|To a teenage boy struggling to master three basic chords on his guitar in his room in his home in the Ireland of the early ‘60s, the possibility and probability of seeing his name in the American Top Ten charts must have seemed exceedingly remote indeed. At that time, in that place, it must have seemed as remote as being the first man on the planet Mars; a dream beyond the wildest imagination.Nevertheless, it was a dream shared by many aspiring Irish musicians; though achieved by very few over the last three decades. For one Limerick City teenager wrestling with the guitar intricacies of the Apache, a huge instrumental hit for the Shadows in 1960, it must have seemed an impossible dream.|
Thirty years on, however, that dream has come true for Irish singer-songwriter Mick Hanly. He has just seen one of his songs, ‘Past The Point of Rescue’ (as performed by rising Nashville country star, Hal Ketchum) storm the U.S. country singles and album charts and remain there for several months, earning the coveted Gold Disc for both performer and writer. It’s been a long road, one with many turns, diversions and more than a few lay-bys. Ultimately it has been one which has brought Mick Hanly and his music to a wider audience than he ever dreamed possible while struggling to master the A minor to D major guitar-shifts of ‘Apache’ in 1960.
The road to such success is rarely one on which any artist hitches a free ride. It is a road on which the artist must travel with unwavering determination, commitment, self-belief and self-discipline and, most of all, the talent to carry the artist through to the road’s end. These are qualities which Mick Hanly has in abundance. Qualities which have seen him carve a career in an often unforgiving music business; from would be teenage rock ‘n’ roller to professional folk-singer to country singer and, more significantly, country songwriter of world class stature, earning him an international reputation and the respect of both peers and ordinary listener alike.
Mick Hanly was born into a music loving family in Limerick and grew up in that city where his early influences were “hurling, confession, leathers, Alan Ladd, Jack Palance and ‘The Boy’ (the film hero – Audie Murphy etc). It was understood that Mick would continue school and secure himself a “permanent and pensionable” position with a reputable company. State body or the Civil Service.
The arrival in Limerick of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid -’50s was to change all that; with Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brother’s records blasting down the airwaves from Radio Luxembourg, firing Mick’s imagination as nothing ever had before. His first guitar, purchased for little over £2 in Todds of Limerick, accompanied him as he steeled his nerve to perform ‘Living Doll’ (while wearing his mother’s straw hat!) at a primary school concert in 1958. “I got my first real guitar much later”, Mick recalls. “It was a Hagstrom costing 63 guineas and paid for in ten shillings-a-week installments for four years. It was a beautiful instrument. I picked up its half-brother in 1983 and that’s what I play today.
|The early 60’s brought the Beatles and ‘Beat Boom’, which obsessed Mick and his fellow Limerick musicians Jack Costello, later bass-player with Grannies Intentions and Don O’Connor of Reform. This obsession was to incur the wrath of the Christian Brother School Superior (never renowned for their understanding, gentility or humanity) when Mick turned in his best Lennonesque rave-up performance of ‘Twist and Shout’ with his group The Astronauts, at the end-of-term concert.For Mick, the ‘60s slipped by to the rhythm of The Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Animals, the Hollies, the Spencer Davis Group and to the internal rhythms of everyday Irish urban living, shaped by the influences of Christian Brother’s schooling, the Harty Cup hurling team, Confraternity, the Leaving Cert., and the weekly local dance-hops. Many of these images were to find expression in his powerful song, written in the ‘80s, ‘All I Remember’, first recorded by Mick himself on the 1983 Moving Hearts’ ‘Live Hearts’ (W.E.A.) (and also the title track of his first Round Tower album) and later by Christy Moore on his 1987 ‘Time Has Come’ album.|
School days complete, it was time for Mick to find a ‘real job’, and 1970 found him working in Galway City for the E.S.B. (Electricity Supply Board) and performing Woody Guthrie and Paul Simon material in his spare time in the Golden Key, a well known folk music venue in that city. His new found interest in folk music had begun a few years earlier when, at a concert in the west Clare seaside town of Kilkee, Mick witnessed Sean O’Riada’s group and also the playing of the legendary Clare uilleann piper Willie Clancy.
As rock ‘n’ roll had touched his heart in his teenage years, the traditional sounds of O’Riada and Clancy tugged at his sound in a way that forced him to fully understand his sense of ‘Irishness’, “Suddenly I realised I was no longer a Liverpudian. There was something of essence here. I’d gone from the Tostal and Corpus christi processions to Liverpool to America and on hearing this music. I realised I was home”. Mick recounts his ‘conversation’ to Irish traditional music and song. He harbored however, nagging doubts as to just how he could adjust his style to his new passion, “I just didn’t know how the guitar would fit into this new reality. Michael opened the door”.
