Irish country music’s new big wheel keeps on turning on

How does a 23-year-old Scouser become the poster boy of the Irish country music scene? Nathan Carter’s mix of Daniel O’Donnell’s nice-guy demeanour and Tom Jones’s sex appeal has turned the ‘Wagon Wheel’ singer into both a star and a heartthrob – knickers included

Nathan Carter: “Two or three years ago, there were young people all over Ireland who had never been to a country gig and probably thought it was very uncool. Now venues are filled with mixed-age groups”

Nathan Carter: “Two or three years ago, there were young people all over Ireland who had never been to a country gig and probably thought it was very uncool. Now venues are filled with mixed-age groups”

 

In many ways, he is the “everyman” musician – at least to a certain type of Irish audience. In conversation, he is polite, friendly, easygoing; on stage, he is the handsome rogue who regularly has knickers and bras flung at him with a recklessness that suggests his audience are there for more than just the music.

In other words, Nathan Carter is a mix of Daniel O’Donnell’s “nice guy” demeanour and the sex appeal of a young Tom Jones. The combination causes both girls and their mammies to fall in love with him.

“It’s a bit embarrassing, yeah,” Carter says of the knicker-flinging on a rare day off at home in Enniskillen. “It usually happens when we do a song in the set called Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off. I normally go bright red and throw it at one of the band members. It’s all a bit of fun, though – as I always say, as long as they’re clean . . . ”

Whether or not his style of country music is your bag, the past few years have seen the 23-year-old Liverpudlian at the vanguard of the Irish country music scene, spearheading an unexpected renaissance of the genre among people of his own age. He scored a No 1 hit with his cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s Wagon Wheel in 2012, while both its parent album of the same name and last year’s follow-up, Where I Wanna Be, shot to No 1 in the album charts.

Attend any of Carter’s gigs around Ireland and you’ll find a mix of both ages and sexes. When quizzed on his appeal, Claire, a 20-something at one of his pre-Christmas shows in Cavan, paused. “Well, the music’s good,” she began. “and jiving – the style of dancing that goes with it – is starting to make a comeback. And . . . well . . . he’s just gorgeous.”

“Stuff like Facebook definitely helps,” says Carter of his appeal among his peers. “We’ve got just over 60,000 people following us on Facebook. It has introduced us to new people; it gives you a way to interact with a huge amount of fans that other artists in bygone days wouldn’t have had. It’s definitely a big advertising tool.

“I suppose the fact that I’m young probably helps too. For a long time, the scene that I’m part of was, well, I wouldn’t call them old, but it was definitely a more mature age group. The people who were singing were a more mature age and the people going to gigs were mature too. I’m young and I’m putting a new spin on it, so that’s probably why there are younger people coming to my gigs now, too.”

The question is, how does a Merseyside-born youngster become the poster boy for the Irish country music scene? Both of Carter’s parents hail from Northern Ireland, handing down a love of trad music that saw him playing the piano accordion from the age of four.

“Country and trad were always big in my house,” he says, “so I was involved in those scenes for many years and competed in all the Fleadh Cheoils since the age of about six. Trad was a big love growing up, but country was always in the background; my granddad was a big fan of Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton and all those sorts of people, so I was brought up on it.

“I grew up in the Liverpool Irish community and I’d be playing to Irish crowds every weekend as a kid, so I would have seen a lot of those bands, too: Joe Dolan would have been there, Big Tom and the Mainliners, and Brendan Shine – all those sort of showband acts. I grew up seeing them.”

After developing his own interest in contemporary country acts (Brad Paisley and The Dixie Chicks were big favourites) Carter set about incorporating the two styles into his own music after leaving school at 16, once he’d completed his GCSEs. He has been a full-time musician ever since, releasing his first album, Starting Out, at the age of 17.

