This Christmas Day just gone, I found myself back home in rural Northern Ireland. Scanning the radio for something festive, a familiar voice wafted across the airwaves: “Hang in there, ye girl ye! Remember, Uncle Hugo loves ye.” The dial was tuned to BBC Radio Ulster, Northern Ireland’s flagship radio station. The “girl” in question, a regular listener who had texted in to say that though she was alone at Christmas, the music was keeping her company. That comforting voice belonged to the 1970s singer-turned-DJ who has lent the daily Hugo Duncan’s Country Afternoon show his name.
“The one thing that I try to remember every day, when I sit down on that chair and go on air, is that there are a lot of listeners sitting at home alone today that have nobody belonging to them,” Duncan says, when I manage to pull him away from the mic for a quick chat. “We’re the only friends going into their house. We have to try to lift the whole thing up, and keep the fun and humor going.”
So look, as well as being a Nice Guy, Duncan is also considered a bit of an all-knowing guru within Irish country. Also referred to as “country and Irish”, it’s a recession-defying local phenomenon, lucrative industry and—for many Irish people—lifestyle firmly rooted in rural, farming communities where local singers can become stars. Since really gaining a foothold in the 1970s, the genre has become somewhat of a time capsule that churns out the same comforting visual and aural tropes, time and time again. Whether that be “Queen of Country” Philomena Begley in 1975 or former boyband singer Derek Ryan in 2017, it’s a genre that sticks to its soft-focus, pastoral aesthetic with such dedication that it’s turned into a running Twitter joke, but more on that in a second.
Considering its rural appeal, it’s no surprise that many of the biggest songs in Irish country revolve around farming. Probably the most iconic song of the subject, recorded first by Marty Mone (think a bargain-basket Ed Sheeran with a penchant for drinking culture) and Ritchie Remo (AKA Richard Curry, a singer multi-instrumentalist from Claudy in County Derry) "Hit the Diff" (above) is an unparalleled insight into Irish country life and its unwavering fascination with tractors, trucks, and lorries.
While it’s big business, with younger stars such as 27-year-old country-pop’s Nathan Carter, Derek Ryan and Glasgow-born, Ireland-based singer Lisa McHugh playing sold-out arena shows, veteran Irish entertainers such as Conal Gallen, 62, and Richie Kavanagh, 68, have added a more self-deprecating element to the genre. Much like the inexplicable success of BBC One’s Mrs Brown’s Boys, both Gallen and Kavanagh use attempts at humor to make Irish country impervious to any form of real-world, logical criticism. ie: you can’t make fun of us—we make fun of ourselves.
OK, now to that Twitter thing. Long before YouTube gave companies like Steve Bloor Media a monopoly on the Irish country video, album artwork set a strong precedent for its visual identity. Only Eurodance has come close to challenging the wild aesthetic singularity of the standard Irish country CD cover, a proud tradition that continues to this day:
Irish country album artwork is so distinctive and instantly identifiable that one guy on Twitter recently re-imagined some more globally-recognized faces as this genre’s superstars.
A native of County Donegal in the northwest of the island, Patrick McHugh, 28, grew up in what he calls a “mecca” of Irish country. “Irish country album covers are all the same,” he tells me. “There are very few that don’t feature the artist superimposed over a scenic landscape and almost everything about the song is taken literally. If the song is about loving a dog, you can guarantee there is going to be a picture of a dog being loved on the cover.”
“As bad as they are, they do have a certain charm to them, mostly in a ‘God, they’re awful’ kind of way. I thought it would be an interesting juxtaposition to blend the two worlds. Some of the original ones I’ve done are based on existing designs but it soon became easy to do ones that were completely original.”
It’s things like this aesthetic that make delving into the world of Irish country so rewarding. Sure, it may not be progressively-minded, or overly artistically motivated. But as a social, rurally-dependent industry, it gives meaning and hope to countless people, both old and young, in small communities that wouldn’t know Drake from Adam if he called by for a quick jive. And that’s what’s actually important.
The genre has managed to survive, aesthetically almost unchanged, for decades. Back in the first half of the 20th century, Irish music was dominated either by traditional music or big band orchestras and balladeers. Fast forward through when rock ‘n’ roll birthed what’s known as the showband scene in the 1950s, urban tastes moved towards blues and beat acts in the 60s and 70s. All the while, rural populations kept up a taste for pop blended with some of the markers of American country. Even when the showband era came to end with the Miami Showband killings, when three members of a popular Dublin troupe were murdered at the height of the Troubles in 1975, Irish country carried on. It broke off into a realm that, arguably at its most questionable, has been complicit in not only making 56-year-old Irish country-pop icon Daniel O’Donnell possible, but also the first artist to have had a different album in the British charts every year for 25 consecutive years, in 2012.
Few people have a better grasp of the importance of the music in those small communities than Uncle Hugo. “I remember one day I played a bit of ‘Tennessee Waltz’,” he says. “A lady rang in and asked, ‘Will you ask Hugo to play it in full? I’m sitting here beside my mother and she doesn’t know who I am, who she is or where she is. But when he started to play that music she sang along with it.’ So we played the whole song and the lady emailed back in to say her mother—who still didn’t know who her daughter was, who she was or where she was—sang the whole song, from start to finish. So music brings back great memories and it can be a great help as well.”
From now on, any time I instinctively want to brush Irish country aside, I’m going to remember that "Tennessee Waltz" story and the lady who took comfort from Uncle Hugo’s Country Afternoon on Christmas Day. You should, too. After all, you could do a whole lot worse than keepin’ ‘er country.
You can find Brian on Twitter.