PHILIP DONNELLY’S long musical career began in the 1960s when he was a member of Elmer Fudd, part of the emerging Irish rock scene which also included Them, Skid Row, Thin Lizzy, and Taste.
While Van Morrison, Phil Lynott, Rory Gallagher, and Gary Moore would go on to enjoy international success, Donnelly’s talents would not go totally unnoticed and over the following two decades he would establish himself as an influential Celtic/country music producer in Los Angeles and Nashville.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Philip toured and recorded with Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, The Everly Brothers, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, and Nanci Griffith. His song ‘Living In These Troubled Times’ was a Top 10 hit for Crystal Gayle. During the 1990s Donnelly returned to Ireland and continued to record with major artists and to record solo albums.
Now the man they call ‘The Clontarf Cowboy’ is coming to The Crane Bar, Sea Road, on Monday December 21 at 9pm as part of the venue’s Singers and their Songs series.
Donnelly’s discography is incredibly impressive and reads like a who’s who of folk and country music. He began his music production apprenticeship as a member of Donovan’s touring band in the early 1970s. The Sunshine Superman was seen as Britain’s answer to Bob Dylan and was a big live draw in the US and Europe.
“Donovan and I are still very close to this very day,” Donnelly says. “I was with Elmer Fudd at the time but I left them to join up with Donovan. I remember we did a tour of Ireland in 1972 and Planxty were special guests on that tour. Then I headed to Hollywood with Donovan in autumn of 1974 and we did a huge tour of America. I went back there in 1975 to record an album with him and I stayed around and recorded with lots of different people.”
The West Coast experience had whetted Philip’s appetite for playing American roots music. He subsequently teamed up with Alabama troubadour Lee Clayton to create a blend of Celtic and country sounds called Border Music.
During the early 1980s Donnelly re-located to Nashville and became an in-demand session musician. “The people there took to my guitar playing because I kind of had my own distinct sound,” Donnelly says. “I have a guitar sound that sort of blends elements of Irish traditional, blues, and country.”
One of the earliest champions of Donnelly’s sound was the late Johnny Cash.
“He was a great man,” Donnelly says. “He used to come around to Cowboy Jack Clement’s studio because they were great friends. You’d always know when he was around because there’d be this incredible black vehicle parked outside. He came into the studio one day and said ‘My guitar players are kind of getting old so I need a young guy to hold them together and keep them tight’ So I got that job and he hired me to play on his next album Rockabilly Blues. He was a very nice person and June Carter Cash was lovely too. It was a great experience being in the studio with them.”
As the decade progressed Donnelly began to get more and more work on Music Row. One of his most successful collaborations was with Texas singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith. He produced hit albums such as Once In A Very Blue Moon and Lonestar State Of Mind, and sang backing vocals on her monster hit ‘From A Distance’ Their work together paved the way for many other artists.
“I made eight albums with Nanci and we won a Grammy for Other Voices, Other Rooms,” he says. “Nanci was the first folk artist to get a major record deal on Music Row and we were kind of breaking new ground. Bluegrass and folk artists weren’t part of the mainstream in Nashville back then. She opened the door for people like Alison Krauss and Union Station to follow afterwards.”
By the late 1980s The Clontarf Cowboy was an important mover and shaker in the American folk and country music scene. He produced Townes Van Zandt’s last studio album, brought Mick Hanly’s song ‘Past The Point Of Rescue’ to the attention of Hal Ketchum, and got The Everly Brothers back in the studio after a hiatus of more than a decade.
“I’m actually credited with bringing Don and Phil back together,” Donnelly says. “They had an argument that lasted 11 years and I helped patch things up between them. Bob Dylan wrote ‘Lay Lady Lay’ for them but they broke up before they had a chance to record it. So when they got back together for the album EB ’84 that’s the first song I recorded with them.”
In the New Year Donnelly will begin work on a new album entitled Beyond The Pale which will feature contributions from John Prine, Nanci Griffith, and Crystal Gayle.
For tickets to hear him showcasing songs from the album contact The Crane on 091 - 587419 or see www.thecranebar.com