HARRY O'DONOGHUE is a man of many talents. A storyteller, an entertainer, singer and songwriter, a guitarist, a recording artist, an authority on Celtic music, a radio personality, a tour guide. More than anything perhaps, he is a troubadour in the most real sense of the word.
Born and raised in Drogheda on the banks of the River Boyne just a few miles from the Irish Sea, he got his start as a performer at the tender age of 20, and in 1979 helped form the band Terra Nova. That group found some measure of success here in the U.S., and by the mid-’80s had signed an impressive deal with the massive U.K. label PolyGram Records.
After that band dissolved in 1987, O’Donoghue struck out on a solo career, and since then has become a respected entertainer known for his work on the guitar and the bodhran, and for his smooth, lilting voice.
Based here when not on tour, he can often be found playing to enthusiastic crowds of tourists and locals alike at Kevin Barry’s Pub on River Street. Over the past two decades, he has shared stages and bills with such luminaries as Mary Black, Cathie Ryan, Tommy Makem, Danny Doyle and others. He’s also known throughout the Southeast as the cheerful host of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s weekly Celtic music radio show The Green Island.
And, perhaps most interestingly, for several year now, he has organized and led regular vacation tours of his homeland, which find all manner of folks (from Irish-Americans searching for an up-close view of their heritage to those simply desiring a glimpse at a fables locale steeped in tradition) joining the musician and raconteur on a jam-packed week-long itinerary of concerts, pubs, historic sites, picnics, shopping and plain-old sightseeing in his old stomping grounds.
This week, O’Donoghue and his old pal and fellow troubadour Carroll Brown (an S.C. native who terms his brand of acoustic guitar-based balladry “Coastal Country”) embark through Georgia and Florida on the latest in a series of annual holiday tours.
This time around, they’re out in support of their latest CD, the recently released NOLLIAG − Irish Christmas. Recorded here in Savannah at renowned producer/engineer Phil Hadaway’s 3180 Media Group studios, it’s a beguiling mix of traditional Celtic tunes, contemporary holiday numbers, heartwarming spoken-word recitations set to music, and good-natured humor.
Although the duo’s holiday tours have in the past included other musician acquaintances such as fellow singer/songwriter (and Kevin Barry’s regular) Frank Emerson, as well as ancillary musicians like local multi-instrumentalist Skip Graham and a small horn section, this outing is about as intimate as it could be.
“After taking a few years off, I agreed last year to go out again on the condition that we do a strictly acoustic show and strip it down to two guys on stools — kinda like The Smothers Brothers,” explains O’Donoghue by phone en route to the tour’s opening night in Brunswick.
He says The Smothers Brothers were a great touchstone for he and Brown.
“We get along very well, and have an ease about us on stage, so —much like the Brothers— we added a little banter, part of which is scripted and part of which is ad libbed from night to night.”
“Last year we did three shows in that format and called it ‘A Celtic Acoustic Christmas’. This year we’re doing ten shows in the same style. We have added a bass this time —which I’ll plink along on from time to time— so that we’re not always just dueling on guitars!”
O’Donoghue credits Brown for rekindling their Yuletide partnership.
“He’s dogmatic in his insistence that we did another tour, because it was successful in the past. (laughs) Plus, it was great fun to do something other than play clubs.”
Still, O’Donoghue says it was initially difficult to convince his fellow performer to step out from behind all the pomp and glitz of the tour’s last incarnation.
“There’s no question Carroll was apprehensive about going out with just two acoustic guitars. His musical knowledge and technical know-how comes to the fore in his own shows, and he was used to a bigger sound. But, you see, I think that an audience is very forgiving of a limited lineup if it helps you to humanize the show.”
“Anyone can go out and do a big production. Like, if you go see Van Morrison or even Gordon Lightfoot, they have all these guys on stage and it’s so slickly done that you may as well just stay home and listen to their records! (laughs) To me, a live performance should be exactly that. Folks should make a little mistake here and there. It’s the human condition, you know? I saw James Taylor and he is masterful at that. I mean, he’s an incredible singer/songwriter, but he’s so at ease with himself on stage and at speaking to the audience that he comes across as one of us. It makes all the difference in how entertaining his concerts are.”
O’Donoghue has immense respect for his tour partner, whom he’s known since the mid-’90s.
“Carroll had dabbled in and out of Celtic music for years. He’s such a talent that he plays the Irish circuit as well as the ‘Jimmy Buffet’ circuit, and he’s traveled to Ireland with me several times as well.”
“Our styles are completely different, but I think they complement each other very well. Sometimes Carroll calls himself a ‘good sideman,’ which he is. But there’s a lot to be said for our strong friendship as well. Especially as it relates to this record. The stripped-down show we did together last year was so well received, this album is basically a studio version of that show.”
When asked why more of pair’s own material wasn’t included on this album, O’Donoghue allows that the two did “an awful lot of hunting around” for a batch of songs both ancient and more recent that would make for the most compelling Christmas concert they could create.
“It’s funny that both of us are songwriters,” he muses, “and yet each of our contributions to the new record are both instrumentals! (laughs)”
“The spoken word pieces are very integral to the live show, and we each brought different things to the table. For instance, that Leon Redbone song ‘Christmas Island’. On the road we sort of hammed it up with a kazoo, but that wouldn’t come across right on record, so we fleshed it out instead with a trombone part by Johnnie Kennedy. I mentioned how much I love James Taylor, and our arrangement of the song ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ was based on his — with a nod to ‘The Great Man’, of course.”
The album was cut in June and pressed in mid September. Besides being available at Harry and Carroll’s live shows, it can also be found at Erin on The River, a shop in River Street’s Open Air Market, and at Saints and Shamrocks, downtown on Bull Street — as well as online at www.harryodonoghue.com, www.amazon.com and www.cdbaby.com.
O’Donoghue admits that he doesn’t think he’s sold a single disc through CDBaby, but that through their digital download service, he’s had folks in Japan and throughout Europe purchase his songs.
“You don’t make much money on that at all, but it’s nice to know there are people all over the world listening to my music.”
That may seem a simple type of joy, but in many ways, it’s a pragmatic approach to a job that’s as old as the hills, but increasingly fraught with financial insecurity.
“The whole Irish bar scene as we know it is really winding down in America,” laments the singer. “The economy in Ireland is stronger now and the young people just aren’t coming over and bringing their music with them as much anymore.
“With the exception of Kevin Barry’s, you can’t really find a place here in town for acoustic musicians to play that isn’t littered with plasma screen TVs! My son is downloading music like all the other kids. They just don’t want to pay for music. Then, people are texting each other and talking on the phone while the groups are on stage! he says.
“I mean, what’s happening to the respect for live music here guys? It’s having as a tough of a time now as it ever has.”
Yet, despite the changing landscape of the music biz, this hardcore troubadour says he has no regrets about the path he’s chosen, and in fact, has grown to relish it even more as time has gone by.
“At this point, there’s a certain joy at doing this just for my own audience. I’m not naive enough to think that at my age I’ll ever be signed to a big record deal or be on the Billboard Top 200 or any of that,’ he says.
“All the anxiety that you make for yourself as a young man in this business has faded away, and I’m now very comfortable in my own skin. It takes all the pressure off. I was telling my daughter this is my tenth CD. That’s a nice legacy, I suppose. Those, plus my two Terra Nova albums make a nice document of my life as a musician,” says O’Donoghue.
“I’ve had a unique perspective on this as it has changed. But I can’t really complain. I’ve gotten 27 years out of it. That’s a lifetime. But I’m not done yet.”