DECLAN NERNEY IS a man who inspires devotion. A flick through the visitors’ book on his website reveals a degree of approval usually reserved for younger men. “Oh me o my u make me sigh!!!” is one entry. “I think your wonderful, love ur songs and i listen to them everyday, in my car, at home and even at work” is fairly typical. “Lots of hugs and kisses XXX”, “You have never forgot me”. Not bad for a man in his middle years whose own passion is for vintage agricultural tractors.
“These bands are making a comeback,” one middle-aged woman tells me at Taylor’s Three Rock Hotel. “They’re making a comeback because in the old days, if you were widowed, you stayed at home and wore black. Now, you go out.” She is sitting at a table with two other ladies of a similar vintage, who are anxious I should not use their names. “I’m divorced. She’s widowed,” one says, and turns to the last. “Are you divorced, or just separated?”
Nerney is a singer and bandleader, one of the chief practitioners of the musical style known as country and Irish. Country and Irish is like music’s invisible twin. Its artists – who are numerous – aren’t interviewed in newspaper supplements, or promoted by record labels, or written about on blogs. But they pack out venues across the country night after night, week after week, year in, year out. Their attendance figures would make most young promoters soil the sheets. And as if to prove the point, half an hour before the doors open for Nerney’s concert at Taylor’s Three Rock Hotel, a sizeable queue is already taking shape outside.
The three women are part of the genre’s heartland generation. “There’s a lot of people in Ireland,” says Les Vickers, former presenter of RTé’s solitary country and Irish radio show, “especially in the last 10 or 15 years, who are separated. There are people who are divorced. There are people who, their wives or husbands have passed away.” So, he says, they come to dances like this one. “They might meet a new partner, they may not.”
These men and women grew up dancing to the showbands of the ’60s and ’70s. They emerged from marriages decades later to discover they were still allowed a social life, and found country and Irish – American country music with an Irish boost – waiting for them. Consequently, perhaps, the scene has conventions somewhat different from the musical genres that claim most of our cultural attention. There is a fair contingent of couples in the crowd, but few mixed groups. The most prominent clusters are of single men and single women.
I ask my trio of female informants how the dancing works. They, it emerges, are veterans. “We come here on a Thursday,” says one of the trio. “Then there’s Dunboyne on a Friday. We’ve been up to Castleblayney, Bundoran for dances. If we don’t know who’s playing, we just ring the hotel.” And the actual mechanics, it seems, have changed only a little from the dancehalls of 30 years ago. “The men would ask us to dance,” says Number One – though she continues, with a mischievous smile: “And I would ask the men to dance too.” Her companion looks a little taken aback. “I wouldn’t,” she says.
Most of the ladies sit in groups at tables, sipping glasses of water, awaiting selection. The gentlemen line up in serried ranks around the bar, facing forward, talking little, parallel heads appraising the dancers for a desirable match. To a man, they sport their tidiest shirts and slacks. Some of the more daring have gelled their hair. And there is at least one toupée.
I meet Vincent. He is 65, and has been coming to dances since he was 15. “What’s life about?” he says. “Companionship. I’ve a set of 20 or 30 friends from these dances.” And does he come to meet women? “If you meet someone…” he says, with a smile that can only be described as roguish, “it’s a bonus. You have to go around, see if you see somebody you like the look of.”
You do come to meet the women. You do.
Another man standing nearby is less circumspect. “You do come to meet the women. You do. It’s part of it. You keep an open mind. And the women come to meet the men.” The first thing he says when I mention the Sunday Tribune is to warn me there are people in the room who may not want to be photographed. “They might have left somebody at home. You know?”
As he speaks, the warm-up DJ – a man in a pristine cowboy hat, known as Singing Tommy – cues up a version of Dire Straits’ ‘Walk of Life’ with an Irish accordion backing. Could this be a remix? “Oh yeah, the boy can play!” he barks into the microphone.
The ladies, meanwhile, are insisting they are not interested in romance. “We’re not looking for partners,” one says. “The dancing is the point.” But later in the evening I notice one of them cosying up to a dashing fellow in a sports jacket. Like a bold teenager at a disco, he is draping an arm ever-so-casually along the back of her chair.
Over and over again, people tell me these dances are a great place to meet others. Why? “We can’t compete with you young fellas at the disco,” says Vincent, grinning. But the real reason seems to be that the dancers feel comfortable here, in a way they wouldn’t elsewhere. “We wouldn’t go to the pubs,” says one of the women. “We hate the pubs.” Like the Cheers bar, a dance is a place where everyone knows your name. Nods and helloes are exchanged at every intersection.
“A lot of people would meet each other, and they’d know each other,” says Les Vickers. “So they feel comfortable. It’s like going in to your sitting room, if your family’s in there. But if a load of strangers are sitting in there, you don’t feel as comfortable, you know?” And there is a sense of the crowd making themselves at home. For eyes used to nightclubs, it is surprising to see dancers leaving handbags and purses on their tables, confident that they will still be there on their return.
He’s like a man that could bale hay on his own. Cut the twine and everything!
The musicians are part of this feeling, too. They butter their bread not by becoming remote idols – outlandish clothes, lavish lifestyles, tales of excess – but by getting as close to their fans as possible, personally and professionally. Take the matter of music videos. Nerney’s backing dancers are something to see. Wearing only swimsuits and smiling broadly, they mimic his every move as he sashays down a beach with his guitar in the video for his signature song, ‘Hooley in the Sun’.
