Oct 012012
 

I don’t know if the equivalent of Country ‘n’ Irish exists anywhere else in the world but it’s a truly bizarre thing.  If you love hearing the name of your village in a song performed by an Irish guy pretending to be from Kentucky, C&I is for you, but if you’re someone who enjoys music, it’s probably best to avoid it.

For years, this thing has provided a neat way to divide the nation into two categories: rednecks and the rest of us.  We even had a Country ‘n’ Western Taoiseach in Albert Reynolds, a man who made his fortune by constructing enormous dancehalls in the middle of nowhere and herding thousands of Bridies and Nualas into them  to dance along with whatever dross some singing farmer from Monaghan chose to spew out on any given night.

Now, let me enter a caveat.  When I say Country ‘n’ Irish, or Country ‘n’ Western, I do not mean country music as exemplified by everyone from Guy Clark to  Gram Parsons. I’m not talking about Emmy-Lou Harris or John Prine.   I’m not talking about the fine songwriters and musicians who represent that genre.  No indeed.  I’m talking about the mumbling, shuffling gobshites in rhinestones and ten-gallon hats performing a bad pastiche of country music.

A few years ago, I went to the Midlands Music Festival, and it was great.  I saw everyone from the Blind Boys of Alabama to Tony-Joe White.  Jackson Browne and  David Lindley.  Tom Russell made an appearance and so did Aimee Mann.   We enjoyed Steve Earle and Kristofferson.  We blinked and rubbed our eyes at Richard Thompson’s ridiculously wonderful guitar playing.  Gillian Welch.   Richmond Fontaine.  The demented Dwight Yoakam strutting his Country ‘n’ Elvis  insanity.  Is there no end to it?

But of course, there is, and it comes all of a sudden, when a herd of fat birds from Mullingar, wearing pink buckskin mini-skirts and fringed cowboy hats barge their way into the quiet, understated Emmy-Lou Harris gig, and set up a loud chatter while the rest of us try to worship our idol.  You see, these fat birds aren’t here for subtle songwriting or delicate interwoven harmonies.  These girls are here for that strange Nashville guy in the purple jumpsuit with the big expensive teeth.

These girls are the Country ‘n’ Western faction, and they’re on a night out.  On Monday, they’ll go back to their wards, their civil service desks and their police stations, they’ll go back to being Nuala and Bridie, but tonight, they plan on pointing toy pistols at the rest of us and whooping their lungs out.

That’s Country ‘n’ Irish for you.

How did it start?  Where did it come from?  Why is a great swathe of Ireland, right across the  island from Donegal to Monaghan, and reaching as far south as Mullingar, caught up in this insane parody of something so ridiculous it can’t be parodied?  Some people blame Larry Cunningham, who passed away recently, though I don’t think so.  After all, Larry got his big break when he supported Jim Reeves in Lifford back in 1963, which tells you that the Donegal people were already mad about cheesy, schmaltzy derivative dross.

Ah, Donegal.  Where do you start with Donegal, the county that gave us Daniel O’Donnell, Bridie Gallagher and Enya.

On the credit side, of course, they gave us Rory Gallagher, Clannad and Altan, and though  it’s still hard to forgive them for the curse of C ‘n’ W, they weren’t alone. At least they didn’t inflict Big Tom on the world.

What do you say about neighbouring Tyrone,  the county that gave us Philomena Begley, a woman whose hairstyle became a marker for entering middle age?    Getting a Philomena, for many women, was a way of telling the world they were now settled down.  Forget the jeans and the braids:  from here on it was trouser-suits and clapping along with bad C ‘n’ W songs in a lounge bar on a Saturday night.

How did all this dross spread across the land?  Was it because Irish people are temperamentally suited to predictable, unchallenging, pre-digested, formulaic  rubbish?  Possibly.  After all, don’t they swallow the same shit in concentrated form every time there’s a general election?

Didn’t they believe for years that sentimental nonsense pumped out in New York was traditional Irish music?  The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door, for Christ’s sake.

Whatever the truth of it, Larry Cunningham was certainly the man who spread the C’n’W word across the land, with his pastiche renditions of Jim Reeves classics, combined with his own appeal to parochial sentimentality.  Lovely Leitrim was a huge hit for him, a song that appealed to people all over the country, even though they seemed unaware of the irony implied in it.

