This is a draft of forthcoming paper on the curious case of Irish country music…..
The country and Irish problem
Country music has been popular in Ireland since the 1960s: most notably in the work of homegrown performers. Despite the durability of this appeal in the face of huge changes in Ireland and in the Irish music industry over a half-century, it remains curiously underexamined in the literature on Irish popular music. In this paper, I wish to argue the following:
- Country music did not simply arise ‘naturally’ in Ireland as a reflection of musical or national characteristics: it was promoted as such.
- Both popular and academic literature on the subject have tended to unreflectively echo the narrative that was introduced alongside the music in order to fix its audience.
- In so doing, the literature reproduces a set of anxieties about modernity as it arrived in Ireland, about the postcolonial condition and about authenticity, even as it attempts to locate Irish popular music within these concerns.
In the late 1960s, the pages of New Spotlight magazine, then Ireland’s only national popular music journal, were filled with comment, features, and readers’ letters discussing the so-called ‘country boom’. The sustainability, authenticity, even the existence, of this phenomenon were discussed at length and from many conflicting points of view. The topic under discussion was the divergence, over the previous few years, in the repertoires of many groups on the showband circuit, itself a distinctively Irish phenomenon. During the peak years of these groups, spanning the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, their music would encompass most popular genres.
Audiences got a pot-pourri: rock –and-roll, country and western, skiffle, Dixieland, céili, waltzes, Irish ballads. Versatility was the name of the game. (Brendan) Bowyer [singer with the Royal Showband, one of the most popular of that ilk] sang ballads and rock equally well. He could hit the high notes with the Holy City or Boolavogue one minute, and gyrate to the Hucklebuck the next (Power, 2000: 24)
By the later sixties, dealing with competition from other sectors of a growing Irish music industry, the showbands had begun to take on more distinct musical identities and to dip their toes in ‘original’ or at least specially written material. Where previously, accuracy in the reproduction of the hits of others, and the liveliness of the stage show, were almost the only criteria for success, now an ‘angle’ was required. Broadly speaking, the showband scene split into two camps: country and pop.
Half a century later, in 2020, with the showbands a distant memory, and the circuit of ballrooms that nurtured them long converted into the furniture showrooms and carpet warehouses that skirt many small Irish towns, country music remains popular in Ireland. The means of production, marketing and consumption have changed as with every other sector of the music industry, but, in common with country artists in its ‘home’ territory of the USA, Irish artists within the genre, such as Ray Lynam and Susan McCann, have extraordinary commercial longevity. New artists – Nathan Carter for example – continue to emerge alongside the veterans and it is at least possible, by some metrics, that country remains the most popular genre of commercial music in Ireland. Despite this, it is underrepresented in coverage in the national media, and it falls to the local radio stations in the music’s heartlands, the ‘Border, Midlands and West’ (BMW) of the republic and the western counties of Northern Ireland, to sustain it. Continue reading “The Country and Irish Problem”