Before I ever had the pleasure of actually meeting Dominic Kirwan in person, I always imagined that his stage presence probably reflected his off-stage persona, too; completely confident in every word and move, effortlessly cool and charming, just short of the kind of swagger that often comes with great talent. And in a way, I was both right and wrong. While Dominic is definitely confident, cool, and charming, all of those traits are tempered by a genuine warmth and modesty (that isn’t always there with others who might have some talent, too, let me tell ya!) combined with a deep sense of integrity in who he is and what he does, that’s very important to him. As for the swagger, that’s the part I was all wrong about. The truth is, Dominic is a gentleman to his Tyrone core, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered, inside or outside of the music business.
The first time our paths crossed was at an event in Tullamore a few years back where a young act I knew had been kindly added to the bill as special guests by promoter Brian Cunningham (another of the good guys out there), joining the likes of Dominic and Philomena Begley for the show, two of the biggest names in country in other words. As one of the other acts on the night was doing their soundcheck Dominic, without any prompting from anyone, made a point of making his way over to our table, introducing himself, and sitting down to chat with, and listen to, the young act in question for the best part of twenty minutes. He asked about their backgrounds, their musical influences and experiences, things he didn’t have to bother with at all. But he did. Those kind of first impressions last. And they’re also a perfect example of what real class is.
Dominic and myself have been trying to nail down some time for a chat ever since then, but between one thing and another, we didn’t manage to make it happen until just last week. When we spoke he was on the road and on the way across the water, in fact, for a busy weekend of shows!
“I’ll be up in Scotland, down in London, and I’ll be in Norwich as well, so I’ve got many miles to travel. But that’s just what we do. I’m driving through some very heavy snow up here in the north of Ireland, but the roads are clear so far, thank God. But the snow is heavy.”
Dominic has a brand new album just released, entitled ‘My Country Favourites’, which, as the name suggests, is choc-a-bloc full of classic country hits; ‘Hello Darlin’, ‘Coward of The County’, ‘Always On My Mind’, and ‘My Heart Skips A Beat’, to share just a few. But with so many amazing country songs in the world, and so many great selections making the cut for this record, what was the first song Dominic definitely knew he had to record for this project, and how hard was it to narrow things down to the final thirteen tracks on ‘My Country Favourites’?
“It wasn’t a case of a first one or a second one really. The problem I suppose I had, and to generalise the answer, was that this is just one album but you could end up doing ‘My Country Favourites’ to Volume Twenty. It’s a very, very difficult thing to do. The concept really came from speaking to Mick Clerkin of Rosette Records, we were just talking about albums and different ideas for an album. And Mick said to me why not stick to a concept for this particular one. So that concept obviously is strict country. I started to think about my background, and what I’ve done since I first started touring; I’ve worked with Charley Pride, I’ve worked with Tammy Wynette, I’ve toured with Kenny Rogers, I’ve been on stage with Don Williams, and with Crystal Gayle, many of these acts. So what I tried to do was identify these artists [ones Dominic had worked with], and there are songs from some of these artists on the album, then favourite artists of mine, keeping it on the traditional side with the likes of Buck Owens, Willie Nelson, and Conway Twitty. And that’s how the whole concept came together really.”
What kind of an impact does it have for an artist like Dominic to share a stage with so many of the legends he had just mentioned, at the stages of his career when he did?
“I think the most important aspect, and I don’t know if people really open their minds up to this, but country music is very diverse in itself. There are probably certain sections of the community that would like to box it up in a corner, as something that’s very ‘old hat’, so to speak. But music in itself, and particularly country music, has that diversity, and if you look at people like Kenny Rogers, Glen Campbell, Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette…..these artists are all ones who have identified with the crossover to pop music. So these are people who I’ve always been able to identify with, because I have that vocal range which allows me to do that. And I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do that. And that’s what I got from these acts as well, when I worked with them and watched them on stage, you could see that crossover where the audience was very diverse in their age-group, and it really wasn’t as ‘old hat’ as people would like to make it out to be.”
Does Dominic think that where Irish country music is concerned – even though the pop-crossover situation is, and has been there in American country music – that when that crossover happens in Irish country it gets looked down upon in some regards?
“Well, some of the young acts are attempting it. And I’ve always been at it myself if you look at my recordings down through the years. I have that crossover element in my albums. But yes, there is that element of what you mentioned. I suppose we could look back at…I mean, Ireland in itself is a rural country. Yes, we’re built up with big cities like Dublin and Cork, and Galway and Belfast and Limerick, but in general, Ireland is rural. So we do live off that background, and we’re very proud of our heritage. And people identify with that country side very, very quickly. So there is that tendency to hold onto what we know is the heritage of Irish country music. But with the emergence of a younger generation [of artists] I think that’s changing.”
What does Dominic feel has been the biggest change he’s seen in the music business during his career, but also, what has been the most important one for artists like himself?
