None of the famous names in Irish Country music would be where they are if they did not have great songs.
There’s one man who spent many years of his life in the background writing songs for nearly all of the best-known names in the business. Big Tom, Mick Flavin, Margo and Brendan Shine have all sung his songs.
Now there is a 16-track compilation of the songs performed by the original performers. Behind it all is Mayo man Michael Commins.
Irish World: You have now written so many songs for famous names, how did you actually get started and which was the first of your songs song you wrote that was covered by a well-known act?
The first song was back in the ‘70s and it was recorded by a fella called Pat Ely. He had lived in Manchester for a while but came from around Thurles and lived in Sligo for a long time.
He was with a band called The Rocky Tops at the time, a mountain in Tennessee actually, that they’d named the band after. He was of the Smokey Mountain Ramblers and they had been a really influential country band in Ireland and were probably the first really authentic Country band. They had a short enough life, about four years but they were very influential in the ‘60s.
He had a single out in the ‘70s and the A side was a Johnny McCauley song. Johnny lived in London and had written many great songs like Pretty Little Girl from Omagh and My Donegal Shore and he wrote the A side for this record, which was called Any Tipperary Town.
I was only a teenager at the time, but I got the B side with my song The Western Counties, basically about the western counties of Ireland, where I’m from, but it was a lucky break.
I never forgot that as it encouraged me, and I always think of that and am grateful to Pat Ely for the chance to get a bit of recognition.
IW: Were you a musician yourself?
Oh no at the time I wrote that I was either finishing off at school or had started my first job in the bank, I worked in the bank for five years.
IW: You and Christy Moore!
That’s right, up until the time of the Bank Strike. I think Christy worked for the bank in Ballyhaunis, which is only 12 miles up the road from here in Mayo, but I was in Abbeyleix in the Midlands.
I left the bank and went to work for an Entertainment magazine in the Midlands owned by Tony Lochman, who was very involved in Country Music. He had a printing works up there in Caslteblaney, so he started this magazine and printed it there.
The magazine was a bit like Spotlight was in Ireland. After about eight months I got into local newspapers and have been doing that ever since. I am currently with The Mayo News and that’s my full-time job. I was years at The Western People but in the ‘80s, as well as working, I had written a fair few songs.
I’m not even a musician but I love writing lyrics and I love writing story songs and I would hope they are good lyrics.
IW: Which was the most successful?
I would say probably Maria is Heading Out to California, which I wrote on a plane coming back from New York in about 1992.
I was over there for a St Patrick’s day weekend and I started the song as we were going over Long Island after taking off from JFK and I had it finished when we landed at Shannon. Mick Flavin recorded that song and it was very popular, then Foster & Allen did a great version as well – that would be one of my own personal favourites – and it has now been recorded by a lot of people.
I have another one, which is more recent, and I had great hopes for it. It is on an album by Frank McCaffrey but I think perhaps it needs an American version as it is called Vermont in the Fall, about the State of Vermont.
I have another one covered by Leona Williams, who was married to Merle Haggard, she tours over here sometimes and was over last year.
IW: You worked with Big Tom and were friends with him, you must miss him?
Of course. There were the songs covered by Big Tom and all through the years and there is no question about it, Tom would have been a very close friend of mine and I miss him terrible, I really do.
Both him and Rose were very special people and I had the privilege of introducing him on stage in so many parts of the country over the years and it was extraordinary. He did his very last show for us in Salthill for the weekend we do each year in November, and then he died in February. It was very sad. I miss him.
IW: You also have your own TV show on Keep It Country TV and a radio show and seem to be a big fan of Hank Williams and those Country Music stars from the past. Did they influence your writing?
Without a shadow of a doubt – that is the type of Country Music that I would have grown up loving and there were times that I would have personal favourites and would be influenced by them and a lot of people would say they liked Hank Williams or might think me old-fashioned but I really loved Hank Williams and especially those great ‘heart’ songs. Tom T Hall was another great writer.
IW: How do you feel about Country Music now and what is called Country Pop?
I think there is a great disconnect between the hearts and minds of people and modern country music. I always believed that traditional Country Music connected because of the ‘heart’ songs which were essentially about life and which got to people and related to their emotions and lives.
