his most well-known hit Wagon Wheel, the song that many claim to be his 'big breakout'. He is a super talented musician who can lift the roof of a venue one minute, then bring it down so that you could hear a pin drop in the audience the next, alternating between piano and accordion without breaking a sweat.
After the show, while the audience were still getting their breath back, Nathan came out front where he met every single person who queued up for a quick chat and a selfie, then it was back to the tour bus where we played cards, relaxed and had the best of craic, eventually sleeping in our bunks while our driver took us through the night to our next destination. I really enjoyed every minute of the weekend, even when Nathan accidentally left his phone on repeat during the night and fell asleep with a Mary Black song on for six hours in his bunk just across from me. If I ever hear the song No Frontiers again ... I reckon if I can survive that, then maybe I was born for the road too.
A lot of people have asked how someone so young can pen a life story already but I could easily write three books about Nathan Carter, such is his wealth of knowledge and achievements to date in his first, almost 28 years. He's extremely hard working, focused, so much fun and an absolute pleasure to be around and his life story is touching, raw and honest.
As his UK tour continues, he also has squeezed in a 10-day Caribbean cruise with Englebert Humperdinck, a few days recording in Nashville, a weekend in Blackpool, St Patrick's Night at the London Palladium and all that time he's been preparing for the two biggest gigs of the year which take place at Dublin's 3 Arena on March 23 and Belfast's SSE Arena on March 24 where he'll be joined by his top-class band and support acts including his super talented brother Jake and Hayseed Dixie.
I'll be there at the SSE for sure, singing my heart out and who knows, I might even dig out my old Stetson for the occasion. Maybe I'll see you there?
Limited tickets are still available for the SSE Arena on Saturday, March 24, from ticketmaster.co.uk
Born For the Road - My Story So Far by Nathan Carter (with Emma Heatherington) is now available to pre-order. Win two tickets to the SSE/3Arena gigs when you pre-order a signed copy from easons.com