Country Singer Lisa McHugh is On a Mission

She has the youth of Northern Ireland in her grasp, and the stadiums of the world in her sights

Young, attractive, talented and tipped to be Ireland’s next Queen of Country, Lisa McHugh recently reached No. 1 in the Irish country charts with her latest album, A Life That’s Good. Though she was born in Scotland, the 26-year-old star is no stranger to these shores. Both her parents are Irish.

We meet backstage at the Community Centre in Tempo just before her live show. While the musicians and crew drink tea and tuck into iced buns, we repair to a spartan dressing room where McHugh, clad cosily in tartan trews and a trim coat, perches on a table just like the girl next door.

Chatting easily in her soft Scottish brogue, she tells me about herself and her musical journey thus far. Born in the village of Carmunnock near Glasgow, McHugh spent her holidays in Ireland visiting her mother’s family in Falcarragh in Donegal and her father’s people in Castlederg. Her parent’s love of country music was a formative influence.

'I remember singing 'Apple Jack' with my mother on the way to school,' McHugh recalls. 'I loved Dolly Parton and also Martina McBride, Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift whose lyrics and songwriting are just incredible.'

McHugh played guitar and studied music for her A level exams, then worked for three years as office manager at her father’s construction company in Glasgow. When, in 2009, she reached the final of the Irish language TG2 talent show Glor Tire, she moved to Letterkenny to sing full time.

McHugh began by supporting established singers but was soon known for her covers of country songs like 'Old Fashioned Girl' and 'I’m a Little Bit Lonely'. Guitarist and musical director Ray McLoughlin, long-time collaborator with Daniel O’Donnell, helped McHugh put a band together for her first solo concert, which took place in early 2011 at the Bushtown Hotel in Coleraine.

Travelling to and from Donegal proved tiring, however, so McHugh moved – as did her friend, fellow country singer Nathan Carter – to Enniskillen, which is within easy reach of Belfast and Dublin and is also the gateway to the west of Ireland. 'I love it in Enniskillen,' McHugh beams. 'The people are so welcoming and I feel very settled there.'

Following the release of her debut album Dreams Come to Life in 2012, McHugh was voted Best Female singer at the Irish World Newspaper awards in London. She appeared at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville as a guest of country singer Gene Watson, and in 2014 she presented On the Road with Lisa, a nine-part series for Irish TV featuring guests like Carter, O’Donnell, Hugo Duncan and Robert Mizzell.

Soon after the launch of her current album in October 2014, a capacity crowd turned out to see McHugh perform at the Ryandale Hotel in the Moy, County Tyrone. Her fanbase was increasing, particularly among younger audiences, and partly for a surprising reason.

'A vast queue formed outside the venue and once the doors opened at 8.30pm, we quickly filled the hall but sadly had to turn many people away. Live music is popular again, especially with the young people, who make up 60% of my audiences. They love to jive and regard dancing as a way of keeping fit.'

A natural performer, McHugh clearly relishes the limelight. 'I absolutely love being on stage,' she affirms, 'and I like to dream big. My parents brought us up (she has a sister and two brothers) to know that nothing comes easy and we have to work hard to get what we want.'

Like her role model, Dolly Parton, McHugh is business savvy and has a formidable production team behind her: a record label based in Dungannon (Sharpe Music), a PR company in Cookstown (Rising PR), and a promoter in Warrenpoint (Michael Magill Entertainments). She is also adept at using social network sites to promote her music.

Recently sponsored by the trendy Enniskillen boutique, Harry & George, McHugh is fast becoming a fashion icon. 'I’m a girlie girl and I love getting glammed up,' she says. 'I keep an eye on the style at the Country Music Association awards.'

The Lisa McHugh tour bus, emblazoned with her image, carries her stage set and sound equipment from venue to venue, freewheeling around the country like the wagon in 'My House', a song McHugh covers on the new album. 'If I can’t bring you to my house, I’ll bring my house to you. Hitch your wagon to the happiness I’m draggin…'

For the album cover, McHugh wanted to create a wholesome, home-grown image – so, wearing a cowgirl outfit, she was photographed by Glenn Norwood in a sunlit barley field near the Giants Causeway. An American timber frame homestead at the Ulster American Folk Park is the ‘Oklahoma’ style setting for her 'Apple jack' video.

As she dances around the streets of well-known capital cities in her promo for 'Hillbilly Girl', McHugh is paving the way for another of her dreams. When I ask,  'Where will you be in five years?' she replies without hesitation, 'Playing to stadium audiences around the world.'

The new 16-track album covers the whole gamut of emotions, from the nostalgia of 'Home to Donegal' to the gospel fervour of 'Night Train to Memphis', and there is youthful defiance and passion in 'She’s in Love with the Boy'.

McHugh’s version of the chart-topping 'All of Me' is neither as tender or as intimate as John Legend’s original, but then Legend is a very hard act to follow. On the other hand, McHugh’s composition, 'Hey, I’m a Woman' is, in its own way, just as feisty and confident as Shania Twain’s 'Any Man of Mine'. I wonder how it feels to be a woman in the world of showbiz?

'A good-looking man on stage gets lots of female attention and the males follow [suit],' replies McHugh. 'I make friends with the girls so they don’t get jealous of their men liking me. It’s gruelling being on the road all the time but the band are like my brothers and they’re very protective of me.'

Back in the hall, the stage with its elevated staircase and giant ruby red LISA logo is all set. The musicians take their places and McHugh makes her entrance to the accompaniment of Roy Orbison’s 'Pretty Woman'. She’s wearing a silver belted black jumpsuit and silver high heels designed to show off her hourglass figure,  and she goes straight into 'Apple Jack', sounding more like Dolly Parton than Parton herself.

Despite the somewhat saturated sound, the high octane performance moves swiftly from song to song, from 'Footloose' to Taylor Swift’s 'Stay Stay Stay', with its line dancing rhythm. There is a barn dance mood on the floor, and suddenly it seems so obvious that country dance halls like this one are the real home of country music.

The boys wear checked shirts or ‘Nathan Carter’ open necks, while the girls are dressed in crop tops and tights or hip-hugging skirts and platform heels. Boys dance with boys and girls with girls, sometimes in threesomes. The odd break dancer appears but soon it is mostly couples – their silhouettes bobbing in the footlights – who fill the floor. The best dancer swings his partner around, pirouetting on his winkle pickers, balancing deftly on his heels. 

Fans Chloe Johnston and Donal Gallagher tell me they like the way McHugh puts a new twist to old songs like Johnny Cash’s 'Cotton Fields Back Home'. Tara Foy prefers country songs to pop because 'they tell a story'.

As we speak, McHugh evokes the 'Queen of the Silver Dollar' made famous by Emmylou Harris. This particular queen arrives in her chariot, the crosstown bus. Her royal jewels are rhinestones, her sceptre is a wine glass and a bar stool is her throne.

The two-hour show finally comes to a close. Like the last track of her album, Lisa McHugh will no doubt be 'On the Road Again', following her dreams, moving ever closer to her goals.

Lisa McHugh plays the Du Pont Club, Derry~Londonderry on January 17, and the Ryandale Hotel, Tyrone on January 31.