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Hugo Duncan: Why I expect the country scene to be better than ever in 2019

Sad loss: the late Big Tom with Hugo
Sad loss: the late Big Tom with Hugo
Daniel O’Donnell

By Hugo Duncan

Another year has come and gone (almost!), during which the country music scene in Ireland sampled its share of highs and lows. The ongoing success of ventures such as the Farmers' Bash at the SSE Arena, Country Comes to City in Derry and the Clonmany Festival has not only further raised the status of these events, but also spawned other undertakings which have become annual affairs.

Daniel O'Donnell is currently riding the crest of an even bigger wave in this country and his Opry le Daniel has become must-see viewing on TG4, while his forthcoming August concert tour promises to be a complete sell-out.

But while the big events become even bigger, life can also throw up its setbacks.

The passing of the legendary Big Tom just three months after the death of his beloved wife, Rose, and the deaths of popular Dublin artiste Sonny Knowles and Strabane native Nita Norry robbed us of three personalities.

It brings home to us the fact that we can take nothing for granted.

Over the course of recent years, spurred no doubt by the success attained by singers such as Nathan Carter and Derek Ryan, a host of festivals and get-togethers have been held and I see this as a huge development within country music.

Not so long ago, young people were clamouring to gain admission to discos, whereas today they appear to have their own favourite bands which they are very keen to follow.

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And while country dancing is something of a musical experience, many folk, and particularly those from the younger generation, are finding that jiving in particular is a great way of keeping fit.

I never cease to be amazed how proficient young people are when it comes to jiving, and it was only when it was pointed out to me that this is their substitute for jogging and running that I began to appreciate their enthusiasm for dancing.

I was taken by surprise when, at a recent concert, one young lady approached me and asked me if I would like to jive in the aisle.

I suggested to her that I was past that stage, but she quickly pointed out: "Jiving is for everyone - even pensioners."

The loss of Big Tom was a particularly big blow to Irish entertainment, given that he was one of the pioneers of country dancing along with his band, The Mainliners.

This was along with other outfits such as Larry Cunningham and the Mighty Avons, Ray Lynam and the Hillbillies, Brian Coll and the Buckaroos and Brendan Quinn and the Bluebirds.

Big Tom and those other artistes have left a rich legacy and such is the interest in what they have achieved that a mushrooming songwriting business is now taking shape.

In the past, singers lapped up all the plaudits, but nowadays there is considerable emphasis on songwriting talents, and that's one of the reasons why the late Johnny McAuley, Derek Ryan, Henry McMahon, Gerard Dornan and James McGarrity are held in such high esteem.

Their creative flair has already spawned many hits, and I sense that a lot more will come our way in 2019.

While the US will probably be always perceived as the spiritual home of country music, Ireland is contributing a great deal to its wellbeing.

Gerard Dornan is an accomplished Co Down musician who is blessed with inordinate talent, while Ballycastle-based James McGarrity has been turning out some quality numbers lately.

The latter is also a concert promoter and confirms that it's on long journeys to shows in places like Waterford, Galway, Thurles, Tralee and Killarney that it's his brain, rather than his car, that is in overdrive.

"I have to stop the car at times and get the pen out in case an idea for a song leaves me," James said at the weekend. I told him I have to stop the car sometimes, too, but only to answer a call of nature!

While many people are understandably apprehensive about the repercussions from Brexit and the economic situation in general, I do believe that 2019 nonetheless holds rich promise for all those who are prepared to put their shoulder to the wheel in helping country music to retain its current status here - at the very least.

After all, where we be without it?

Hospital heroes showed us the true spirit of Christmas

When I went along to Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital on Christmas Eve morning, I expected to meet a few people, sing a couple of songs and generally have a bit of a laugh with the patients. And that's exactly what my producer, Joanne Murphy, and I experienced in what was a lovely atmosphere.

Indeed, it was an honour and a privilege for me to meet both patients and staff. I must say that we were overwhelmed by the warmth of the reception we received from both the patients and staff, and I was particularly struck by the way the staff went about their duties with a smile on their faces.

Then we headed back down to the foyer, where the artistes were rehearsing with the backing band for the two-hour outside broadcast starting at 1pm.

It's only when you see at first hand the wonderful work that the medical and nursing staff do that you come to appreciate the benefits the National Health Service can bring to those who need them most.

Being a patient in hospital over Christmas is not the most pleasant experience, given that people would much prefer to be at home with their families, but every effort is made to ensure that patients derive maximum pleasure during the festive season.

Following my show on Christmas Eve, I called at the Marie Curie Centre on the Knock dual carriageway, where I met Ellie Rice, among others. The patients there were also in good heart and I was very impressed with their positive nature and, indeed, with that of the staff as they prepared for a special Christmas buffet.

When I was leaving, I was saying a silent prayer for them all and thinking how lucky many other people were that they were able to happily spend Christmas in the company of their families.

Promoter David is one of the best in business

For many years now, I have had the great pleasure of knowing David Hull.

The Belfast promoter is one of the most popular figures in Irish entertainment circles, because of his professionalism and warmth.

He is the prime mover behind the Hugo and Friends concert series, which proved highly successful for many years, I am glad to say.

Tomorrow night, though, I will chart a different course for David when he stages his Hugo Duncan's Country Classics show at the Island Centre in Lisburn.

I am delighted to be compering the show, which features Susan McCann, Brian Coll, Crawford Bell and Kenny Archer - each of whom have made their own impression on country music.

I have, of course, performed with all these acts on numerous occasions, but when David puts a show together it usually contains the right balance in terms of quality, entertainment value and light-heartedness.

Having organised tours for some of the biggest acts around, including Charlie Landsborough and Foster and Allen, David is a veteran of the concert scene and I never cease to be surprised at his enthusiasm and commitment.

He clearly loves what he is doing and, this being the case, he puts his heart and soul into every venture.

I have no doubt that tomorrow night's show will be a success because of David's diligent input. He has played a part in moulding the careers of many country singers and, indeed, showed faith in some of them when they were trying to get a foot on the ladder.

Tomorrow night will see a feast of hugely popular country hits performed and I believe the show will include something for everyone.

And make a note in your diary: the Hugo and Friends show will go on at the Grand Opera House in Belfast on Monday, February 18.

My guests that night will be Philomena Begley, Robert Mizzell, Gerry Guthrie, Barry Kirwan, Owen Mac and Olivia Douglas.

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