But these ladies are not the lithe young things of MTV. Rather, their complexions are pale, their haircuts sensible, their figures settling into comfortable pear-shapes. They are, in fact, exactly like the people who are filling the dancefloor as, with little fanfare, he and his band arrive on stage, decked out in matching salmon-pink shirts and white ties. “Give a round of applause for your number one DJ, Singing Tommy,” says Nerney. “He does everything. He’s like a man that could bale hay on his own. Cut the twine and everything!” The crowd clap enthusiastically.
And then they dance. Extravagance of motion might wane a little as age advances, but high enthusiasm is general. Couples swing each other around the dancefloor, twirl their partners, and indulge in footwork that would put any nightclub-goer to shame. One song segues into another – the band leave no time for applause – and the dancers effortlessly switch styles.
According to Maurice McKiernan, a presenter on Country and Irish Music Radio, the songs follow an accepted progression. “There’s an old-time waltz. Then a jive. Then a slow foxtrot. Then a quickstep. And back to an old-time waltz.” The scene at the moment is “fantastic,” he says. “There’s three dances in Dublin on a Thursday night. There’s four on a Sunday night. Four on a Friday. People will go to the best band. Or if you go into the Hazel [Hotel] in Monasterevin, on a Sunday night… It’s packed to the rafters. In fact, there’s times when you can’t get in. And that venue holds 600 or 700 people.”
McKiernan, a sturdy fellow with greying hair, is also a dance regular. “I enjoy that,” he says. “I have a bad knee at the moment but I like to go pretty often. Declan Nerney is one of the better bands that we have, right? On a par with him would be Mick Flavin, Robert Mizell, the Country Kings, Jimmy Buckley. They’d be the top notch.” He is eager to tell me about the up-and-coming acts on the scene, too. “Martin Cuffe has a brilliant band. Called Off the Cuffe.”
But tonight belongs to Declan Nerney. He and his band play for almost two and a half hours, with barely a break. He talks to people in the audience, or makes acknowledgements during songs, pointing with an arm or the neck of his guitar. At moments of high climax there are hip thrusts and arm spins. And when it’s all over, his work done, rather than disappearing backstage he emerges into the crowd – shaking hands, exchanging pleasantries, catching up. This much is de rigueur in the country and Irish scene, where face time with the musicians whose CDs fill your glove compartment is part of the deal.
The man himself is highly likeable. “I could be sweating all night,” he acknowledges, “and the shirt would dry back into my body by the time I’d be finished talking to people at the end. People like to be able to feel and touch the whole thing. And that’s a great idea. You make yourself available for that. Plus the fact that I would be naturally interested in it anyway.” You build up real relationships with the concert-goers, he says. “I would know a lot of them personally. People relate little stories, funny incidents, things that happen to them. And then you mightn’t see them for six months again, but you’d be thinking about when you might see them.”
You’re singing the songs of their lives
So it’s about making the fans feel close to you. “They would. Because you’re singing the songs of their lives. You’re singing about their people. You’re singing about the boreens and the towns and you’re mentioning them. You’re mentioning their counties. In country and Irish music, the songs all tell a story that listeners are able to relate to. Merle Haggard had a song one time called ‘Someone Told My Story In A Song’. And it’s those songs that make the jukebox play.”
A lack of pretension also goes for the performers’ self-presentations. This is not a scene that prizes notions of cool. Nerney, who earlier in the night had appeared wearing a Massey Ferguson tractor tee-shirt, looks just how he is: middle-aged and Irish. In the aforementioned ‘Hooley in the Sun’ video, in which he appears to be having a wonderful time, he dances throughout in a pair of white socks neatly pulled up above practical shoes.
This proximity, cultural and physical, between artists and fans is taken to surprising distances. A number of the top players in country and Irish go so far as to mount yearly package holidays for their listeners, and Nerney is no exception. A banner behind the stage tonight reads: “The Hooley In The Sun Goes to Majorca, 2009.”
“I would bring 300 people with me there,” he says. “They would all go out, they’ll dance the night away. They’ll dance the whole week away, night and day.” That must be testament to how close you’re willing to get to your fans. “That’s right,” he says, with a laugh. “You’re under the one roof with them, and you’ve nowhere to escape then. Except into the swimming pool, and there’s half a dozen of them in there already.”
I am eager to learn more about these holidays. “Oh, they’re big,” Vincent tells me. “You get hundreds of people going to Croatia and places, paying a thousand euro. For the music. Buckley does it, Mizell does it – they all do it.” This must be the engine on the scene’s train: hundreds of people willing to pick their holiday for the sake of music. “Well, Ireland has a musical culture,” he continues. “We’re steeped in it. The showbands, rock and roll, country – it’s all good.”
And what lies in the future for country and Irish? Is it growing? “Let me tell you this,” he says. “You get the Sunday World any Sunday, there’s four pages of advertisements for dances. And that’s just the big venues. Oh, it’s big.” He nods in a satisfied way and greets a friend across the hall. Then he gets up from his chair, picks up his glass and moves slowly off to join the rows of men at the bar, not talking, looking out for his next dance.
Originally published in the Sunday Tribune.