Last night, I had a pleasant dream.  I woke up with a smile.

I dreamed that I was back again in dear old Erin’s Isle.

Hold on a minute there.  This is a guy who is not an emigrant.  He lives in Ireland, but he’s singing about missing the old country, and he’s  singing to people who still live in the old country.  None of them are real exiles.  Not Larry and not his audience, yet they  all share the same doleful fantasy.  Why?  I don’t know.  Perhaps it speaks to some innate need in the Irish to feel melancholic at all costs.

There seems to be quite a history of re-importation.  Who hasn’t got an ancient uncle willing to sing some Bing Crosby tear-jerker at a family do?  I’ll guarantee you, most Irish people won’t realise that the song was written in America, and in a double twist, when Americans come over here, they expect to find us singing this schmaltzy, saccharine horseshit to each other.

I like to wander down the old boreen.  Maids of merry Ireland.  The Old Bog Road.   Oh would you kindly fuck off.

We abandoned our language.   We abandoned our songs.  We abandoned our culture.  And now we pretend to each other that cheap, sentimental schlock from the States is part of our heritage.  What is wrong with us?

There’s another side to this.  American country music is heavily influenced by a strand that came from this island: hillbilly music, but here’s a word of caution.  The Billy in hillbilly isn’t there by accident, for these were the so-called Scotch-Irish, a tribe who, today might be called Ulster Unionists, or Loyalists.  They wouldn’t thank you for calling them Irish, so how is it that their ancestors’ music speaks to so many in the Republic?  Perhaps the clue lies in the strength of the C ‘n’ W tendency in the northern half of the island.  Maybe osmosis ensures that people from different traditions come to share certain cultural DNA despite themselves.

One final thought.  The Republic that emerged from 1921 was a very repressive place.  It was a stifling environment in which barricades were thrown up to keep out all foreign influences.  Seditious literature was banned wholesale resulting in a country whose libraries were stocked with nothing but chaste romance novels for the women and gunslingin’ westerns for the men.  Zane Gray and Louis l’Amour.  Riders of the purple sage.

Ireland was Albania.

Flann O’Brien parodied it beautifully in the Ringsend passage of At-Swim-Two-Birds.

Two days later I was cow-punching down by the river in Ringsend with Shorty Andrews and Slug Willard, the toughest pair of boyos you’d meet in a day’s walk. Rounding up steers, you know, and branding, and breaking in colts in the corral with lassoes on our saddle-horns and pistols at our hips.

(O the real thing. Was there any drink to be had?)

There certainly was. At night we would gather in the bunkhouse with our porter and all our orders, cigarettes and plenty there on the chiffonier to be taken and no questions asked, school-marms and saloon-girls and little black maids skivvying there in the galley.

(That was the place to be, now.)

After a while be damned but in would walk a musicianer with a fiddle or a pipes in the hollow of his arm and there he would sit and play Ave Maria to bring the tears to your eyes. Then the boys would take up an old come-all-ye, the real old stuff, you know, Phil the Fluter’s Ball or the Darling Girl from Clare, a bloody lovely thing.

It had a profound effect on the Irish, this attempt to render a nation childlike, pliable and unquestioning, and it  had a side-effect.  It gave our grandfathers a deep affinity for the myth of the Old West that was under construction at the same time  and for the same purpose: to hide the truth.  In Ireland’s case, the unwelcome truth was that adult, mature ideas existed in the wide world beyond our sainted borders, while in the American case, the truth was that the heroic Old West was built on genocide.  Both truths needed to be obliterated.

Poor old Larry Cunningham.  What has any of this to do with him?

Little enough, in truth, except for the fact that he embodied the process of spreading the C ‘n’ W idiom across the country.  He wasn’t the only one, but in many ways he showed how it could be done.  In a drab country, where men wore dark suits and belted-up overcoats, Larry arrived in his Mercedes-Benz, put on his red jacket and offered the promise of connection to a different reality, an exotic world of truckstop diners, jukeboxes and two-lane blacktop, somehow magically transported to the parish halls of Roscommon, Cavan and Westmeath.  For an hour or two, there were no creamery cheques to worry about, no disputes with the family about who was getting the farm, and although Larry might be taking Nuala for a ride in his Mercedes after the show, you were taking Bridie home in the Austin A40.