“Well, I’m one of the luckier guys that got out – no, not got out, because I still love to work in Ireland – but I was able to travel a bit further, too. When I first started, particularly in the U.K. anyway, we had a lot of regional radio and regional television, we had more outlets to be able to go and showcase ourselves. That has changed immensely, I think. Now we’re very much controlled by the nationals. The national press, the national television, the national radio. So that little bit of getting to a locality, and the smaller regions, has become a lot more difficult. So for a younger act to break into things, well it’s very, very hard. Because, and I suppose this is true in Ireland as well, you run up against everything that people are seeing on a national basis, the likes of your X-Factors and those kind of things. That has really, really changed. Ireland, admittedly, still has our regional radios as such, but I think on a national basis there’s still not enough identification of Irish entertainment, and particularly Irish country music. Yes, I know R.T.E., every now and again, will showcase it, but I personally don’t believe that’s the way to do it.”
It’s a case of like father, like son in the Kirwan homestead this Christmas, as both Dominic and Barry have just released brand new albums, Barry’s wonderful ‘Moments’ collection coming out just a couple of weeks back. How does Dominic feel watching Barry make such significant progress in his career?
“Well the first thing to say is that I’m very proud of my family. They’re all indirectly involved in music in some way or another nearly. Colm is over in Nashville, I have a younger son in Glasgow who’s a singer/songwriter, more into indie-rock. And I have a daughter just out of university with a degree in business and music. My oldest son, he’s the only one who earns a living, he works for a computer company! [laughs]. But apart from all that, in the case of Barry and to answer your question, I’m very proud of him. I’ve watched him develop as a young musician, and without a doubt in the country music market I’d rate him as one of the top drummers in Ireland. But in his own heart, he wanted to be an entertainer. So when he came to me and said he wanted to go out front, I have to say it was a very difficult decision, and we talked about it for a long, long time. I told him that just because I was doing this, didn’t mean he was going to get the same following. Because you’ve got to be accepted by the public, simple as that. And he knew that going into it. But he’s a hard, hard worker, he’s not afraid of it. He’s very good with people, he’s got a great sense of humour. And if people give him time, and accept him, and go out and meet him, they’ll find out all of that themselves. But I’m not only speaking for Barry in this case, because I am watching the business, and I’m seeing how it’s being dominated by about six or seven acts who are totally controlling the business in Ireland. And they’re not giving the younger generation a chance. And, the audiences are not going out to support them. Yes, success is easy when you’ve got it, but believe you me, when you start out you need support. And we need more people coming out to support, not alone Barry, but the younger generation of artists that are coming up.”
Switching to Christmas, and not wanting to keep Dominic for too long given the long day’s travel he still had in front of him, I asked Dominic if he was looking forward to getting out on the road alongside Barry as part of the Christmas Country Concert Tour which lands in the Tullamore Court Hotel on December 19th…
“I’ll tell ya, I always look forward to meeting up with other acts. I might be a headliner, so to speak, but it’s nice sometimes…not to take a backseat, but to meet up with other acts and to take part in something so enjoyable with artists from the younger generation I spoke of before. I’m looking forward to working with the Queen herself [Philomena Begley], her and I go back a long way. The very first tour I ever did in the U.K., after getting my record contract, was with Philomena, and she was the headliner. So we go back a long, long way. I look forward to working with Barry, too, of course, and with Cliona, and young Stacey Breen who’s on the show, and Louise Morrissey who I’ve toured with before as well. We’ve recorded together too, ‘Islands In The Stream’ is one of the songs we’ve done. So when you meet up with these people, and you get that opportunity to spend a bit of time with them for a few days, obviously it’s a great thing to do. And, it gives you another perspective to the business.”
So does Dominic have a favourite Christmas song that he enjoys performing come each December, and what does 2018 hold in store for the Tyrone man?
“Christmas is a very, very special time. I’m very strong in my faith and I do believe that – and I might sound old-fashioned – but I do believe that in a lot of cases people lose sight of what Christmas is about. But as regards a song, I think ‘Silent Night’ epitomises Christmas for me. After that, looking forward to the new year, I’m looking forward to continuing the promotion of my new album, ‘My Country Favourites’, and I’m also looking forward to being back in the studio again pretty soon to start working on another album for later in the year. Because that’s what we have to do, we have to keep coming out with them to remind people that we’re still there. Because it’s very easy to be forgotten. And I’m one artist that knows that very well. I have an Irish Tour starting in March and also in May in 2018 as well, with a bit of dancing in between. So anybody who wants to keep track of me can do so through my website, dominickirwan.com, and Twitter @DominicKirwan, Facebook /DominicKirwan, and Instagram @dominic.kirwan as well!”
Dominic’s class makes him a country king, and long may he reign!
* Dominic’s brand new album, ‘My Country Favourites’, is OUT NOW, and available from TRAX, in the Bridge Centre, Tullamore. And don’t forget that Barry Kirwan’s latest album, ‘Moments’, is also available from TRAX.
** Dominic and Barry will be joining Philomena Begley, Cliona Hagan, Louise Morrissey, Stacey Breen and special guest for the night, Colin Kenny, in the Tullamore Court Hotel on December 19th. Tickets are available from hotel reception.