“I had no intention of studying or carrying that on anymore,” he says, shrugging. “Music was what I wanted to do; it’s what I wanted to pursue. Mum didn’t really want me to [leave school] because I couldn’t even drive. So my nan and Dad would drop me off to gigs and help me with the gear and stuff. When I started getting gigs, Mum said she didn’t mind if I was earning money and wasn’t just sitting on my arse all day, to put it bluntly. So that was what I did. I remember the fellas in the bars used to look at me a bit strangely when I was bringing the speakers in and setting up, because I was only a young kid. But it was great experience. It was like an apprenticeship, in a way.”

Going down the X Factor route, or entering talent competitions, was never an option for the teenage Carter.

“No, it was just always gig, gig, gig to get my name out there. I don’t think the other way – the instant fame thing – really works, to be honest with you,” he says. “I think the slower you take to get there, the slower you’ll come down from it. I mean, back in the early days, playing to 40 people would have been a big crowd – sometimes there were only five or six people in a pub.” He laughs. “But, y’know, it’s a good experience and it gives you a base of knowing what to do and how to cope with different audiences.

“Whenever you see the good times, you think back on those days and it gives you a reality check,” he says. “Not like The X Factor; you come up through the ranks and you learn a lot more about crafting a career that will last.”

Pursuing a career in country music is all well and good, but there’s no denying that – with apologies to all accordionists out there – the piano accordion is not exactly the coolest instrument for a teenager to play. Similarly, Carter’s teenage years were spent equally out of step with his friends. Does he ever feel like he missed out on a normal childhood?

“It wouldn’t be the coolest of instruments, but I’ve always loved it,” he says, chuckling. “And I probably have missed out, to a degree. I’ve been gigging pretty much every weekend since I was about 16, bar the odd occasion, and all my friends would have been out. I probably haven’t had the normal teenage experience, going out drinking every Friday and Saturday night. It’s been a bit different for me, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Carter has certainly put time into the hard graft of forging a career with longevity, his name growing organically through extensive touring, rather than a brief spurt of fame that fizzles out as soon as a TV series is over. His plans for this year include more touring and more writing of original material to create a fair balance between his own songs and the popular covers that comprise his live set.

He’s got his sights set firmly on the US and Australia, where “there are big markets for Celtic and country music, so I’m in the middle of those two genres, really.”

That said, Carter has no ambition to revolutionise the genre or make it trendy; although he has recorded covers of contemporary songs such as The Lumineers’ Ho Hey, don’t expect any dance remixes of his tune, nor any guest rappers throwing down a verse mid-song. Perhaps it’s his adherence to tradition and a good old-fashioned show that has made him so popular with fans of all ages.

“Two or three years ago, there were young people all over Ireland who had never been to a country gig and probably thought it was very uncool. But now there are venues up and down the country constantly filled with mixed-age groups going out to listen to live music, which is great.

“I was never one for discos and nightclubs; I didn’t like them. I would much rather pay money to see a live act playing proper music.”

As different as Carter’s musical style is to one other Irish musician from northern shores that comes to mind, there’s no denying the parallels in their career trajectories, not to mention their shared clean-cut image. For instance, he will always stop to speak to his fans if stopped on the street, as he often is in his adopted home town of Enniskillen.

“I get spotted every now and again; people coming up for pictures, yeah,” he nods. “But I don’t mind, I take it as it comes. If you start thinking about it more, I think it’ll go to your head. I’ll always stop and have a chat. They’re only normal people, y’know.”

Yep, there’s no denying it: in many ways, it all sounds a bit Daniel O’Donnell for Generation Z. If there is a sleazy sex, drugs and/or booze habit lurking underneath the down-to-earth exterior, it is buried well. In that case, does he see himself as the eventual heir to Wee Daniel’s throne – spiritually, if not musically?

“Ah, no,” he laughs. “I’ve admired Daniel for years and his success has been immense; he has done what I’m trying to do – crack America and Australia.

“He has a legion of fans who are obviously very dedicated to him, but I would see myself as very different through the fact that I’m a lot younger and I do things a bit differently than he would have done. At the same time, I have a lot of respect and admiration for what he’s done.

“The big plan is to keep on going, trying to make it bigger and better all the time. Get to new places, make more albums, sing more songs and just keep doing what I’m doing.”

See? We told you: nice.

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