The ‘Galway Boy’ Mike Denver opens his heart about his passion for Country music - but reveals you’ll never catch him playing an intrument on stage
Mike Denver turns 40 later this year, but a huge celebration, with himself at the centre of the limelight, is seemingly the last thing on his mind.
“Oh no - I’m not big into parties!” laughs the streaky-haired singer, his eyes sparkling with fun, his lilting Galway accent rising just an octave or two.
“I don’t mind going to a party, but not if they are for me.”
It may seem curious to think that one of the most famous names in Irish Country music is so self-deprecating and unassuming, but let me assure you, after just 20 minutes with the star - affectionately known over the globe as the Galway Boy - that is exactly what he is. Still suffering the effects of a cold, and with a schedule that would startle even the busiest of us, the 39-year-old Portumna man took time out from of a launch event in Co Londonderry last week to talk about his passion for country music, and plans for the future. But not before letting me revisit his past.
Born Michael Fallon, to parents Roisin and Sean, and one of four children, Mike Denver grew up in a home where country music was part of the daily diet.
His mother Roisin was well known on the Galway music scene and played in bands as far back as Mike can remember.
“My mam is very musical, and that’s how I actually started, when I was about 16, playing round all the local pubs,” he says. “It went from there, really.” He still lives in the small town of Portumna where he grew up, in the south east of Co Galway, around 45 minutes away from Galway City, and close to the border with Counties Tipperary, Offaly and Clare.
“My dad worked in the building trade, and that was what I did myself before I went into music - I served my time as a plumber,” he recounts.
“I was plumbing for seven or eight years and was all over the country working, and it went from there to launching the band in 2003, and we haven’t looked back since.”
After meeting and being signed by his manager Willie Carty, Mike recorded his first album, Wings To Fly, in 2003.
He went on to release a string of albums and hits, with his 2016 album Cut Loose topping the Irish charts, and in that same year, he was awarded Entertainer Of The Year.
Amongst his biggest hits are Tommy K, Wasn’t That A Party, and Paddy.
To date, he has recorded 14 albums and four DVDs, and in 2008, he achieved what for many could only ever be a pipe dream when he got to record a song with the legendary George Jones, entitled The Real Deal.
“It was a huge thing for me; he was someone whom I would have idolised and looked up to all my life,” he says.
“To fly out to Nashville and get the chance to go into the singing booth and sing into the same microphone as him was definitely one of the highlights of my career.
“He lived up to my expectations; he was a lovely man, and for years and years, until he sadly passed away, you would always get the Christmas card in the post.”
Mike reveals that over the years, he’s been asked many times by other artists to co-write songs, but says “it’s something I’ve never done”, preferring instead to focus on singing.
“It’s something I’ve done from a young age,” he continues. “I’ve played different instruments - very badly - as well. I played the piano and the guitar very badly, and I played the accordion even worse. It was just something I did at home as a child; I would hear songs on the radio and pick up the guitar and try and play along. I’ve never played an instrument live on stage though.”
As a schoolboy, Mike admits that amongst his many interests was “getting out of there!” He played hurling, but wasn’t really involved in music or drama, despite being a huge fan of country music from an early age, thanks to the constant playing of it in his family home, where he grew up with brother Sean, and sisters Caroline and Nicola.
“I was a huge Garth Brooks fan,” he recalls. “Irish Country wise, the likes of Declan Nerney, Mick Flavin and John Hogan were also really big when I was growing up.”
But what was it about country music that captured his own heart?
Everything, it would seem. “It’s the melody, the air of it, the music, the words,” he says. “Of course I was the same as any other young guy in that I was going to nightclubs and all kinds of music was being played, and like everyone, you go through your phases of ACDC and Guns N’Roses and so on. But at the end of the day, for me it was always a case of coming back to country music.” Mike also believes that the apparent resurgence of interest amongst younger people across the province in country music isn’t so much of a new wave of interest or fad, as the reignition of a flame that has been steadily burning in the background for years.
“Country music has always been big; over the last few years it has got a little more national exposure and more press and stuff, but it has always been popular,” he says.
“And in 10 or 15 years’ time it is still going to be there. Country music is part of us; it’s something that’s in the blood. We love that kind of music. If you go to a sing-song, there will always be somebody who gets up to sing a country song. From here, to Co Antrim, right down to the bottom of the country in Co Cork, there’s country music everywhere. It’s mad.”
‘Once you get up on that stage, it makes up for all the travelling’
In 2011, against the stunning backdrop that is the Grand Canyon, Mike got down on bended knee and proposed to his girlfriend of eight years, Liz Gannon.
The pair tied the knot the following year, and have been blissfully happy ever since - but do they travel to gigs and tours together?
Not a chance, laughs Mike.
“We would fight like cat and dog,” he quips. “Two co-pilots on the road is not good!
“She would come with me if it was a weekend away or abroad, but not to the local gigs.”
The pair met by chance when Mike was playing at a fundraiser close to Liz’s home in Co Meath, which she had brought her mother along to.
The proposal, he says, was semi-planned, and “romantic”, taking place in a holiday destination that is one of his favourites.
“I’ve been there a few times; I like the music and seeing the shows. It’s a great place to go. And you can enjoy the sunshine.
“I got down on one knee. Liz would say herself that she had been expecting it for years, but not at that precise time, so it was a shock!”
He enjoys spending his nights off with her, and going to the cinema or out for dinner; similarly, he likes to meet up with his old pals from Galway, and “go out for a few pints and relax”, or have a game of golf when the weather permits.
His time off is precious, as the reality is that there isn’t much of it.
“We’re flat out at the moment,” he admits. “We’re in the middle of a concert tour with Philomena Begley at the moment. We’re all over the country. The travelling is the hard part, but you get used to it. And once you get up on that stage, it all makes up for it.”
That particular day, Mike and had left Co Galway at 11am for a five hour drive up to Londonderry, and after the launch was over, he faced the same trek home.
And he will rarely stay over after gigs, preferring instead to travel back to Portuma, no matter how late the hour. On top of that, it’s rare that he and his band take weeks off at a time, preferring to take “a couple of days” here and there, and perhaps several times a year indulging in a period that’s a little longer.
It’s all part of life on the road as a country singer, and Mike wouldn’t have it any other way.
Line-up of stars at Maiden City festival in June
Last Tuesday night Mike joined fellow country singer Michael English on stage at the Belfray Country Inn to launch Country Comes to City, which is set to take place just a few miles away in Londonderry in June. The pair - together with Glaswegian star Lisa McHugh - will be topping the bill at this six-hour festival, which is now in its fifth year, and will set Ebrington Square alight on Saturday June 30. Over 3,000 people attended last year’s event, and festival chairman Ivan Parkhall revealed that hopes are high this year that this figure will rocket to over 5,000.
He added: “This festival is great for the local economy and tourism. We hope to raise thousands of pounds for Institute Football Club and Pink Ladies, our nominated charities.”
** Mike Denver will be headlining Country Comes to City, in association with The IMAC Group - one of the country’s leading facilities management providers - on Saturday June 30 in Ebrington Square.
Tickets are on sale priced at £20.00, and are available from www.millenniumforum.co.uk or phone 028 71264455.