From Ballinamuck to the Grand Ole Opry

Ballinamuck Grand Ole Opry Mick Flavin

Mick Flavin, one of Irish country’s most popular sons, tells the Irish World that while he loved the old dance halls these days, at 67, he prefers to do concerts

As the year’s end approaches it brings with it a certain bitter sweet nostalgia for Mick Flavin, one of the most popular acts on the Irish country circuit. For much of this year he has been celebrating thirty years on the road as a lead performer. But his first foray into show business started much earlier than that.

Aged 10 he won a competition which was the start of his taste for being paid to sing to strangers. His first gig, such as it was, when a teacher at his school asked him to sing in Murphy’s Hall in Ballyduff near Moyne Cross.

But being a full-time, professional singer was a still a few years away. In the mid-60s he and a few friends, some from the Tech, all heavily influenced by local Longford hero Larry Cunningham, and Gerry Reynolds and the Hi Lows, made a few tentative attempts at performing.

Successful

But it broke up and wasn’t to be and real-life intervened, for a decade or two, at least.

He took an apprenticeship in carpentry, qualified and was hired for his first full-time job in Longford before moving to Dublin for a job with Sisk.

In 1974 Dublin house prices were steep, even in the pre-Celtic tiger years, and he and his wife Mary tired of living in an apartment and worked out they could have a much, much bigger home in Longford. So he went to work for Longford County Council and, with his father, built his and Mary’s family home.

In 1975 he started playing pubs with Jet Calders and saxophonist and clarinetist Paddy Nichol, which they did for much of the next decade, but after a while any profit was eaten up by the after hours drinking. The drinking took its toll on his health, his family and his job.

So he went to a specialist in Mullingar for several weeks to dry out and – despite playing so many pubs and bars as well as concert venues – hasn’t touched a drop since.

And the years since then have been his most successful as a singer.

Ballinamuck Grand Ole Opry Mick Flavin
Mick Flavin

In 1986, newly liberated from the demon gargle, he met fellow Longford man Declan Nerney and the two riffed off each other and jammed and instantly hit it off. Declan was so impressed by Mick’s rendition of a Hank Williams song – whose singing he discovered when still a child after a neighbour gave him some of his records – that Declan urged him to record an album.

He told him that local radio was going to be huge and he would make sure he got airplay. He persuaded him to go to a recording studio in Athlone where they recorded two tracks on which Declan played lead guitar, rhythm guitar, steel guitar, and bass. They also used a drum machine. They both liked it so much they decided to go back and ended up recording ten songs in all.

Pirate stations

It was to become ‘My Kind of Country & Irish’ and was released as a compact cassette for Christmas in 1986. Declan was true to his word and the album received enormous amounts of airplay on what were still pirate stations all over the country.

Jimmy Smith, formerly of the Mighty Avons, took an interest, and introduced him to his brother, Peter, who offered to manage him. He was signed to Harmac Records and released a proper album, entitled I’m Gonna Make It After All. The appropriateness of the title, after the grim times, was not wasted on him.

“From performing at venues with 25 to 40 people in the audiences we were playing to packed venues, all because of that,” he says.

Mick Flavin
Photo of Hank Williams Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Other albums and a video followed. He went from success to success including performing at London’s Wembley Arena in 1989 at the Country Music Festival, on a bill that included Buck Owens, Waylon Jennings, and other giants of country music.

“But probably the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done, as a country music singer, was to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 2006.

“George Hamilton IV worked it for me to perform there and I sang Forty Shades of Green. Touring Australia was also an incredible experience,” he adds.

He is 67 now – proud parent to two sons, a carpenter and a mechanic – and grandfather to six grandchildren. The venues may be smaller but earlier this year he still filled the 600-seater Beck Theatre in Hayes with little marketing or effort. That was one of sixteen nights he played here in the UK a little while ago. He is doing a few more this week-end.

“I loved the dance halls and obviously the likes of the Galtymore back in the day, but I much prefer giving concerts these days.

“You get a little more respect and attention from the audience who listen to the sings, which is really nice,” he explains.

The music he listens to is country music – Johnny Cash, George Jones, Conway Twitty, Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, Don Wiliams, Hank Williams, Marty Robbins – “the greats,” as he calls them.

“It’s always been country for me. I lived in a thatched house in Ballinamuck, there were six of us in the family, it was the late 50s, and we had on old rcord player and everyone was into Elvis and Eddie Cochrane but a neighbour gave me some Hank Williams records to listen to, I was 8 or 9, and I was hooked on country for life.”

Nevertheless he does intend to deviate from it, if ever so slightly, and broaden his musical output next year with an album of county… and gospel, which will be out at Easter. Asked if there’ll be a next generation of Flavin troubadours, he laughs gently, and says his granddaughter Amy Rose shared the stage with him at a school concert recently and “was quite a handy singer with her little guitar”.

• Mick Flavin will be appearing at St Ann’s in Birmingham Friday 17 November, the shamrock club at Welwyn Garden City on Saturday 18 November and the McKeefrey Music Festival in Portsmouth on Sunday 19 November.


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