Daniel O'Donnell: The King of Country
BBC Radio Ulster producer Steven Rainey on meeting the boy from Donegal - and finally understanding his appeal
Daniel O’Donnell is a phenomenon, pure and simple. Over 10 million albums sold, an album in the charts every year for 24 consecutive years, a fanatical fan base who would travel across the world to see him. It’s no exaggeration to say that he is one of the biggest stars to ever emerge from this island.
Like every phenomenon, however, his continued success can seem baffling to the casual observer. After all, in a world of multi-media behemoths like Lady GaGa, what can this unassuming singer from Donegal possibly offer the world? His gentle demeanour and idiosyncratic singing style are hardly cutting edge.
Yet for all those who sneer, O'Donnell has preserved a quiet dignity during his three decades in the public eye, despite a sandstorm of continued criticism from the established music press and speculation about his sexuality.
Perhaps the secret to O'Donnell's continued success is his almost superhuman devotion to his fans. The feeling is mutual. For the fans, their devotion is a way of life. It’s long been said that, at any given Daniel O’Donnell concert, the great man will almost certainly know the names of everyone in the first three rows. At the very least.
But the inescapable fascination with his career remains the sheer unlikelihood of how it ever happened in the first place. Moon Over Ireland is O'Donnell’s 31st studio album, and is made up of 15 traditional favourites like ‘Maggie’ and ‘The Fields of Athenry’.
So far, so standard. These are songs that jobbing musicians perform every night all over Ireland. But how many of these lesser performers could boast of a UK chart placing of number 11 on the week of its release? How many other Irish country musicians would be welcomed on to QVC to promote their new album ahead of its release, and manage to sell out several thousand copies almost instantly?
O’Donnell has done all this and more, despite probably being no better a singer or performer than any of those out there who would dream of being one of his contemporaries. He is number one in a field of one.
In my capacity as a music journalist, the Country & Irish scene has long fascinated me. How on earth did Ireland come to be dominated by hordes of pseudo-American country musicians peddling what could charitably be described as a watered down variant of the most insipid type of country music ever created?
What kind of country do we live in which the man crowned King of Country manages to make Cliff Richard look like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause? As a fan of logic, this conundrum has long troubled me.
Sitting in on an interview with O'Donnell to promote his new album, the answer becomes clear: Daniel O’Donnell has 100% certified star quality, that mercurial charisma that separates men from gods, mortals from immortals.
As someone who has interviewed literally hundreds of rock musicians, the one factor that unites all such interviews is ‘reluctance’, the common inability of the performer to muster any enthusiasm for speaking to a journalist. No one gets into rock and roll to do interviews. O’Donnell, on the other hand, has all the angles covered. The man knows how to work an interview.
He talks about the album, how proud of it he is. His home life comes up. He discusses his fan base - admits that he owes 100% of his success to their continued devotion - and reveals he has abandoned plans to publically celebrate his 50th birthday in Dublin’s O2 arena because he doesn’t think it would be fair on his older supporters.
Rather than some kind of smoke and mirrors tactic to disguise his real intentions, this comes across as genuine concern for his devoted fan base in increasingly uncertain economic climate. Instead, O'Donnell will celebrate his half-century at home with his wife of nine years, Majella.
It’s totally professional stuff, delivering in all the right places. But something strikes me when the interview is over - that voice. Our conversation with O’Donnell lasts 11 minutes and 37 seconds, but for me it seemed like an age. His voice has a hypnotic lilt to it, a soothing tone that seems to slow clocks down. Should O'Donnell ever decide to pack in the singing, he’s got a fine career ahead of him in mind control.
The Country & Irish scene still baffles me, but I no longer have any doubt as to why this man is one of the most successful entertainers in the UK and Ireland. Like all the greatest stars, Daniel O’Donnell feels like a different species - not one of us.
I may not appreciate his music, but as he leaves his mark on the UK album charts yet again, I can’t help but wish Daniel O’Donnell all the best. Perhaps this is the year I finally drop in for a cup of tea with his mammy.