Life is Duff

Mary's father discovering her talent led to her discovering that she wanted to sing professionally
Mary’s father discovering her talent led to her discovering that she wanted to sing professionally

David Hennessy talks to singer Mary Duff about 27 years performing with Daniel O’Donnell, how she started in music and how Garth Brooks helped her style her hair for a show

One of Ireland’s best loved singers Mary Duff, a long term collaborator of Daniel O’Donnell, has released her ‘Country Collection’, a double CD collection compiled from her extensive back catalogue.

“Different songs just remind you of different things,” Mary tells The Irish World of the 40 songs that represent her career that is now approaching three whole decades. “Every song is a memory, I suppose.

“We have well over 20 albums done and it’s great to look back because you have different memories from the different songs. It is nice to see them all together.

“For Daddy would have been one of the very first country songs I would have learned, it was on an old Emmylou Harris album. It would just remind me of those days when I was singing with my father in his band as well.

“Crazy would have been on one of the first albums, to Yellow Roses which is one of my most popular recordings, to Daddy’s Hands which was on the very first one as well and of course the ones with Daniel as well. I’m still working with him after all these years. Not many people last as long as we have lasted, we’re 26 years working together which is unheard of really in the business.

“In 1987, I started working with him and it was very lucky we gelled so well together and people have accepted me as part of his show which I am now for so many years now.”

Although she had previously performed with the band Jukebox and of course with her father’s band from childhood, it was the UK that gave Mary her first big break in the industry when she was chosen to join Daniel O’Donnell on his first UK tour. It may be hard to believe now that he is so well known but Daniel and Mary started modestly: “I remember playing in Sheffield one night in the big venue there and there were people scattered everywhere. I remember the MC saying: ‘Would you please come up and sit in the front couple of rows and make it look a bit decent?’

Mary has been singing with Daniel O'Donnell for 27 years now
Mary has been singing with Daniel O’Donnell for 27 years now

“There were so few people there. In the early years, there would have been very small crowds but then gradually as the years progressed, you could see the crowds getting bigger and bigger. People would eventually bring their sleeping blankets and queue outside with a flask to get front row and they still do that. It’s amazing to see it build up from nothing.

“It’s the same in America. Fifteen years ago, there might be 16 people at a show. We weren’t known, there were people like Andy Williams, Charley Pride, Boxcar Willie, the Osmonds: Everyone had heard of them but they had never heard of Mary Duff and Daniel O’Donnell. I was there when that started from nothing as well to a huge following.”

The new collection features Mary and Daniel performing four duets. They have often been complimented for how well their voices blend together: “Somewhere Between [which features on the album] was the first one we did. Neither of us would be, Daniel would agree as well, natural harmony singers.

“Say Daniel was doing the harmony, he would get the piano player Steve to tape his part on a tape recorder and then he would learn his part with the piano. And I would be the same, I would tape my part if I was doing harmonies and then I would learn them from that. I wouldn’t be naturally good at picking harmonies because I have just always done lead singing, the same as Daniel but we’ve got to know each other very well now and we know when we’re each going to take a breath.”

Life on the road can’t always be easy. Has it always been a pleasure to work with Daniel? “It’s been grand. We wouldn’t have that much dealings off the road really. We would see each other onstage but we wouldn’t be living in each other’s pockets. Everyone in the band would be individuals and even though we would help each other along the way, everyone has their own personality and their own space. Everyone has been there 27, some of them 30 years so it’s a long relationship. Everyone knows everything about everyone really. It’s great to have done it. Not many bands and artists have the luck of having that.”

Mary is the new patron for Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, a title she will hold for three years and saw her lead a fundraising walk in Salzburg, Austria that raised over €30,000 for the cause: “It was great to do that and get involved with people like that, it was a great eye opener.”

Cystic fibrosis is not a condition Mary was familiar with before being approached to be the charity figurehead: “They asked me if I would do it and I said I would but I didn’t know much about it and I checked it out. It’s one of the most common death-related diseases in Ireland which I didn’t realise, but medical know how has come on so much now that people are actually living a little bit longer and hospitals are becoming more aware of them. People are becoming a little bit more aware so we want to get more awareness out there about it.

“People are affected in their digestive system and their lungs are affected and they have an awful lot of trouble sleeping, there’s an awful lot of hassle that people don’t even realise what they go through. They don’t live to be old. For some of them, 40 would be the max but some would die at 16 and some of them younger. It’s a hard thing to deal with.

“I’ve been mentioning it at different shows and people who have been affected by it have come up to me.

“Some of the people on the walk actually have cystic fibrosis and I got chatting to them and they were telling me all they have to go through every day: The nebulizers and the different stuff they’re taking as well and exercise they have to do to clear their lungs. Your heart would go out to them and they’re great people and they’re very positive and they just live lives to the full.”

For the full interview, see the November 8 Irish World. 

Mary Duff will tour the UK next year.

Mary Duff: The Country Collection is out now. For more information, go to http://www.maryduff.net/.

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