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Margo: From The Beatles to Big Tom and Dolly Parton


Irish country music legend Margo did not feel like celebrating 50 years in the business when she reached that milestone five years ago as her mother had just died. So instead, the big sister to Daniel O’Donnell, whose singing career had been the family’s breadwinner when she was just 16-years old, is celebrating 55 years in the business. She spoke to Michael J McDonagh about a career that dates back to the early 1960s.

Irish World: How are you?

“I’m fine. I have a new album out of old songs and new songs with some of the old songs re-recorded, it is called MARGO: OLD & NEW

“I am not out on the road as much as I used to be and I only do now what I want to do – but it is 55 years since I started, so we have a few things coming up to celebrate that.

“It was around the time that my mother passed away that I was 50 years in music, but at that time it was not right to be celebrating and I did not feel like doing anything then. Now this year, it will 55 years.

“I had been doing a spot or two with Billy Morrissey, Louise’s brother and the subject came up about how long I’d been in the business and that was in October last year and without thinking I just said it will be 55 years next year and Trudie, who has got a lot of jump and enthusiasm in her, she said why don’t Billy and I put together some celebration concerts for you.

“My God, it does not seem like 55 years since I started and I can still remember some of the things I did back then, Thank God, and you wonder where the years went at all.”

IW: How did you start?

“It began with some young fellas from back home near Kincasslagh who had a band called The Keynotes and back then, because of Lent, the dances were called off and somebody would put together little drama sketches, which they would show in the parochial hall.

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“We had a priest in Kincasslagh called Fr Deegan and I had been in the choir from a very young age and he told people in this group I could sing.

“In fact, the first time I sang in that hall I was only five but when I was about 13 the singer in the band was off to get a proper job as a policeman and they came to the house and asked my mum and dad if I could sing with the band in my school holidays.

“That is how it started. I joined in 1964, but we didn’t record anything until February 1968. My father gave me an old Irish folk song called Bonnie Irish Boy and I had heard the voice of Patsy Cline and I thought her voice was magnificent and so I took a song that she had out called Dear God and I put it on the B side. It was one of those small 45 records that were out then with an A side and a B-side.

“My father was looking forward to hearing the song on the radio and when it was released on the 16th of August we had planned for it to be played on the sponsored programmes you had back then and it was to be played that day at a quarter past one – but for my daddy that was too late, he died that day at 11 o’clock, so he never heard the song.

“I was 16 when daddy died and Daniel is ten years younger than me, he was the youngest, so he did not really know him.

“It was even more traumatic than that as my father worked in Scotland and would be away a lot and would come home to maybe cut the turf, or come at Christmas, so it was us older ones who knew him better than Daniel.

daniel o'donnell

“James, funnily enough, remembers him really well. I don’t know if Daniel remembers much about him at all, but we always tried to keep his memory alive by telling him things about our daddy.

“At that time then I had planned to be a nurse and to get married and settle down with kids and all that but when my father died that changed as I was earning money but not a lot.

“When I started singing, with the band, I was earning ten shillings a night but when I recorded the first records, and we were doing more work, the wages went up to about two pounds.

“We were a showband with brass and saxophones in the band doing a mixture of everything. It was very much entertainment and I was the lead singer and the people came in and we became very popular.

“We also became very popular in Scotland and in England with the emigrants. Not only did I do the country music but I also did the country folk ballads and would sing songs that mentioned the place names of places in Ireland, so you would bring back Ireland to the emigrants and they loved that.

“We played all the great Irish ballrooms and dance halls, I played the Gresham Ballroom first, in 1967. It was a wonderful era to be part of and I continued touring and bands changed.

“After my father died, I was the breadwinner of the family. I left The Keynotes in 1969 and formed a band called The Country Folk. I wanted to take The Keynotes with me, but it was a Dublin promoter who approached me, and he wanted just me, he gave me £100 per week at that time, with a car and a driver on the road.

“It meant I was able to send money home to my mother to help keep the family supported. I continued on with my career all down the years but in 1996 I contracted a form of Leukaemia and stepped down and did not tour as much.

“For the last ten years, I have not really toured with the band but this year I am going to do these shows with a band we have put together especially for the tour.”

IW: Your younger brother, ‘wee Daniel’ started with you, pretending to play the guitar when he was still at college.

“Yes, he did and to be honest at that time I did not want him to join the band. I had seen sides to the business that were not good and I did not want him to come into the business and maybe get hurt, so I thought if he came into for a short time in his holiday he may seen the rough edges of the business and it may deter him and he would continue his studies at college but it did not deter him at all and he loved it so much.

“I could actually see the people were focusing on him and I remember one night in a club in Birmingham, St Ann’s, he sang Donegal Shore – which Big Tom had released – and I saw that there was a great reaction, so I got him to sing it again and now it is part of history.”

IW: You must have seen lots of changes in the music business over the years. Recently with people like Nathan Carter and Cliona Hagen and others, there has been a big resurgence.

“It has changed a lot – we need new people to come in and to carry on the music – but it will always come back to the old songs, those great songs. They may do them in a different way, but it always comes back to those great songs. Hank Williams is as big today as he was when he was alive all those years ago. It is not really country music what people are doing now.”

Margaret with country superstar Dolly Parton

IW: Is it harder now than it was when you started with all the new media stuff?

“Well when I started there was no media, you had to go and get out there to be seen and for people to get to know you.

“I could not say if it is a good time or a bad time to be starting now but I think there is a lot of pressure on young artists to have big rigs and gear and everything and to build an image on social media with videos and the like. I don’t know, but I would not like to be starting again now. I suppose that there are no record companies to support them now.

“In 1970 I was signed up by EMI and I went over to record in Abbey Road.

“I was in one studio one day and The Beatles were in another studio and we went for lunch together. But there were no mobile phones then so no selfies, but I have my memories and I know that I met them and that they were a bunch of nice guys.

“I recorded four albums there from about 1968 to 1972 so it would have been at that time in 1969 when they were recording their Abbey Road album, which was the last time they recorded together.

IW: You must have so many memories of special times.

“Oh, I have so many lovely memories over the years but I say to young people there are times when the lights do dim and you have your peak periods and you must hang on to those memories to look back and think that was a wonderful time.

“I toured America and England and Scotland but never went to Europe. I did the big Wembley Country Festival quite a number of times with all the American artists.

“When I played the Grand Ole Oprey in Nashville for the first time that was a really special time in 1986. In 1997 I recorded an album with Dolly Parton. We recorded in the basement of her house and I was there with her uncles and cousins and that was really special, as we spent six weeks together working on that.

“I’m still in contact with her, and would see her if she is over, but the way it works with Dolly is that it is arranged in advance with her people in America, so we are not on the phone to each other all the time and are not pals like that but I will say that every time we were together she was everything that lived up to her name and she is a really lovely human being.”

IW: Last year we lost Big Tom but it was great that you finally managed to get a statue put up in his honour.

“He was a wonderful human being and we were such good friends and at the time leading up to his death, well Rose died first, but in that time I had put together a lot of tracks and we spent a lot of time in the studio together then we recorded a duet and it went to No 1.

“I had always wanted to record a song with him and it is on my album and it is on Tom’s album. It was A Love That Lasted All These Years. I always said there should be a statue of him in the town and we pushed for it and pushed for it. Tom saw the proofs of it but did not see it when it went up. One of the proudest moments in my life was seeing the President of Ireland unveiling the statue of Big Tom in his hometown.”

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