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Hugo Duncan: My voice was all a-quiver when recording in a haunted building


Enduring talent: Philomena Begley
Enduring talent: Philomena Begley
Special show: Foster and Allen

By Hugo Duncan

It has often been said that the older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune. This certainly holds good within the Ulster country music scene, where many veteran entertainers continue to perform and record. While the door is always open to new talent, nevertheless the old hands still have much to offer.

I was reminded of that this week when it was pointed out to me that people like Frankie McBride, Philomena Begley, Brian Coll, Frank McCaffrey, Brendan Quinn, Susan McCann, Billy McFarland and others are still producing the goods.

While the more recent arrivals, such as Nathan Carter and Derek Ryan, hold the spotlight, the stars of yesteryear still have a part to play.

Philomena Begley will be a special guest on Mike Denver's forthcoming concert tour, Brendan Quinn has been undertaking dates in specially selected venues and Susan McCann still hosts her annual country music weekend at the Carrickdale Hotel, between Newry and Dundalk. Frankie McBride currently spends time between his native Omagh and his adopted county of Limerick and, while he restricts himself to the rare concert appearance these days, nevertheless he will always be associated with his monster hit Five Little Fingers.

It is worth remembering that recording facilities in the Sixties and Seventies - and, indeed, into the Eighties - were not nearly as sophisticated as they are today.

I well remember recording Dear God in 1971 and it was a song which was to stand me in good stead. I am still asked to sing Dear God when I appear at shows these days, so I can just imagine the appeal that songs like Philomena's Blanket on the Ground and Brendan Quinn's Four in the Morning still have.

The recording studios of the Sixties and Seventies would be regarded as primitive when compared to today's ultra-modern facilities, but nonetheless they did the job.

Mind you, there were invariably what I would describe as "unseen difficulties" to be overcome.

I well recall recording a single under the watchful eye of the late Cel Fay, the producer, in the Homespun Studio in Belfast, owned by Billy McBurney. All was going swimmingly until someone mentioned casually that the building was haunted.

I had to subsequently apologise for the discernible quiver in my voice - I'm not sure how many takes were needed before Cel was happy with the finished product.

On another occasion, about 25 years ago, we were recording in Monasterevan in Co Kildare when two of Nashville's top arrangers and producers, Tom Pick and Bobby Dyson, were the men in charge.

I was asked to sing a traditional old Irish waltz number, a genre of music with which the US duo were not quite familiar.

When they attempted to flavour the number with additional elements of their own, I said: "Just keep it black pudding, lads."

As I turned to walk away, I heard Tom say to one of the session musicians: "What did Hugo mean by keeping it 'black pudding'?"

Quick as a flash, I quipped: "Just the old three-chord trick. Sure, it never fails."

Fr Brian D'Arcy is something of an authority on country songs of the past and, indeed, he features several of the singers on his Sunday morning show on Radio Ulster.

No better man that Fr Brian, either, to throw in a couple of tales of what life was like on the road for bands in those days!

Recording then was just like travelling - long, hard and occasionally torturous. A band could maybe spend hours that would run into days in a studio before they came up with a single with which they were satisfied.

Time changes everything, they say, and happily that is the case in the sphere of country music where the pace of change has quickened significantly.

More luxurious venues, infinitely better recording studios, a vastly superior road network and superb band equipment all serve to make life that little bit easier.

Talented producers add professional touch to recordings

In years gone by, country acts, in particular, encountered difficulty in finding recording studios in which to lay down tracks for singles and albums. It did not appear fashionable to be delving into the country music market in order to gain prominence.

But all that changed when more recording studios became available in which artists were made welcome when they came to unleash their talents.

People like Gerard Dornan, William Mawhinney, Stephen Smyth and others are making their professional expertise available to singers and musicians and this has led to a virtual avalanche of albums in more recent years.

And I must say that, furnished as I am on an ongoing basis with much of this material for playing on my Radio Ulster show, I never cease to be surprised at the quality of the recordings.

While Nashville is regarded as the home of country music, we here in Ulster are certainly doing our bit to claim a slice of fame.

In my view, the quality and content of recordings in the province stand up against anything released in Nashville.

Right now, people like Boxcar Brian are bringing out new albums and I predict that, in the build-up to Christmas, there will be a flood of new releases.

The popular Boxcar recently celebrated his 60th birthday on the same day that Gerard Dornan’s son Ryan marked his ninth birthday.

Not only is the quiet and unassuming Gerard a recording authority, but he is also part of the hugely successful Country Harmony group, which has been part of the provincial music scene for the past two decades.

So, it’s no surprise to learn then that his son Ryan can play the piano and sing a song into the bargain.

Foster and Allen are living legends

Special show: Foster and Allen

Foster and Allen and Daniel O'Donnell are among the guests who will be joining me for a special Country Legends broadcast later in the year.

They may have been part of the fabric of the Irish entertainment scene for many years now, but Foster and Allen are still showing the same enthusiasm and commitment that they did when they were starting out.

They have just released a new album, and they will be touring later in the year.

Tony Allen's wife, Triona, hails from Lurgan, and every year they join me in performing for patients at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Triona, of course, is a very accomplished singer, and she gained considerable status when she was performing with her own band.

Having known Foster and Allen for some considerable time, I never fail to be impressed by their attitude to the business.

They remain the most modest and unassuming duo you could ever wish to meet, both on and off the stage.

I have performed with them on numerous occasions, and found them a joy to work with.

You always get the impression that, even if no one turned up at a show, they would still enjoy playing and singing.

They have achieved considerable success in the US and Australia, where they have toured extensively, yet they remain firm favourites here in Ireland, where their distinctive music never seems to lose its appeal.

They even brought out a special song a couple of years ago to mark their 40 years spent in partnership, and you certainly get the sense that they will never tire of sharing the stage with each other.

Belfast Telegraph


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