Chuck Owens has enjoyed an Irish country music career spanning 43 years. He spoke to Michael McDonagh about longevity and working with the greats.
IW: Chuck Owens, you have a new double-CD out celebrating 40 years in the music business.
“Well yes, actually it is a little bit longer than that, about 43 years.”
IW: Tell us how you started.
“We were a relief band that’d play before the big band. We’d get two or three guys together with drums and bass and guitar and we’d do maybe an hour and a half before the big band would come on stage.
“We started out in the Granard Ballroom in Longford, then we’d go up to Dublin and play up there at the National Ballroom on Parnell Square and it went from there.
“Other bands would hear of us and would ask if we wanted a job supporting the big bands of the time. We were called The Gamblers back then.”
IW: Was that supporting Larry Cunningham?
“We had a band called The Gamblers at that time and Larry and Margo split up and they were stuck for a band on the weekend as they were gone on the Sunday night, so we were back playing with Larry on the Friday night, and it lasted nearly 10 years.”
IW: You did the Wembley Country shows with him, didn’t you?
“Yes, we were over with Larry for those Mervin Conn Wembley Country Music Festival shows, which were very big back in 1986 or 1988, around that time. I remember Crystal Gale was on it, and Willy Nelson, and Albert Lee and Freddy Fender – there were loads of great people on the bill.
“I was playing lead guitar with Larry at the time so on the Easter Monday we got the chance to do the Wembley show and we played the National Ballroom in Kilburn on the night before, for Gerry Smithers, then we went down the next morning for rehearsals for Wembley and we got a run through.
“It turned out very well for a live thing like that. For me it was the first time to play anywhere so big, I was very nervous but when we got on the stage, we were ok. It went down very well.”
IW: What have been the highlights for you over the 40 years?
“Well that – it was one of the best gigs. It was 25 years for Larry so to do it with him then was special.
“When we came over and toured in England we played everywhere. Pontins holiday camp was a great place to play, and we played in Scotland and England and Wales. There was a great gig in Southport we did every year.
“Roundwood Park in London was another great gig – all the Irish in London would be there so it was a great atmosphere like home from home.
“It is hard to remember all the places we played because back then when you went on a tour you would just play so many dates up and down the country.
“It was always so much more than two days or a weekend.
“We used to play all the clubs and ballrooms in Birmingham and Manchester and in London places like The Galtymore that have now gone.
“It is such a shame that they’re now all gone.
IW: Are you still touring as much as you used to?
“Not at the moment as I had a bit of a setback with the auld heart and I have had an operation, so I am leaving the gigs alone until I am recovered, and I am taking it easy for a while with a few months off. New Year’s Eve was our last gig.”
IW: Who are your favourite singers?
“My favourite was always George Jones. I was able to meet him the year he died and to have may photo taken with him. We supported Charlie Pride as well, I like him and his music, and I like Gene Watson – but, definitely, my favourite singer of all-time is George Jones.
“I love all the old-style country music and the old American stuff. The modern stuff is good, but it’s gone very pop-ish, I’m into old country.”
IW: The business has changed so much, and records don’t sell like they used to so do you think it is harder now than it was when you started out?
“People are all downloading now, and it is harder to sell CDs as the shops have closed, but people like CDs and do still buy them, especially after the shows.
“They queue up for CDs, so they can have it in their hand to hold. As I said, I picked every track and every track that is on it, is all good and very good country, the old Country like Mel Street’s stuff, and I am very pleased with it and that it is coming out.”
Simply Chuck is available from irishmusic.co.uk