Country singer Olivia Douglas on Philomena Begley, Glór Tíre and Derek Ryan
Jenny Lee chats to Olivia Douglas, one of the brightest up and coming stars on Ireland's country music scene, about going from contestant to mentor in TG4's Glór Tíre, her heroine Philomena Begley and working with Derek Ryan
FROM her toe-tapping accordion playing to her captivating voice, Co Offlay singer Olivia Douglas has become a firm favourite on the Irish country music circuit with her hits such as Leaving Tipperary and Don't Think Twice.
Currently touring across Ireland with Derek Ryan, Olivia has also had a busy start to the year as a mentor on TG4s popular music show Glór Tíre.
Although she launched her first album, Another Heartache, in 2015, it was as a contestant on Glór Tíre the following year that brought her to wider attention.
But Olivia's musical journey began much earlier, at the age of just five, when she discovered the tin whistle. However, it was on the button accordion that her talent shined, winning numerous Fleadh Cheoils around Ireland and placing second at the All-Ireland Fleadh in 2005.
Surrounded by country and folk musicians who performed at her father's popular bar, Tom's Tavern, in Ferbane, it quickly became the norm for young Olivia to make 'guest' appearances for a few songs.
The first song she remembers performing was Blanket On The Ground, made famous by Co Tyrone singer Philomena Begley.
"I loved her voice and her personality," says the 34-year-old, who wasn't shy to reach out to the 'Queen of Country music' to seek advice at an early age.
"One of the guys who played in Philomena's band down the years was playing in our pub one night. I was only about nine or 10 and I had daddy tormented looking for Philomena's number. I was really mad about her and just wanted to be like her when I was young.
"I was delighted when Daddy got it and I rang her the next morning. She told me to keep singing and practicing the accordion. To anyone starting in the business she is like a mummy," adds Olivia, who is also grateful to the advice she has been given down the years from Susan McCann and Sandy Kelly.
One of the highlights of Olivia's career came towards the end of last year when she was invited to take part in an Opry Le Daniel, celebrating Philomena's 60 years on the road, with Claudia Buckley and herself singing a duet of Blanket On The Ground.
"I grew up listening to Philomena, and to get called to be on her show was very special."
With a degree in business studies, Olivia combined her fledgling musical career for a number of years with working full-time doing accounts in a nursing home.
But the long hours and travel took its toll. "I was out five or six nights a week, coming home about four in the morning and literally going into work while taking off my make-up from the night before. That couldn't have lasted."
So in January 2019 Olivia decided to take a year out to concentrate on her music, during which time she toured internationally with both Nathan Carter and Derek Ryan and won a number of awards.
"I could have gone back to work in January 2020, but things were really, really busy so I made the decision to pursue music full-time," she explains.
Of course, three months later the Covid-19 pandemic brought the live music industry to a halt.
Despite the unfortunate timing, Olivia has no regrets. "I really cherished the time I got to spend at home with mummy and daddy, because growing up dad was always busy with the pub and for the few years before that I was living out of my car. Precious memories were made during lockdown, it was a special time."
Speaking to Olivia it's not hard to see why fans warm to her easy-going, friendly personality and warm heart. Never forgetting her roots, she still performs from time to time for the residents in the nursing home she used to work in, including outdoor gigs during the summer.
"It was great to get back in there a couple of weeks ago. It's nice to give something back," adds Olivia, who is also delighted to be back on the road again.
With solo gigs, festivals in Europe and country music cruise dates planned for 2022, this winter she has been joining country star Derek Ryan on his Irish Country Tour
"It's absolutely great to be back on stage. People are delighted to be out again and there is a great buzz," adds Olivia, who as well as singing her solo hits, joins Derek for a cèilidh set with her accordion.
"All ages love the accordion. It's just part of our culture and lifts people," she smiles.
Olivia is currently working on her third album, which will include a new song written by Derek Ryan. "Derek is such a great songwriter and I'm delighted with the track he has written especially for me.
"I put the guide down the other day in the studio, so I'm really looking forward to bringing that out soon," adds Olivia, who will also sing a new duet with John Hogan on the album.
Her favourite song to sing is the one she is most famous for - Leaving Tipperary - from her album Forever Country.
"Daddy suggested that song for me, but I often choose songs after listening to Spotify in the car," says Olivia, explaining that another of her hits - a cover of The Irish Rovers' hit A Hug or Two - was a last minute selection.
"Of course Olivia wasn't organised and I only heard it the night before I was going into the studio. I suggested it to the producer and he said that is going to be great. The young ones especially love it."
Her single Just a Thought Away, released last April, was a timely response to the Covid crisis. "When I heard it I just loved the words of it. A lot of people relate to it, especially during the past couple of years, with so many losing loved ones."
The 18th series of Glór Tíre is currently airing, with a new format that sees the introduction of guest judges, and each mentor choosing two contestants to compete for the winning crown on February 22.
Olivia's choice was her Co Offaly "neighbour" Colin Kenny and Fermanagh's Rachel McConnell.
The show has been a launch pad for several country stars including Lisa McHugh and Niamh McGlinchey.
"Glór Tíre gives you huge publicity and is a great platform for me. It's amazing to be asked back as a mentor," says Olivia who remembers Derrygonnelly contestant Rachel from when she travelled and performed with her father at their family bar.
"I remember Rachel from when she was a little one getting up and singing with her daddy. She has done some really good recordings and I thought it would be lovely to work with her."
And Olivia's advice to young wannabe country stars of the future?
"Get good recordings out there and just enjoy what you are doing. It does take a lot of hard work, but like anything in life - you work hard at what you want."
Olivia Douglas supports Derek Ryan at Cookstown's Burnavon Theatre on February 24 and 25, Derry's Millennium Forum on February 26 and Omagh's Strule Arts Centre on March 10.