Daniel O'Donnell has captivated a generation of Irish and American fans with his melodic voice and his homespun charm. This month he's touring the U.S. and bringing the singing talent that made him famous to an ever-growing fan base. CAHIR O'DOHERTY talks to an Irish legend about his career, his marriage and the road ahead.
DANIEL Francis Noel O'Donnell was born in Dungloe, Co. Donegal in 1961, and though he's traveled far and wide since then the truth is that he's never really left home.
A proud Donegal man, it's his homespun charm and lack of pretension that are at the root of his popularity. Of course there's the matter of his singing voice, too. Although he's certainly no threat to the likes of Pavarotti, there's no doubt he knows how to carry a tune.
But, to hear his fans tell it, there's much more to his appeal than that. He's the sort of man you could take him home to your mother because you know he'll always be respectful and well dressed. The real secret of Daniel's appeal is the suspicion that he'll never let you down.
It's a clich that country and western singers usually have impoverished childhoods, but Daniel really did come from humble beginnings. Growing up in a charming but rustic home in Donegal with a tin hut outhouse out back, he had the same kind of childhood as some of country music's royalty with one important distinction - he was happy.
The only tragedy in his young life was the sudden death of his father Francie when Daniel was six, the youngest in the family. Francie had a fatal heart attack at the age of 49, and from then on his mother Julia became head of the house. A formidable Donegal woman, she shouldered the burden without complaining, and she saw to it that they never wanted for anything.
Nowadays her youngest child has become a multi-millionaire whose records and DVDs sell by the truckload, and his concert tours sell out as soon as they're announced.
This week Daniel's in Fresno, California where he spoke by telephone to the Irish Voice. Asked how the tour is progressing he started with a list of some of the cities he's visited or will visit shortly.
Says O'Donnell, "We've been to Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Pasadena and Fresno. We'll go to Chicago from here, then Ottawa, Toronto, Newfoundland, Halifax, Cleveland and other places. It's a fair old trek from Kincasslagh, Co. Donegal."
Along with the glamour of performing on stage comes the hard slog of touring. Three hour drives or even six-hour plane rides are commonplace before and after a concert, and this year Daniel's wife Majella has decided to sit it out.
"Touring is not for everyone but we're never away from home that long. There's not many couples who get to spend as much time together even though they're living in the same house," says O'Donnell.
"We may be apart for a month of the year when I'm on tour but otherwise we spend an awful lot of time together."
Daniel met his wife on holiday in Tenerife in 1999 when he went to a local bar run by friends of his, Tom and Marion Roche. Their daughter Majella had been in the restaurant during one of his visits and they were briefly introduced.
"I felt like we had known each other all our lives. It was a very laid-back evening and I regarded Majella as a woman who was great craic (fun) to be around," he remembers.
Starting out in the 1980s as a country and western singer - it's still the basis of his career - over the years Daniel has branched out to sing an occasional pop song or ballad, but he's stayed true to his roots. When it came to releasing his first single, he went for "My Donegal Shore" and "Stand Beside Me." It was certainly humble beginnings because he sold every one of those records himself.
Says O'Donnell, "I always sang from when I was fairly young. I always thought of it as something I would like to do as a career.
"Even though I did go to college in Galway I only stayed for a couple of months. Instead I started singing in 1981 when I was 19. I sang with my sister Margaret's band first, then I started my own group in 1983. It took until 1986 for things to really start to take shape."
From the beginning, though, he was always a little different from other Irish country singers. For one, he wore tailored suits and ties rather than the usual cowboy boots and 10-gallon hat, and he took an interest in his image that was fairly new to the scene. All that attention to detail was eventually rewarded with concert houses full of cheering fans.
Beneath O'Donnell's famously placid exterior lies a deeply ambitious man, and he'd be the first to tell you so himself. At the start of his career he received no encouragement at all from the music industry in Ireland, and its leading lights back then - he won't mention names - told him there was no market for the old time music he liked to sing.
But Daniel felt they were wrong. He was right, and his whole career has been a triumph over the (many) nay-sayers.
"I believed in what I was doing and I went with it. I didn't envisage doing it at the level I'm at now," he says. "I just enjoyed singing and I thought that if I could have a career doing that I'd be very fulfilled."
To make his name in the early days he started performing concert tours in England six nights a week, every week, for months on end. He said yes to every request, answered every phone call, visited every fan in hospital, and completely wore himself out.
"It really was too much. I was the type of person who just couldn't say no," O'Donnell says.
" I could see that all my hard work was yielding results but eventually, the pressure of all the commitments began to take its toll on my health. I was near to cracking up from doing too much work. It was literally too much. I kept saying yes, yes, yes, to everything. At the end of the day, the human body can only take so much."
Over a period of two years in the early 1990s Daniel took time to recuperate and assess his achievements. He loved to perform - his career was never about making money, he says - and eventually his delight in what he did returned when he gave a hugely successful concert at the Point in Dublin that took his career to the stadium level where it has remained.
But despite all the gold records and the accolades, he has kept faith with his hometown and his heritage. "They'd be very quick to cut you down if you walked with too much of a spring in your step around Kincasslagh. That's what keeps me grounded," he says.
O'Donnell still lives in the tiny village he grew up in, and the award that means the most to him is the one presented by his home county.
Says O'Donnell, "The award I hold dearest to my heart is the Donegal Person of the Year. It honors me as a person from Donegal.
"I love Donegal more than anywhere else in the world. That and my fans are the reason that I do what I do - and that I enjoy it as much. I have a charmed life."
For details about O'Donnell's U.S. tour, visit www.daniel-site.com/tour-dates/
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