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Hugo Duncan: Great music and tales from grand old days of country will flow at tribute to John O'Neill


Sorely missed: John O’Neill
Sorely missed: John O’Neill

By Hugo Duncan

The years will be rolled back tonight at Quinn's Corner Restaurant near Ballygawley when memories of the halcyon days of the showbands and Irish country music are relived.

But the occasion will undoubtedly be tinged with sadness in what will be a special musical tribute to the late John O'Neill, a former member of both the Old Cross Ceili Band and the famous Country Flavour, who passed away at the end of last year.

Such was the late John's prowess that he was regarded as a musicians' musician, someone whose feel and intensity for his chosen craft won him a host of admirers.

The Old Cross band's popularity within the sphere of ceili music was such that no carnival or festival was complete without a performance from them. Indeed, their visits to such events often translated into the highlight of the occasion.

But as music evolved and the influence of the country and western genre became more pronounced, the Old Cross Ceili Band morphed into Country Flavour and a young woman from Galbally named Philomena Begley stepped into the role as vocalist. The rest, as they say, is history.

Philomena and Country Flavour, with John O'Neill a driving force within the band, went on to attain fame as a top attraction throughout the 32 counties and, indeed, further afield.

The fact that they never lost the common touch and played with such zeal and enthusiasm endeared them to thousands of followers - something that made a huge impact on what was a group of essentially shy musicians who suddenly found themselves projected into the limelight.

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It was after Philomena left the band to pursue a further stage of her career that Eileen King, then a comparatively unknown 21-year-old vocalist from Camlough in south Armagh, joined the band and their momentum as a top attraction was maintained.

I well remember Country Flavour taking their first steps on the road to fame and I watched Philomena Begley go from being a comparative unknown to becoming a country superstar.

She formed her own band, The Ramblin' Men, and under the guidance of the late Tony Loughman went from strength to strength and she is still singing as well as ever today as a solo performer, having bounced back from a brief period of illness.

Tonight, Eileen King, who is still in demand to appear at concerts and shows and now lives a few miles outside Armagh city, will be back on stage with the surviving members of Country Flavour for what promises to be a night of nostalgia.

Eileen stayed with Country Flavour until 1978, when she branched out to form her own band.

The memories will certainly come flooding back for many people tonight as they dwell on the rich musical legacy that the modest and unassuming John O'Neill left behind.

Never one to seek the limelight, he let his undoubted talent do the talking and in the process won many admirers.

I used to love the get-togethers that the likes of the late Gene Stuart, Trevor Dixon and other members of Country Flavour lapped up in the studio on the Old Dungannon Road.

When one of us told a story, you could always be sure that the next man would want to better it.

I have no doubt that reminiscing will be very much to the fore at Quinn's tonight and no doubt many anecdotes relating to the great days of Irish country music will be told.

The studio was our wee cottage in the country where we would put the world to rights over a cup of tea - God be with the days.

Hotel show will set scene for the Auld Lammas Fair

Country legend: Susan McCann is performing at the Marine Hotel on Sunday

I am very much looking forward to performing at the Marine Hotel in Ballycastle on Sunday night, alongside some of the greats of Irish country music.

The Auld Lammas Fair will be taking place in the town next Monday and Tuesday and I would like to think that our show on Sunday night will set the tone for two days of revelry.

Brendan Shine, Susan McCann, Crawford Bell, Boxcar Brian and yours truly will be on the bill and I can promise you it will be a lively affair.

I'm grateful to be getting the chance to renew my acquaintance with Brendan, who is a legend of country music, having been entertaining for some 40-plus years. He's showing no sign of putting away his accordion.

I well remember, when I was touring with The Tallmen during the early 1970s, that we would regularly meet up with Brendan and his band when we were performing at carnivals the length and breadth of the country. Roads were hazardous in those days and journeys were long and tiring, but at the same time the craic was great.

Brendan, in common with Foster and Allen, recorded some great material - so much of it, in fact, that other singers, including my good self, were only too happy to get our hands on their albums so that we could maybe 'borrow' a track or two for our own records

In the heyday of entertainment, we had the-then thriving Top Rank organisation, headed up by the late Tony Loughman, who had on his books at that time Philomena, Big Tom and the other female country legend Susan McCann.

It was Susan who had a massive hit with Big Tom is Still the King many years ago and it's a song that is still played by many bands today, which shows just how well it has stood the test of time.

Boxcar Brian shows no sign of slowing down on new album

Consistent: Boxcar Brian

The very popular Boxcar Brian has just released a new album that highlights his fine country voice and feel for a song.

For more years than I care to remember, he has been performing with me on stage and I have to say that he always goes down a treat with the fans.

One thing about Boxcar is his consistency. He brings out an album every year to coincide with the Auld Lammas Fair.

This in itself surprises me because I don't think he is ever at home with time to do things because of the constant demand for his services at shows and concerts.

He is one of the most consistent performers on the scene and along with Gerard Dornan, of Country Harmony fame, he has been doing his bit to promote country music.

Both are regulars on my outside broadcasts, along with Crawford Bell and Stevie Kirk, and have built up their own following. I must say Boxcar certainly does himself justice, not only with the choice of material on his records, but in the manner in which he puts the songs across.

Boxcar is noted for the variety of material which he is capable of performing and this is seen to good effect on his latest album. Numbers such as Picture of my World, Carmelita, Walking on New Grass and The Old Iron Trail are all given the familiar Boxcar treatment.

I believe that this CD could lift his career up another notch and I have no doubt that it will attract a lot of radio attention across the country.

Not-so-final farewell tours

I notice that there are a couple of concert shows coming up at which various artistes will be honoured.

One thing that has always struck me about the entertainment business in this country is that singers are invariably reluctant to step away from the microphone.

Indeed, it is not unknown for some singers to perform more than one 'farewell' tour, their enthusiasm often replenished following what they might see as a healthy support at the first such show.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was appearing at a concert in the north west when a talented artiste, who is making his way in what is a crowded scene, happened to speak with me.

He indicated his surprise at seeing two particular singers of a certain vintage performing on the bill.

"I thought they had retired, Hugo," he remarked.

"No, they haven't," I replied. "Singers don't retire - they just die off."

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