‘We want to show everyone Ulster is a place of cool music’

Eammon McCrystal
Eammon McCrystal

He began singing in childhood, to a captive audience in the care homes run by his mother and father, Ann and Jim, and by nine he was precociously singing Eva Cassidy on the radio.

Then it was annual slots at variety shows at the Ulster Hall.

Cookstown’s Eammon McCrystal, now a dapper and altogether charming 27-year-old, clearly has performing in his DNA and a voice of timbre and power such that country star Randy Travis’s ex-wife/manager Elizabeth quickly spotted his star potential and signed him up.

McCrystal is now based in Santa Fe, pursuing a career in classical pop with country and swing influences, often recording in Nashville, performing at the Grand Ole Opry, or heading to LA to dip his toes in the acting scene.

Recently Eammon filmed a singing and small speaking part in forthcoming romantic drama Big Stone Gap alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Ashley Judd.

But for now McCrystal, a hugely personable, garrulous type, is focused on the best of Northern Irish grown music.

On Saturday he will lead an eclectic show at the Grand Opera House, alternately duetting with Brian Kennedy, Rachel Tucker and Keith and Kristyn Getty during a set-list that will display the lyric-making clout this Province’s stellar lyric-making clout.

“Living in America you obviously get to see the outsider’s view of Northern Ireland,” he explains.

“I was watching TV one day and heard this pundit talking about Northern Ireland and he was really taking it apart and I thought I want to do something that shows the positive side of this place, because for so many people it’s just where the Troubles happened.

“One of the ways of showing our cultural richness is to showcase the amount of great music that has come from the pen of Northern Irish songwriters,” explains McCrystal.

“So we decided to do a show celebrating this with lots of Van Morrison songs, Days Like This, Moondance, Brown Eyed Girl, a very different reworking of Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars and a lot of songs by a man called Jimmy Kennedy, who is from my native Cookstown, who wrote so many great tunes like Down Mexico Way.”

The show is being recorded for an American audience and, hilariously, will feature Ulster’s naughtiest and most floridly Belfastian gap-toothed harridan in drag, May McFettridge, but with subtitles, so that the American TV audience will have more of a chance of understanding her banter (however, all this fabulous hilarity is so completely local that it may well be lost in translation).

McCrystal has friends in high places - his manager introduced him to the one and only, fearsomely peroxided and bosomy ultra queen of the country scene, Dolly Parton, a one-woman hit machine who came from such poverty in Tennessee to the heights of international stardom. Eammon gushes when discussing her.

“Dolly is such a lovely person, an incredible talent and she even recorded some voice-overs for me for a concert I did in Cookstown a while back.

“Her voice and her song-writing abilities are unbelievable, but Dolly is also very kind and generous. I’m a massive fan.”

For a while Eammon, whose new album is a collection of Christian music he describes as “reflective music, music like prayer”, incongruously wavered over the possibility of becoming a priest as a teenager.

“But I went to the bishop and I had something like 17 concert dates booked and he advised me that I should give the singing a go and so that is exactly what I did,” he recalls. The church’s loss is music’s gain.

“I go to Nashville to record because the musicians there are amazing and the Grand Ole Opry is somewhere that is a complete dream to perform at,” he continues.

“I feel my sound is very narrative-led or like an old school or classical style of pop. I like songs that tell stories, songs with big, blasting choruses that take you on a journey.”

There is a country influence to McCrystal’s sound and perhaps more than a scintilla of Ol’ Blue Eyes style swing, but McCrystal doesn’t fit the traditional Nashville sound either.

For now though he’s psyching himself for Saturday.

“Whether it’s at the Grand Ole Opry or at the Grand Opera House in Belfast - I hate the waiting around before you go on to perform. But once I am up there I am on cloud nine.

“It’s a great privilege to be able to entertain people and it’s also very humbling when people come out to see you perform.

“I want to show people in America that there is a cool side to Northern Ireland too, and a lot of legendary music has been written here.

“This is not just a place where the Troubles happened, it’s also a place where amazing singers and musicians have been nurtured.”

The whole should be an entertaining evening, one that resonates both here in Belfast and hopefully on the other side of the Atlantic - even if Americans do struggle to fathom May’s patter about her mate Big Patricia and people signing on at the brew.

Above all, this is a truly noble enterprise because there is infinitely more to Northern Ireland than conflict and trauma, flag disputes and parades. Namely also Van the Man, The Undertones, punk, verdant landscapes, the Mourne Mountains, Seamus Heaney, an iconic Good Vibrations record shop, and the impressive McCrystal himself.

- Celebrating the Music from Northern Ireland, September 6, Grand Opera House, Belfast. Visit www.goh.co.uk.