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Hugo Duncan: Big-hearted Derek Ryan doing his bit for the Air Ambulance

By Hugo Duncan

The world of country music is not all about packed stadia and theatres. It may be a prime form of entertainment in the United States, in particular, where superstars such as Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill and Taylor Swift hold sway, yet in many countries it basks in a more modest glow.

Ireland just happens to be one of those countries - and it is probably the perfect example of how country music and dancing can transcend class and creed.

Our local followers, weaned as they are on home-produced talent that consistently tends to scale new heights, have come to appreciate the calibre of acts which have sprung to the fore over the course of the past decade in particular.

And those artistes, in turn, are showing an even greater willingness right now to bring their undoubted musical skills to folk at grassroots level who might not otherwise get the opportunity to admire their performances.

This was vividly illustrated to me just this week.

Last Saturday night, Derek Ryan and his band performed to a huge crowd at the famous matchmaking festival in Lisdoonvarna in Co Clare.

It's the ultimate boy-meets-girl scenario, a traditional rendezvous for those who might be interested in finding a partner or making new friends.

The fact that people travel from all over the country - and, indeed, from other lands - to be there testifies to the popularity of the event, which seems to have been running from time immemorial.

The rapturous reception that Derek and his band received from an ecstatic crowd that apparently wanted the music to go on for ever, left them overwhelmed.

The greatest difficulty that Derek endured was actually getting stopped - the clamour for the music was incessant and the atmosphere electric from the word go.

Yet, while Derek was happy to lap up the plaudits in what was undoubtedly the highlight of the prestigious festival, he is also known to be equally content to unveil his considerable talents in a much more modest environment.

He will offer ample proof of this when he brings his highly acclaimed solo Songwriter Session Unplugged show to Killylea Church Hall in Co Armagh on Wednesday, October 17.

In one sense, it will be a world away from the raucous, high-octane backdrop that highlighted his Lisdoonvarna show, yet it will nonetheless be nothing more than a different outlet for Derek's talents, particularly his songwriting ability.

He is certain to feature numbers that he has written himself - songs, indeed, which he enjoys performing against a rather more muted backdrop.

Just like many of his contemporaries, he relishes the chance to occasionally unspool his talent in an intimate atmosphere, where limited amplification allows the audience to absorb and enjoy the music more easily.

His soothing melodies may be in sharp contrast to the throbbing beat that mesmerised Lisdoonvarna, yet they will be appreciated by all who attend.

The fact that the show will help to support the Air Ambulance Northern Ireland fund will make the night that little bit more rewarding in every sense.

The cream of our country talent has long since basked in a well-earned reputation for putting their collective shoulder to the wheel when a worthy cause is mooted.

Derek Ryan is primed to lend further proof to the theory that if you want something done well, ask a busy man.

The good people of Killylea and the Air Ambulance personnel will know what I mean.

Old hands won't be throwing in the towel anytime soon

Warren Smyth, Billy McFarland and Norman Borland constitute a trio of country music exponents who have provided much quality material in the past and will doubtless continue to do so in the future.

They were on my Radio Ulster show on Wednesday and certainly proved that they have not lost their ability to communicate with and entertain an audience.

They are all kept busy in their respective fields, and tomorrow night, Warren, who hails from Banbridge, is hosting a free community gospel concert in Dromore High School (7.30pm), where he will be joined by Kathryn Mitchell, William Sayers, Kate Weir and Lauren Moffett.

Also providing entertainment will be Cornerstone, as well as the James Strange Band.

It promises to be an enjoyable and uplifting occasion, with Warren giving the lead in terms of providing fine music.

Meanwhile, the ageless Billy McFarland is still showing the same enthusiasm for country music as he was when I first met him - and I won't say how long ago that was!

Billy, of course, has had his share of success in the business, and his version of Oh My Papa on his golden trumpet is always worth listening to.

Indeed, Billy was one of the pioneers of country dancing in Ulster - given that this followed on from the showband boom, of which Billy was very much an integral part in this part of the world.

Norman Borland, meanwhile, has a new album on offer, and this talented singer certainly knows how to put a song over.

He has been around for a while, but he still brings his own inimitable style into play when he is on stage.

While there are several new faces on the country scene right now, the older hands obviously have no intention of throwing in the towel - and thank goodness for that.

Audiences taking a big shine to Shane

When Shane Owens hit the high spots with Walking on the Waves, which was voted one of the Irish country hits of last year, it was thought that he might have difficulty in achieving a follow-up of similar appeal.

But the talented artist has produced another surprise with Shiny Eyes, a haunting, catchy song that has propelled him even further into the spotlight.

It's a song which has instant appeal, and the personable Shane is hoping that it proves his passport to more success in the leading dancing venues.

He is already booked to appear at two major weekend festivals next month, and should Shiny Eyes continue to stay on the airwaves, he could find himself in much greater demand.

"I was hoping to get a follow-up to Walking on the Waves, and I consider myself fortunate to have fallen on Shiny Eyes," says Shane. "I liked it the minute I heard it. Obviously, I am hoping it does well."

Along with his talented band, Shane has just finished a busy summer and is facing another frantic spell.

Next month, he is due to appear at a festival organised by Paddy O'Brien, one of the pioneers of country music weekends.

"I'm looking forward to playing for Paddy, who has been involved in country music for a long time," says Shane.

"He is regarded as one of the gentlemen of the business, and he certainly is doing his bit to keep the flag flying."

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