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behind the music

"I always bring my granny": Stetsons, stilettos (and apple tarts) at The Nathan Carter Show

The fans are the real stars of the show, as we discovered in Sligo recently.

NATHAN CARTER IS a bona fide sensation in Ireland.

How do we know?

He’s fronting his own Sunday night TV show, for starters.

He’s booked the biggest headline gig of his career in Dublin’s 3Arena next year.

But also… people are baking him apple tarts. Does anything say ‘you’ve arrived’ in quite the same way as a long line of adoring fans carrying baked goods (and occasionally, cartons of pre-whipped Avonmore)?

If it’s Thursday it must be Sligo  

I only felt a slight pang of guilt as I sampled a slice of one of Nathan’s fan-baked tarts, backstage, on a rainy afternoon in early autumn (some careless staff member had just left it lying around apparently).

Reaching the inner sanctum of Irish country music’s hottest talent hadn’t been difficult. I was there to sit in on the recording of his RTÉ series, the first installment of which airs tonight after the show had a successful pilot outing last Christmas.

I’d be talking to the man himself at some stage in the day, if he had four-and-a-half-minutes to spare from his dawn-to-dusk production schedule.

But the real stars of the show, I’d been told, were the fans.

The word ‘dedicated’ doesn’t come close to doing them justice. They’ve been following the Liverpudlian singer (yes, he’s from Liverpool) to the ends of the Earth – showing up hours before gigs, and hanging around for selfies long after the final encore.

Why Nathan? 

A veritable army of talented, clean-cut singers have been attempting to capitalise on the latest boom in country music in Ireland in recent years.

So, aside from a slightly incongruous Merseyside accent (given the abundance of Western garb around) what does Nathan have that the others don’t?

Why is this man (below) playing the Point, while his competitors struggle to fill mid-size ballrooms in regional hotels?

carter2 Sean Smyth Sean Smyth

The star

There were no fans around yet, so I began by putting that very question to the guy with his name over the door.

Wandering into a backstage area at Sligo IT’s Knocknarea Arena for our chat, the 26-year-old star seemed remarkably unflapped, considering that he’s just started fronting his own weekly TV show.

“It’s something that I never expected or thought about doing,” said Carter, nursing a cup of tea.

They asked me to do the Christmas special. I did that and it got really great figures, you know, so they asked would I do a series and I said yeah.

As our brief chat continued, I clumsily asserted at one point that he was being “held responsible” for latest boom in Irish country music (he didn’t seem to mind any perceived slight – but insisted, as you’d expect, that the scene was bigger than any one person).

Back on safer ground, we got on to talking about the continuing appeal of a particular genre of county music here. “We’re not exactly herding cattle in the wilds of Wyoming, Nathan – so what’s it all about?”

Said Carter:

“I mean… Originally country came from Celtic music.

It came with banjos, fiddles and accordions and they took it to the States and it developed from that into Bluegrass, into Cajun music and into country music, and that’s how – I think – it stems back that far.

The singer, who’s been fronting versions of the Nathan Carter Show since his early childhood, is evidently taking the whole fame thing in his stride.

His family has Irish roots, and Nathan has been playing for audiences on both sides of the Irish Sea since his early teens – becoming the star of countless Feis Ceoils and other music competitions, where he picked up medals in solo singing and accordion.

He’s been fronting his own band for over half a decade at this stage, and is clearly dedicated to life on the road.

It’s still a family affair too – Carter’s granny looks after the t-shirt stand, and his mum and dad will be front and centre in the audience for tonight’s show.

That family focus may well explain part of his appeal. A sizeable demographic of Irish women, remember, once fell in love with a soft-spoken Donegal lad who adored his Mammy.

The fans

Two hours out from the start of the recording, the ticket-holders began to show up.

Carter’s audience, as you might imagine, are mostly female – but the fanbase seemed to span all ages, from young children to couples in their eighties.

Two of his more mature fans, Anne and Esther, were first in the queue – propped up at the venue door on folding stools. It’s their second night along to the TV show recordings, they explained.