Here’s Larry paying tribute to Jim Reeves in his tortured fake Texas accent.  What need in the Irish people did this satisfy?

Maybe.for that brief moment, you were looking through the windscreen of a ’58 Dodge pickup, and it was time to go huntin’ coyotes with your gal.

_______________

In fairness to Larry, though, we can’t leave this without playing the funniest song ever written.

Take it away, Larry.

 

  40 Responses to “Larry Cunningham, Father of Country ‘n’ Irish, Dies”

Comments (40)
  1.  

    When I went to school in Sligo RTC way back in the mid to late seventies, life was almost exactly as you described it above. The Silver Slipper ballroom was the hottest gig in town, with acts like Red Hurley, The Indians etc. I drove a Honda 175 back then and in my innocence I imagined I was on a Harley Davidson, hopefully, with a cool chick snuggled up to me on the way home. But the reality was different, I was broke back then, just as I am now, dreaming of better times to come.

  2.  

    Great stuff Bock and thanks heedymortal.I’m still dreamin’ too.But when Monotone O’Donnell speaks or sings,despair and depression loom and the pit of my stomach is sickened with an empty pessimism.The drone and whine of Daniel is not good for one’s health.Larry was alright.

  3.  

    I saw Larry Cunningham in an Irish Pub in Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx in Summer of 1993, on his ‘World Tour’ having been brought along with a bunch of builders I fell in with. I struggled to enjoy it, even at an ironic level, but fortunatley I was so drunk that I remember very little of it, and was forced to leave early at any case. The whole area had, by this stage become a Central American neighbourhood, and the difference from the interior of sweaty builders in white shirts and blue cigarete smoke, to the sweltering exterior with Latino music coming from other bars was like travelling in time.

  4.  

    I feel your pain. I was once forced to stay through an entire Margo gig.

  5.  

    Excellent post Bock. I love all kinds of music, but that stuff hasnt a redeeming feature.

  6.  

    It’s fairly shite, for sure. But how do you account for the fact that half of Ireland loves it?

  7.  

    Never mind heedymortal,as it turns out real motorcycle aficionados call Harley Davidsons “hardly abelsons” on account of them being all chrome and noise and fuck all else.Funnily enough you mentioned Indians now that was a real American bike.By the way Bock your a bit hard on the Irish country scene.There is a similar country scene in every European country ,and even in Japan!As for Irish singers sounding like someone from Kentucky,how do you account for someone from Sutton Coldfield or wherever sounding like someone from the American deep south as most British bands did in the 60s.

  8.  

    Sheskin — I’ll be more than happy to say the same about any other scene you care to point out, as long as we can draw a distinction between real country music and saccharine dross. And that includes everyone from Sutton Coldfield who, I’m sure, are perfectly decent people.

  9.  

    Bock there is enough saccharine dross floating around the American country scene to sweeten the Pacific.The odd good one comes through now and again,like some of those you mentioned.What I am trying to say Bock is that are American country singers singing about orphans and dying mothers etc.just like in Ireland .I once heard Eric Clapton singing Irene Goodnight Irene and he sounded great.

  10.  

    I know the American country-schlock scene. The thing I’m trying to explore here is why a certain slice of Irish society bought into it so strongly.

  11.  

    Bock you mentioned an Irish guy pretending to be from Kentucky. I replied it was no different to someone from Sutton Coldfield pretending to be from the Alabama.

  12.  

    True. But I don’t know how widespread the C&W scene is in Sutton Coldfield.

  13.  

    Great stuff Bock.
    There is still a massive *Cuntry* and Irish scene.
    I never got it either and used to think the lads singing flat or out of tune were taking the piss..One Monday night about twelve or thirteen years ago I stumbled on an amazing blues session, Turns out most of these incredibly talented lads played in shit C& I bands in order to feed their kids. But then again that’s where Rory got the bobs for his strat.

  14.  

    All the showbands were packed with top-class musicians playing shit music for money. Everyone has to live.

  15.  

    Clannad Bock?

    What about the Happy Mondays, *Sad cunt from Preston*.

  16.  

    I don’t have a problem with Clannad. They wouldn’t be my thing, but at least they’re not Enya.

  17.  

    They went a bit mushy in latter years. Maybe trying to sound like their former member and little sister, Enya.

  18.  

    True Bock,but then again i don’t how widespread blues were in Sutton Coldfield in the 60s.