Now we have these songs about trucks and tractors, and it just isn’t the same. I have no time at all for some of this recent stuff, which I don’t think can even be called Country. I would have more respect for it if it called itself something else, not Country.
Since about 2000 the quality of the songs and the writing that should touch the hearts and souls of the people has gone out of Country Music compared to what it used to be.
The only real form of the genre staying true to the spirit of Country Music, is Bluegrass. If, by chance, you heard a good new country song now it would stand out – because they are so rare.
Nathan Carter’s great hit record, which had five million YouTube hits, Wagon Wheel, is actually an old Bob Dylan song from many years ago.
That is absolutely true, not many of the five million would know that. Even now, I don’t mind admitting it, I sometimes go back and listen to bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival – they had great songs in that era – and every now and again on my radio show on MidWest I slip it in or play another great song from that time, the Bee Gees’ Massachusetts. It was likeable music, the songs were well-written and constructed.
IW: Many of your songs seem to be related to a specific place in Ireland. Ralph McTell once said that Ireland has a song about every hole in a hedge, but England has none. Is that because with generations of emigration the Irish are always longing for home?
That’s very funny and probably true. I remember Harlan Howard, a great songwriter in America, who had a theory that songs with place names seem to resonate in a special way with rural people in America – hence songs like Streets of Baltimore and New York, New York are so popular.
Here in Ireland, we have Limerick, You’re a Lady by Denis Allen and Pretty Little Girl from Omagh or even Galway Bay, we could go on forever.
You have to remember, and you would know from living over there, that back in Ireland the parish identity is very strong and the GAA is entirely built up on that loyalty and identity.
Loyalty is strong and inculcated into everybody wherever you are living whether in Ireland or living abroad and missing it.
There is nothing stronger in Ireland than the parish connection – the first question Irish people always ask you is Where are you from? so a song that mentions a place name becomes very strong and popular, going back to The Rose of Tralee or The Mountains of Mourne.
When Pete St John wrote Fields Of Athenry he could have had no notion of how huge it would become as a rugby anthem sung by Irish fans in stadiums all over the world.
Going back even further there is Percy French with songs like Come Back Paddy Reilly to BallyJamesduff. It is a fabulous song no matter who sings it – if they are singing it well – I just love that song.
It was another ‘place’ song, There is The Isle of Innisfree, that was in the film The Quiet Man and that also had in it The Kerry Dances. The Saw Doctors had a song The Green and Red of Mayo which the young fellas liked.
But The Boys in County Mayo, which was written in 1932 by a guy from Castlebar called Tom Dunleavy when he was in New York, is an amazing song and has become an anthem for Mayo.
If you are overseas and you hear somebody singing that song, there is nothing like it to pull at the heartstrings.
In the world of Country and Irish Johnny McCauley was the master of all that. He knew how to phrase a lyric that would capture the heart, like this:
As the train pulls out today from Derry city/ A thousand memories linger in my mind/
Why do I have to go, it’s such a pity?/ And all the dear old friends I leave behind/
As I gaze across the harbour I’m recalling/ Familiar names like Doherty and Coyle/
Through misty eyes I feel the teardrops falling/ Goodbye to my old hometown on the Foyle/
It is the pull and the drag of emigration. It is much stronger if you take it in a line from the coast of Derry down to Cork, where emigration would be much stronger than it would down the east coast.
That is why there are many songs about Mayo and Galway and Kerry than there are about Carlow and Meath and Wicklow.
I recall filming Mick Flavin singing Longford Lovely Longford for a video and we got up at dawn to film in the middle of the main street with no traffic and were appalled to find the street just full of litter and rubbish, just thrown out of car windows, it was awful.
Songs do romanticise places (compared to the reality) but funnily enough for such a small county Longford has always been a great place for Country Music and produced a lot of good people who became big in the Country Music scene, Flavin, Nerney and many others.
IW: Will there be a Volume 2 of this album?
I don’t know. I’ll give this one a year or two. I do have a collection of about 55 songs that have been recorded so we have plenty enough and could do Volume Two, who knows? I’m not very good at organising this stuff and let things drift but I am glad this one is out and I hope people will like it.
The music end of things and the GAA are my two big interests I cover the GAA games for the paper, which I have been doing for years, and do my TV show on Keep it Country, which I love, so things are good.
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