The root and branch of country music with Philip Donnelly

HUNDREDS OF years ago the music played on Scottish and Irish fiddles combined with Spanish guitar, Italian mandolin, and West African banjo in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of America.

The result of this unique cross-pollination became known as country music. It remained a regional phenomenon throughout the early part of the 20th century, but from the 1950s onwards it evolved into a musical form that was widely embraced around the world.

In 1925 a professional weekly country music stage concert, The Grand Old Opry, was established in Nashville, Tennessee, and this saw a huge influx of hopeful musicians descend on the town. By the early 1970s Nashville was firmly established as the home of country music and all who wanted to make it as a country singer had to pay their dues on Music Row.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s a number of Irish and Scottish artists such as Paul Brady, Stuart Adamson, Mick Hanly, and Philip Donnelly began making forays into ‘Guitar Town’. Brady collaborated with Bonnie Raitt, Adamson formed rock group Big Country, and Hanly became best known for writing the Hal Ketchum hit ‘Past The Point Of Rescue’.

Donnelly though had a wide and varied career as a songwriter, musician, and producer in country music and became known as ‘The Clontarf Cowboy’. Over the course of three decades Philip produced and played on albums by Donovan, Lee Clayton, Clannad, John Prine, The Fleadh Cowboys, Crystal Gayle, Maura O’Connell, Nanci Griffith, De Dannan, and Townes Van Zandt.

He began his career in Ireland in the early 1960s with a beat group named Elmer Fudd but he left them to tour the world with Donovan. Being on the road with The Sunshine Superman opened up a whole spectrum of possibilities for Donnelly and afterwards he moved to Los Angeles, where, with Lee Clayton, he created Border Music.

Donnelly’s fusion of Celtic and country music and his distinctive style of guitar playing attracted interest in Nashville. In the 1980s he moved there and made an immediate impression with his fusion of Irish, Scottish, and American influences. “All the acts there took to my guitar playing because there are bits of Irish traditional, blues and folk,” he once told me.

During his time in Nashville, Philip befriended influential producer Jim Rooney and Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter John Prine, both of whom would later move to Galway. His association with Rooney saw them work together on several successful album releases including Prine’s German Afternoons, Aimless Love, and John Prine Live, and Nanci Griffith’s The Last of the True Believers and Lone Star State of Mind.

In 1982 and 1983 Donnelly reached a high point in his American songwriting career when he co-wrote Crystal Gayle’s No 1 hit ‘Living In These Troubled Times’ and was presented with the BMI Song of the Year Award.

A decade later he was an integral team member, as lead guitar player and backing vocalist, on Nanci Griffith’s 1994 Grammy Award-winning album Other Voices, Other Rooms which produced folk/country cross-over hit ‘From Clare to Here’.

During the early part of this decade Philip returned to Ireland and has continued his eclectic musical reputation by working with a number of contemporary Irish acts.

“I played with The Republic of Loose in Clonmel recently and it was great,” he says. “I also did about four or five tunes with Mundy at a folk club a while back and we’re going to write a few songs together soon. There are a lot of artists here that I like including Declan O’Rourke and Damien Dempsey.”

Philip Donnelly plays The Crane Bar, Sea Road, this Monday at 9pm as part of the Stirling-Galway Sessions 2010. For tickets phone 091-587419 or see


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