  19.  

    Well, as the showbands and their country loving frontmen fetched up in both Orange Halls and Hibernian Halls I presume that the ” safety ” factor in C & W might have something to do with it.

  20.  

    Some Cunt from Weston… Music for people who don’t like music that shit. However it is one of the very parts of the Irish music scene from which it is possible to make a living for an irish musician.

  21.  

    Travellers lap it up too for some reason,probably because there is absolutely no mental challenge involved in listening to it.

  22.  

    They played in Orange and Hibernian halls, but it was vital to remember which song to end the night with.

  23.  

    But without it how would anyone ever know about Glenamaddy????

  24.  

    Isn’t it famous worldwide?

  25.  

    The great jazz drummer Buddy Rich had a heart attack in 1981 and was brought to a New York hospital. On arrival he was asked if he had any allergies. “2” he replied “Country and Western”.

  26.  

    They were the Kings of C&W – and light haulage – and made a lot of money.

    That’s what you do when you do the Hucklebuck.

  27.  

    I’m a square Bach and Beethoven fan meself. D’youse all know that many jazz musicians around the world’s cities have paid tribute to Bach’s pioneering rhythmic and fugal forms by setting his tunes to jazz? I doubt that Larry will get the same sax and double bass treatment in New Orleans or Berlin. Let the cool Bach rip lads. And may dear Larry RIP.

  28.  

    Rte’s light entertainment remit in the 70’s and 80’s accommodated many Country and Irish acts. By the 80s the culture of Country and Irish, as it became known, was well defined and accepted and many of these acts became Irish TV stars. Rte is a definite factor in why many performers embraced what true country fans regard as an aberration, they needed Irish fame and a career and sang to make that happen. The notion of the likes of Larry Cunningham being regarded as interpreters of Americana outside their imagined version of honkytonk never arose, they were just faces for dancehall or lounge bar posters. This advertising was not so much for the music but to announce a particular social scene based on courting which still exists outside the pale.

    More proof illustrating the gap between the ‘two country’s’ lie in the Irish recordings. Whether on 8 track cassette, LP or CD the popularity of any of this music from the 70s to the present does not travel outside local radio markets. There are no popular compilations of ‘Classic’ Country and Irish music of note. Performances by Cunningham and the like were tied so much to the actual venues that it didn’t make sense to listen to this strain of music at home. Not only was the mystique of the dancehall missing in the kitchen but listening to the Irish voice straining to emulate an American experience accentuated the cultural and aesthetic gap between not only the 2 versions of Country but even the two countries themselves.

    The country and Irish scene has always been less about what was heard from the stage than where the stage was. Different bands had different followings and the codes associated with their arrival was similar to a 60s Frank Sinatra playing in a particular casino in Vegas. For example If Larry Cunningham was playing Westport someone in Ballyhaunis would know the make up of that specific crowd and choose to attend or not. ‘ Are you going to Larry Cunningham at the weekend? The crowd from Swinford will be there? ‘ No, il hold off for Ray Lynam in Castlebar, etc’. The social codes were very basic but as the rural population in the 80s took the brunt of emigration, the virus of desperation entered all opportunities for meeting the opposite sex. The codes became even more basic. Now dancehalls and showbands needed to become completely un threatening as the remaining rural audience were forced to become more conservative in what was expected for the night. The glamour had emigrated. Competiton in the form of pop rock showbands such as the Indians and the Memories also smoothed out any complications about how watered down the notion of Country and Irish could get. You could not water it down enough because the population had been diluted already.

  29.  

    You don’t get more Irish than singing songs about being far away from Ireland while they are still in Ireland. To my ear all Country ‘n’ Irish songs sound the same and they just change the words and it bears absolutely no resemblance to REAL Country music.

  30.  

    I admire Paul Tarpey’s exposition above of the socio-historical dimensions to Larry Cunningham and the Country ‘n Irish dancehall scene in rural Ireland, particularly during the recessionary, emigration-hit 1980s. Good on all those fans who found romance leading to marriage and kids at these venues. Perhaps they are now among his deepest mourners in the so-called backwoods of Mittel-Irland. I’d guess that such unskilled small town and townland people had a more wholesome time at weekends than the subsidised RTC students in Tralee, Athlone, Castlebar and Sligo who whooped it up in alcoholic hotel ‘night clubs’ on Friday nights, furtively snogging and fucking in alcoves, and leaving the disco muzak infested premises littered with spew and used condoms before tumbling out onto the streets to buy vinagry fish ‘n chips before catching taxis home to their rented bedsitters. Let us have some comparative social analysis of the music scene west of the Shannon, Paul. Could you write a book about it all? I’d buy it.

