Errol Walsh's Rocky Road

Ahead of the Woodstock Rhythm & Blues Festival, the country music stalwart recalls a career dogged by misfortune

Portstewart-born singer-songwriter Errol Walsh’s career has been extraordinary.

In the 1970s he pioneered country-rock in Northern Ireland with bands like Rodeo. In the 80s he led some of England’s most critically acclaimed country bands like Tender Mercies, which also featured the legendary pedal steel player BJ Cole, and the Coyotes. In the 90s also he recorded an award-winning album in Nashville.

Now resident again in Northern Ireland, he has more recently released the much-admired No Borders. And yet, somehow, Walsh has never achieved the major success that has often seemed to be tantalisingly close.

‘I always seem to miss things by unfortunate timing,’ he says. ‘In Rodeo we got a lot of our inspiration from import records people here hadn’t heard, and we took country music around the country but it didn’t happen for us. Then when the band broke up it started happening for other bands that came behind us.

‘[My next band] Stagolee was like that as well. There was only ourselves and Rob Strong and the Rockets playing that kind of music and then along came punk and killed that stone dead. Then in London I was playing places like Break For The Border and it was only afterwards that that took off as an alternative country venue. I’m always a step ahead or a step behind.’

Rodeo were regulars on the Irish university circuit playing regularly at Queen’s, Trinity and Cork. Walsh remembers the band with great fondness. ‘We played with Horslips and toured England with people like Brinsley Schwarz,’ he recalls. ‘It was good experience, out travelling, young, free, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. It was a great time.’

The band attracted the attention of fabled scene-maker Dave Robinson, who ran the hip Stiff record label. Robinson booked the band into prestigious London clubs and arranged for them to record.

‘We were to go to Manor Studios [in Oxfordshire] and record an album,' Walsh explains, 'but some of the guys had families here in Northern Ireland and simply couldn’t take two months out of their lives to do that so real life got in the way.'

Walsh later moved to Tralee and joined Stagolee, who had a minor Irish hit record with ‘Give A Little Love’. But financially life was tough. ‘It was a labour of love,’ he reflects. ‘Nobody was making a proper living out of it but it’s an investment and if you get the major record deal then the money, allegedly, comes in. But we never made it to that hallowed turf.’

Subsequently, Walsh joined the Business, who had been Paul Brady’s backing band on his breakthrough rock album, Hard Station. Walsh then moved to London and formed bands like Tender Mercies and the Coyotes with the cream of London’s country-rock musicians.

The Coyotes’ self-titled album won Best Album at the British Country Music awards in 1997. Bizarrely, Walsh believes that the triumph was disastrous for the band.

‘I remember going to the awards presentation in the NEC in Birmingham. We were just nominees, happy to have our names mentioned. We’d no thoughts of winning and you could have knocked me down with a feather when they called our name out. But we were actually somewhere between country and blues so [after we won] every gig I had was cancelled because [winning a country award] wasn’t cool.'

Nevertheless, Walsh was subsequently invited to make an album in Nashville, with local musicians. In deference to recording in the country music capital of the world, Walsh brought with him his most country-style material. The strategy backfired.

‘The session guys were going, “What do you call this kind of music, man?”’ says Walsh ruefully. ‘“What do I call this kind of music? It’s country isn’t it?” They said, “No, man, that’s not country.” My idea of country, coming from Ireland, and their idea was very different.’

The album, Waltzin’ In The Water, was well-reviewed, however, and Walsh actually won the Northern Lights Spirit of Antrim award for it. Previous winners of the award had included Brian Kennedy and Liam O’Flynn. ‘It was very nice to have somebody at home recognise what I was doing,’ reflects Walsh. ‘Things were going my way at the time and the future seemed rosy.’

But somehow the album failed to find an audience. When his 20-year-long marriage broke up Walsh, feeling his life was falling apart, found himself back in Northern Ireland. Psychologically restored, by and by he remarried and, in 2009, released No Borders. Proceeds from the album were donated to the Huntington’s Disease Association Northern Ireland.

‘The title is to signify that Huntington’s disease is totally indiscriminate when it comes to who is afflicted, in terms of age, gender and ethnicity,’ Walsh explains. ‘Anybody can get this disease: kings, queens, paupers, the lot. There are no borders and it’s the most devastating condition I’ve ever come across.’

The cause had become dear to Walsh’s heart since his new step-daughter suffered from the disease and later died from it. Indeed, one song, ‘Rachael’, is about her.

‘She was an amazing woman,’ he declares. ‘When I played ‘Rachael’ for her she was delighted that somebody cared enough for her to immortalise her in song. She was incredible, so unbelievably accepting of her condition, and we’re still trying to cope [with her death]. It’s really tough.’

The album includes superb musicians like former long-term Van Morrison bassist Clive Culbertson, who also produced, and jazz trumpeter Linley Hamilton. Walsh, however, doesn’t feel entirely satisfied with it.

‘I hadn’t recorded for 11 years, so I was pretty ring-rusty, and there was no rehearsal. But they were all great players and everybody gave their time for free, so if there was anything wrong with the album it was whatever direction I gave. I was just trying to appeal to as broad a section of people as I could because it was for charity.’

Walsh now has a day job, working as development officer for Huntington’s Disease Northern Ireland. Inevitably this has distracted him from focussing fully on his music. ‘Work for the charity is really full-on and it’s hard to find the time to do music,’ he admits.

Nevertheless, he has two upcoming gigs at Belfast’s Woodstock Rhythm & Blues Festival, with a band in the Menagerie on August 16 and solo in the Longfellow bar on August 17. The band is an all-star affair, including multi-instrumentalist Steve Simpson, and Gilbert O’Sullivan bassist Nicky Scott.

But one wonders, given the bad luck and near misses that have dogged his career, if Walsh ever feels frustrated or even embittered. He must, after all, often see major artists and feel that he is as talented as them? Walsh insists not.

‘I’m neither frustrated nor embittered because there are very few major artists I could point a finger at and say, “I could do that.” I think talent rises to the top and most people who have made it deserve it. I’m not sure I had the talent to be a major act – and that’s not false modesty. But I was very fortunate in finding myself in illustrious company at times and I just love what I do and I’m very happy if other people like it too.’

Woodstock Rhythm & Blues Festival runs in various venues across Belfast from August 13 – 18.