The ‘Michael’ referred to by Mick was none other than Michael O’ Domhnaill (of Bothy Band fame) whose finger-style guitar-playing had been influenced by John Renbourn and whose reputation as a singer and song collector was already well established. Michael had successfully married that contemporary guitar style of traditional singing with the group Scara Brae. For Mick, meeting Michael at the Swamp Folk club in Rathmines in Dublin in early ’72 was timely. Together they formed Monroe and landed a spot as support for the now-famous Planxty Irish Tour of 1973. Monroe recorded an album, ‘Folk Weave’, for Polydor, now considered a seminal album which signposted the arrival of a new, and confident breed of contemporary Irish folk singer. Monroe split in ’75 when Michael joined the Bothy Band and Mick headed for Brittany and the life of an itinerant Irish folk troubadour.
He returned home to Ireland in ’77 to record a brace of albums for the Mulligan label, ‘A Kiss In the Morning Early’ and ‘As I Went Over Blackwater’ with the cream of Irish traditional musicians, Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Matt Mooloy (now with The Chieftains), Paddy Glackin, Noel Hill, Peter Brown and Declan Sinnott (Mary Black Band). After the release of his debut solo album, Mick regularly embarked on Irish and European tours with Andy Irvine who was forging ahead following the demise of the ground breaking Planxty.
Skip to 1981, Christy Moore leaves Moving Hearts. One man seemed an obvious choice to fill the role of lead singer; and so Mick Hanly found himself handling the vocal chores with the Hearts; far and away the most powerful, innovative and exciting Irish band ever.
Succumbing finally to crippling economic pressures, the band called it a day and went their separate ways in 1985. Once again, Mick Hanly found himself and his acoustic guitar back on the solo circuit. He was not despondent at the prospect of ploughing a solo furrow, as he now had a fresh string to his bow.
While in the Hearts he had begun to perform his own material – ‘All I Remember’ and ‘Open Those Gates’ (written by Mick for the Irish men and women prisoners and hunger-strikers in the Long Kesh concentration Camp), being two of the best known and best loved.
More and more, he found he had tapped into a creative vein that delivered to him the bulk of the songs that went to make up his first album as a country singer-songwriter. The album, Still Not Cured revealed Mick’s emergence as a songwriter to be reckoned with; showcasing songs of lost love, broken relationships and fresh beginnings and new hope. ‘Still not Cured’, ‘The Silence’ and ‘Sorry I Said What I Said’, Became radio hits and Mick was soon back on the road with his new band, Rusty Old Halo. Other Irish artists were now taking his songs seriously – Mary Black being one of the first to record a Mick Hanly original on her celebrated debut album.
1989 say the release of one of Mary Black’s best selling albums up to that period – ‘No Frontiers’ (Dara). Track two, side one say the unveiling of the song that was to eventually launch the rocket of its writer’s success story in the U.S., ‘Past the Point of Rescue’, which Mick recorded on his ‘All I Remember’ album, is a classic song of unrequited love. Riding on a memorable hook and chorus, “.and I wonder if I’m past the point of rescue/ and is no word from you at all the best that you can do”, the song is a masterpiece of finely-honed control and expression. This refined art was not lost on Nashville country-producer Jim Rooney, who passed the song to Hal Ketchum, a new artist he was working with who was about to record his debut album. The song, the title track of Hal’s album, was released in late ’91 as a single. A few short months later, ‘Past the Point of Rescue’ became one of the most played and the most-requested songs on the 2,500 country stations across the U.S., which sent both the single and the album into the top selling charts earlier this year. Mick Hanly had arrived internationally.
|These days Mick Hanly is a happy man. He has cause to be, with a hit song under his belt, a new album on release, ‘Warts and All’ (Round Tower Records), and songs such as ‘My Love Is In America’ (one of the great modern songs of emigration), aired daily on Irish radio. He also possesses a strong back-catalogue of songs waiting to be explored and recorded (Fall Like A Stone, Free to Run, Birthmark etc.), as they no doubt will be following the American success of ‘Past The Point of Rescue’. There is, after all, no success like success. He is, along with Jimmy Mc Carthy, Noel Brazil and Donagh Long, one of the truly great Irish songwriters to emerge in recent years. It is a greatness which is being fast recognised by American artists such as country megastar Garth Brooks, who said of Mick, “His songs are real, they mean something. He is one of the best songwriters around at the moment”. Try and catch him. – © P.J. Curtis.|