  31.  

    Benno, there is certainly a study to be done there. I agree with the benefits of what might be regarded and an anachronistic scene when contrasted against courtship rituals in the plastic modernism of the small town. The written boundaries of the Country and Irish dimension are i believe quite narrow. The Showband scene seems to have invited more books with Vincent Power’s ‘Send em Home Sweating’ being the goto one for the ‘nostalgia and glamour’ with Derek Dean’s ‘The Freshmen Unzipped’ more raunchy leaning.
    Dean, as the Freshmen’s lead singer, has some good social insights on the landscape of the time before the Country and Irish scene consolidated itself in the 80s. He flag’s the introduction of the pill and how it significantly example tilted the gender balance for rural social interaction in the 70’s dancehalls. The Country and Irish scene I believe speaks to the followers of De Valera’s ethos who saw the onset of Ireland’s permissive society epitomised by the slackness of showbands and beat groups. Daniel O Donnell rightfully crafted his Country and Irish practice by a diligent slog through tiny venues in the west. After his earlier performance he would physically meet nearly every audience member and chat to them. The Aunts and Grannies left singing his praise not so much as an entertainer but as the embodiment of a good mannered christian singer. When he would return to said venue a year later, word of mouth would have doubled his audience. His selection of music reflects this process so much that many others in the field tailor their songs to tap into his lucrative base. O Donnell is the lead artist on any of the few CD compilations that boldly go under the name ‘Country and Irish’.

  32.  

    Wasn’t there a fella from Carrick-on-Shannon and later lived in Limerick who had a few No.1’s and was well known; Shaun O’Dowd. Whatever became of him, I met him once he had a bar or niteclub. Was he more of a pop band man???

  33.  

    he plays alot of functions these days, nice man

  34.  

    As you said about half of Ireland loving C&W, you’re dead right, the Greenhills have a country night each week, and it’s packed to the rafters, lots of men and women of a certain age, and all seem ‘well to do’ types, no shortage of anything by the looks of things, but steeped in he music.

  35.  

    Country and Irish was great, when Larry Cunningham was singing it. All that has changed. The current generation of Irish country singers, are garbage, and are not singing anything that has been handed down. What sounds great in one era, can sound terrible in the next. This music is getting an overdose of publicity, because of the local radio stations.The d.j’s on those stations, are paying it anything up to 5 nights a week.

  36.  

    Yeah. There’s been nothing with any credibility since the disturbing edginess of Lovely Leitrim and Gentle Mother.

  37.  

    That’s quite true. However, things have to change. Let me say again, the local radio stations are to blame for this music getting massive publicity. Most of the present day Irish country singers, have singing voices which sound like someone, from the middle of Nashville.

    Because of recording studious emerging all over Ireland, any fellow who fancies himself as a singer,can go in, record an album featuring Irish and American country music. All they have to do then, is send it to some local radio country music d.j, who will give it massive exposure.

    Bribery certainly plays a part. The fellows who play this music, are only interested in the big names who might hand them something for their trouble. Small time entertainers, call it the brown envelope. Let’s face it, this music wouldn’t be played on local radio in such huge doses, unless there was money involved. If someone feels I’m wrong, then I will have to take the lash.

  38.  

    Hi there, well I’ve been for a long time now a big fan of the late Larry Cunningham and I’ve always enjoyed his songs right from the first one ”Tribute To Jim Reeves” to the last one ”Showband Memories” Cyril Wilkinson Carnew, Co.Wicklow.

  39.  

    He sang great songs.They are badly needed now. His original vinyl, is quite rare now. Sadly, a good bit of it never turned up on c.d. I hope, it won’t be lost. At least, there is a lot of his work on you tube. He was singing country and Irish, before people even new what it was. However I think a lot of his songs, probably won’t be recorded again. The present day fellows singing Irish country music, just couldn’t give them the proper treatment.

  40.  

    Brilliant well written post.

    Country Music is three chords and the truth.

    .

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