Paul Claffey, once described by the late, great Joe Dolan as an ‘entertainer in exile’ is neither singer, nor musician, yet finds himself something of a ‘jack of all trades’ in the world of Irish country music, having spent a lifetime promoting bands, working as a radio and TV presenter, and organising Irish-music themed holidays and managing Michael English.
He told Michael McDonagh how he started and how he keeps it all going.
How I became a promoter
“I started promoting dances at a very young age, 12 or 14, when I organised some small local dances and I got really into to it. The showbands came along and I got into doing them about forty years ago now. I had a couple of dancehalls, one in Ballyhaunis and one in Castlerea, and also had them in Ballaghaderreen and Gort.
“Originally when I started, I was booking rock bands, unknown rock bands starting out, then I moved into the showbands.
“I did all the showbands at one time like Brendan Bowyer, Big Tom, Joe Dolan, The Indians, The Champions, all of them, but originally it was the rock bands.
“I booked Phil Lynott one time when he was in a band called The Orphanage – for the grand total sum of £20 at the time.
“They weren’t dancehalls at that time but school dances, and clubs, and there were loads of those bands then, but Phil really stands out.
“Then, in the 1970s, hotels got late night bar extension licences and, overnight, that was the end of the ballrooms overnight because they had no bar licences.
“To get a licence you had to have a restaurant and you had to have a meal – the meal could consist of one chip and one sausage (even though) it was supposed to be a substantial meal – but I then managed to get a licence for a ballroom at Ballyhaunis, so I could carry on promoting there.”
How I became a broadcaster
“The problem was that the showbands were not getting much, if any, airplay on Irish radio, those were the days of sponsored programmes on Radio Eireann. They did not play showbands, they played international pop stuff and Irish artistes would only get the odd bit of air play.
“So, we started a pirate radio station from the cloakroom of the ballroom in Ballyhaunis to play the showbands, or country music, and that took off like a bush fire because people could relate to it. We had local news and local interest stuff alongside the music they wanted to hear – that was the precursor to Midwest Radio.
“In 1988 we had to close down as the government put a stop to the pirates, but we’d had five years of being very successful.
“Then in 1989, with a consortium, we got a licence for legal station with a consortium, and that is how Midwest Radio was born.
“I’m still MD of the radio station and I have my show on it every day, between 11 o’clock an 1 pm, with Gerry Glennon.
“I enjoy it as it keeps me in touch with things and it means I never lose touch with my audience. Paul and I also anchor a television show called Ireland West Music Television on Spotlight, which used to be called Keep it Country.”
How I became a tour operator
“I got an idea one time when I was on holiday in Spain, watching these Irish people on holiday, who after a day in the sun, might be sitting down with a drink listening to some Spanish guitarist and she would be looking at him and he would be looking at her – and they were bored.
“I thought ‘Jayzus, if I could bring out some of the Irish showbands to these hotels to entertain the Irish tourists it would be great.’
“We chartered a plane from Knock and took 140 people out and Joe Dolan came and played. That’s 30 years ago now. People love a bit of music that they know and a bit of sunshine.
“Next week I’m taking 700 people to Portugal, and a couple of weeks ago I had a thousand people in Spain. All that was born out of the radio station.”
Why I think ‘country’ music is the only game in town at the moment, and why some of it isn’t actually ‘country’
“It is not a fad because the big thing is that the younger people like to dance, they like to jive.
“I ran discos for years, but the disco had gone full circle, everything has a lifespan, but in the dance halls there is a live band, particularly if it is all young fellas like Mike Denver or Michael English. They are all good-looking fellas playing real lively music, which would really be pop songs with a country twist to them, so people could relate to them.
“Then of course Nathan Carter came along and he sped the whole process up, country music is flying.
“Country is ‘cool’, country is the only game in town – but country is not the country as it was when it was sneered at.
“With Mike Denver, or Nathan Carter, it is all upbeat, bouncy, songs, lively and good to jive to.
“Most of the street festivals here (in Ireland) in the summer all feature the top country bands.”
“Forget about CDs and records, liver performances are where the money is these days.
“You can forget about recordings now, even cars don’t have CD players in them anymore and record sales are at an end now. It is all about Spotify and there is no money in that, so the only way a band can make money now is on the road touring.
“I learned a valuable lesson many years ago I was in the pirate station. At first, I was playing the kind of music that I wanted to hear and not the kind of music that the people wanted to hear.
“That is the problem of a lot of the newer acts that are coming along today, they are not really giving the people what they want but are giving them what they think they want and if people come out to see a band they want music they can dance to.
“Some of the new artists lose sight of that and don’t play what the audience wants, so a few of the new artists come and go – but the six or seven main acts are still doing great business.
“Years ago in England you had regional radio stations that would play country music, and on the BBC Terry Wogan might play a bit, but now the only game in town is Phil Mack’s Spotlight TV and it will be big loss to the scene that he is not on Freeview anymore, no doubt about it.
“But the cost of Freeview to him was millions. He still has a good core following though, that can get the channel on Sky or other platforms like Freesat and it is extraordinarily popular.
“He has done a lot for Irish artistes, especially for Michael English, in England.
“It is a shame that in England that all those big venues like The Galtymore have now gone, it is much more difficult now, but at the same time you just have to keep plugging away now it has moved into the concert venues.
“At the end of the day it is all about that ‘magic’ song, and that ‘magic’ song is very hard to find. Daniel O’Donnell was very lucky he had 20 ‘magic’ songs, Foster and Allen were the same, so they could become international.
“Now they are all making videos that they stick up on YouTube but there are so many of them it is almost impossible, it is still possible to do it, but it is much more difficult and a lot of them will find it difficult to make a living – no more so than if they were singing folk and ballads.
“The only thing with the country bands is that if you are like Mike Denver, or Michael English, you will be playing four or five nights a week in the summer -but you need a few strings to your bow if you are to make a decent living at it.
“There are a lot of new fellas coming along like Johnny Brady or Jim Devine, but it is all about that ‘magic’ song and you never know who is going to come along.
“The last one was Nathan Carter (with Wagon Wheel), but it is a big risk now to put a band on the road and it is very tough for them.
“But as for me – between the tours and the radio and my TV show on Spotlight I am very content.
“I was never into country music when I started and was more into the rock bands, now I love Willy Nelson or Charlie Pride and I’m also a big fan of Mike Denver, Derek Ryan, Nathan, and obviously Michael English, whom I now manage. But I don’t consider the music that they do to be country music.”
As told to Michael McDonagh