My question about the singer’s appeal was met with quizzical looks and the following answer:

“He’s such a good singer, such a lovely chap to talk to and a real gentleman,” said Anne.

Added her friend:

We’ve met him on numerous occasions.

‘We’ve seen him 17 times’ 

Just behind them, two young women who had travelled all the way from Waterford for the show said they planned to follow him to his gig at the Lisdoonvarna Festival too, over the coming weekend.

“This year alone we’ve seen him 17 times,” Lucy, sheltering from the rain next to her friend Joyce, enthused.

Well, she’s seen him 15 times and I’ve seen him 17 times.
He’s a great man. Not alone is he a great singer but he’s a great entertainer. I know people refer to him as the young Daniel O’Donnell – I’m a major Daniel O’Donnell fan as well.
He gives his time to the people. He respects his audience. He’s just a great overall kind of guy and he gives his time up.

Once inside, audience members were shepherded into the canteen for a (plastic) glass or two of wine. There was still a while to go before showtime, providing a chance for Carter’s granny, Ann, to sell some merchandise.

“The mugs, the posters, the pillowcases,” are the best sellers, she said.

The pillowcases in question are adorned with hearts and the title of one of her grandson’s songs – ‘Good Morning Beautiful’.

“I’d say a few husbands have given those a punch,” Ann observed.

Some fans, it turned out, had eschewed the wine and the temptations of the merch stand to start queueing outside main auditorium almost as soon as they were allowed in the building.

The line stretched all the way up the stairs and down the corridor by the time the doors finally opened.

Once inside, after a quick word from the floor manager (don’t forget to clap, etc.) Nathan’s arrival – high-kicking, decked out in a stylish-if-not-particularly-country suit – was greeted with shrieks and hollers from the patient audience, as he launched into his opening number.

Something for all the family 

I didn’t take many more notes after that. What followed stayed true to a tried-and-tested Sunday night TV variety format – something for all the family.

Ex-Saturdays star Una Healy and former Man with Van Brian Kennedy were probably the best-known names on the bill, along with Kells indie group Ham Sandwich.

Veteran Irish country star Philomena Begley and a chisel-jawed Antrim singer called Johnny Brady also joined Carter for a medley of Merle Haggard songs.

Some of the banter between Begley and Brady was very funny, but wasn’t exactly pre-watershed friendly, so unfortunately won’t be in the show.

I also wrote down: “Brian Kennedy really is a very good singer… Find a better way of saying that in an article”.

Show’s over 

Disappointingly (I was getting hungry at this stage) there were no apple tarts handed in backstage for Nathan afterwards.

However, true to his reputation, the singer hung around for as long as was needed. Everyone got a selfie. Everyone got their pillowcases signed.

This was no time to try and talk to fans. But earlier, I’d spoken to a young woman called Christina, who had a slightly different insight into Carter’s appeal, and why people around Ireland are flocking, once again, to barn dances and country nights.

“You feel safer,” she said.

If you go to a mad nightclub or a mad pub or something – it’s crazy. When you go to a country night it’s all about the music and people you meet and to socialise.
It’s not about drinking and drugs and whatever. You meet different people from all walks of life.

Aisling Kennedy – at the recording with her mum and her aunt – said she also felt at home in the crowd.

He appeals to so many age groups. Like, I’m only in my mid 20s but I always bring my granny and she’s in her 70s and she loves him just as much as I do.
He’s so good with people as well – very friendly.

On the way back to my car, I spot Brian Kennedy being persuaded onto a coach full of gig-goers and making his way down the aisle, signing autographs and posing for photos.

Last year, the Belfast singer marked a quarter of a century since the release of his first single. Being nice pays off, apparently, in this country.

The Nathan Carter Show airs on RTÉ One at 9.30pm this evening. 

Read: Optometrists are warning people not to wear cosmetic contact lenses this Halloween >

Read: The painless man and reptile queen: Meet one of Ireland’s more unusual power couples >

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