Meeting Country Singer Brendan Quinn

County Derry performer on drugs busts, collaborations and writing about the familiar on new album Feels Like Home

No genre of music, surely, is regarded as more risible than country and Irish. To so label veteran Magherafelt singer Brendan Quinn, however, is a massive mistake.

True, through the 1970s and 80s he had several Irish number one hits, with covers of country songs like Faron Young’s ‘Four In The Morning’, but Quinn played the music with sufficient authenticity to impress even the legendary Merle Haggard, with whom he played while touring America.

Quinn’s credibility has been yet further enhanced in recent years by his release of Americana-style albums featuring musicians of the calibre of Artie McGlynn and Henry McCullough, while his impressive new album, Feels Like Home, features a more folk-influenced style, with accompaniment from members of Altan, amongst others.

Quinn is thrilled with the new album, which was recorded in producer Pete O’Hanlon’s Strabane studio. ‘It was a labour of love because most of the songs are old songs I would have grown up with and we’ve given them a different feel.'

The most venerable songs on the album are ‘The Rocks Of Bawn’, ‘Slieve Gallion Brae’ and ‘Sweet Carnlough Bay’, which fit seamlessly alongside more recent material by Richard Thompson, Randy Newman and others. Quinn remembers performing those traditional songs in his earliest public performances.

‘I distinctly remember singing ‘Sweet Carnlough Bay’ 50 years ago in Cushendall Parochial Hall,’ he says, ‘and I used to sing ‘The Rocks Of Bawn’ in the Malachy Doris Ceilidh Band, the band that started me off.’

The album’s title track was written by Randy Newman and first performed by Bonnie Raitt, on the CD of Newman’s 1995 musical, Faust. Quinn explains the appeal of the song for him: ‘He talks about “a window breaks in a long, dark street” and “a siren wails in the night” and that gives me a feeling of the Troubles. It’s a poignant song and I just liked it.’

Producer-guitarist Pete O’Hanlon – who has recorded and gigged with Van Morrison, Phil Lynott and De Dannan – plays beautifully on the album. Quinn sounds almost awestruck when describing O’Hanlon’s contribution. ‘He’s a genius guitar player,’ he says. ‘He plays a solo on ‘Killin’ The Blues’ that’s so sweet. It’s just gorgeous.’

O’Hanlon is a link to Quinn’s chart-topping past, for he was once a member of Quinn’s band the Bluebirds who for years were one of Ireland’s most successful country bands. Quinn winces as he recalls the band’s workload.

‘On Sunday the manager would tell you where you were the next week and one of the guys said once, “Jesus, how are we going to do all these gigs?” And the answer was, “You’ll have to sleep in a hurry!” It was hectic. We were all over the country and up and down the UK and even toured America a couple of times.’

It was in America that the band encountered legendary American country songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Merle Haggard. Something of a mutual admiration society ensued.

‘We did this big festival in Kansas with him,’ Quinn recalls. ‘It was a fantastic experience and afterwards we drove back to the hotel on Haggard’s bus, playing cards with his men. And then we spent about six hours in his room. Hagg was sitting on the floor playing the blues and we were singing and playing. We had two fiddles and guitars and drums and everything. It was amazing, just one of those nights.’

Later the Bluebirds were invited to gig in Vancouver for a 14-week season. The 14 weeks turned into four years with the band touring much of Canada. Eventually, however, Quinn returned to Ireland. ‘I enjoyed it, but when you tour in Canada it’s not a one night stand – you’d play for a week in a club. So when you went on the road for five gigs you were away for five weeks. And in the end it got to me and I made the decision to come back.’

A few years later Quinn was sensationally busted for possession of dope. The consequences for him were catastrophic. ‘I don’t like to talk about it,’ he sighs. ‘I was held overnight and the cops made a meal of it. They put it on Downtown Radio news immediately: 'Country Star Busted'.

'It was for half an ounce and my solicitor said, “You need to get character references because you could go down for this.” I rang four people who I thought were good friends and they said: “I couldn’t do that, Brendan.” But [BBC producer] Harry Adair and Father Brian D’Arcy came to court and spoke for me and the judge said but for them he would have imposed a custodial sentence. As it was he fined me £1,500.

‘When it happened I was on the circuit full-time and playing a lot of GAA clubs and parochial halls and I was dropped totally. For 13 weeks I never got a gig. The work just dried up, man. I was in despair for months. And I never recovered from that. I never got back into that loop again.’

Forming Kickin’ Mule with Irish roots legend Artie McGlynn revitalised Quinn. Initially the band played mainly on Monday nights in Omagh. ‘It was a kind of Monday night jam session, really,’ says Quinn, ‘and it was good because it got me out of that regimented thing with the Bluebirds where we played the same set every night because you had to play ‘Four In The Morning’ and all that stuff.

'With Kickin’ Mule you could play anything. And it was then I got into songwriting. On the country circuit they didn’t want new songs. I used to throw in the odd thing but it never got any recognition. Keeping the punters happy was the main thing.’

On albums like 2001’s Small Town and 2008’s Sinner Man, Quinn’s songwriting came to the fore. He credits folk singer-songwriter Mick Hanley with inspiring him to write songs like ‘Hear The Anvil Ring’.

‘I was talking to Mick about writing songs and he said, “Just write about what you know and where you came from and what your parents did.” That’s the way you write songs as far as he’s concerned. My da was a blacksmith so ‘Hear The Anvil Ring’ is about him.’

One of Quinn’s most acclaimed songs is ‘What A Joy Love is’, from Sinner Man. The song, he explains, was inspired by his wife: ‘We were walking barefoot along the beach in Donegal one gorgeous summer night and I just thought, “What a joy love is!” I finished the song that night and when I later played it to Artie McGlynn he said, “That’s a classic.” That gives you a bit of a buzz. What did my wife say? She just rolled her eyes, as usual!’

Quinn acknowledges that at this stage of his career, Feels Like Home isn’t going to become a major seller. Artistically, however, he declares himself satisfied. ‘It’s not going to break the album charts but I like it and I think it will stand up in years to come.'

Feels Like Home is available to download from iTunes.