Cliona Hagan on the wit and grit of Dolly Parton as she opens The Dolly Songbook

Cliona Hagan is back on the road again with The Dolly Songbook, The Tyrone singer speaks to Gail Bell about Dolly ‘s enduring appeal and how the American superstar managed to surprise her

Cliona Hagan is back on the road again singing her Dolly Songbook to enthralled fans new and old.
Cliona Hagan is back on the road with The Dolly Songbook, her tribute to the songs of Dolly Parton and the stories that lie behind them

SHE is the consummate professional and yet Co Tyrone country singer Cliona Hagan doesn’t like to take herself too seriously – a trait she learned from idol Dolly Parton, whose songbook she brings on tour again this month.

All smiles, white teeth, blonde hair and sparkling rhinestones, she plumbs the emotional depths of Parton songs with ease, while still letting her own down-to-earth personality connect with an audience while on stage.

“I don’t try to look like Dolly or impersonate her, but I do happen to like a lot of sparkle too – I like my rhinestones,” quips the award-winning singer, currently on her third tour across Ireland with the ever-popular Dolly Songbook.

“And, honestly, the amount of times I have messed up on stage and said something silly... but then I think, what would Dolly do? She would make a joke out of it and poke fun at herself and take back control – so I remember to try and not take things too seriously; there is a fine line and you can forget to enjoy the performance.”

Chatting from her husband Simon (Sheerin’s) family home in Westmeath, where rehearsals were in full swing with the Family Sheerin Band - “or the in-laws, as I call them” - the 35-year-old is more excited than ever to be back on the road with all her favourite songs – and costumes – for 14 performances across the Republic, two of them in the north.

“One of my bucket list things has always been to perform Dolly’s songs and I honestly thought it would be a one-off, but the show just grew legs and, three years later, here we are and the demand is huge,” says the multiple Female Vocalist of the Year award winner and RTE’s Dancing with the Stars finalist (2019).

The Ballinderry (Cookstown) girl became fascinated with Dolly Parton as a child - her mum was a huge fan and Parton’s cameo role in The Beverly Hillbillies film made a huge impression. “When Dolly came on, all big blonde hair, big tassles and rhinestones, I just thought, ‘Wow’,” enthuses the former music teacher and television presenter of Keltic Country Ireland.

Cliona Hagan on stage during the Farmers' Bash concert at the SSE Arena. Picture by Cliff Donaldson
Cliona Hagan on stage at the SSE Arena (Cliff Donaldson)

“Then, as I grew older, I started appreciating her music, her song-writing, her wit, her grit, her diversity, her charity work and how she never forgot where she came from. Dolly is 78 now, but she started at a time when it was so difficult for women in the country music scene in America,” says Cliona.

“None of the country music stations would play her, so she had to really fight her way and keep going. She got dropped from numerous record labels, but it didn’t deter her – she was a force to be reckoned with.”

She describes The Dolly Songbook as a celebration of all of that, while also being informative: audiences are told how each song came into being – the American star penned over 3,000 of her own songs, recorded many of them and also sang covers.

The Dolly Songbook is on at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, on March 21 and at the Millennium Forum, Derry, on March 28
Cliona Hagan brings The Dolly Songbook to Belfast and Derry this month

“There is certainly a lot of choose from,” says Cliona, “and people continue to be surprised at her output, because they have maybe heard Dolly’s songs sung and made famous by someone else. She is a remarkably versatile artist – she recently put out a rock album - and I think that is one of the reasons why I gravitate towards her.”

To her huge surprise, the admiration has not just been one-sided either: Dolly returned due praise after listening to Cliona’s Dolly Songbook album released in 2021.

“I was just blown away when she praised my album,” says Cliona who likes to practise breath control by walking fast down the street while singing at the same time - much to the amusement of onlookers.

As I grew older, I started appreciating Dolly’s music, her song-writing, her wit, her grit, her diversity, her charity work and how she never forgot where she came from. Dolly is 78 now, but she started at a time when it was so difficult for women in the country music scene in America

—  Cliona Hagan

“I always send albums and stuff I do to friends within the scene here, so I sent a few copies to Margo [O’Donnell] who, unbeknownst to me, sent it off to Dolly who she has duetted with in the past.

“When Margo rang to tell me her reaction, I nearly fainted. I was just about to go on stage in Ennis [Co Clare], that night, too. Margo said Dolly was like, ‘Who’s this ole girl singing my songs?’ But, thankfully, she loved them.”

Cliona Hagan and her Dancing With The Stars professional dance partner Robert Rowinski 
Cliona Hagan and her Dancing With The Stars professional dance partner Robert Rowinski 

A life in the spotlight started at an early age for the young Cliona who performed on a BBC Radio Ulster Christmas special at the age of nine and represented her county in the final of the RTE All Ireland Talent Show the same year. At age 12, she guested on The Late Late Show and sang on Belfast’s Grand Opera House stage for a TV show with showband star and presenter, George Jones.

Classically trained, she went on to study music at Queen’s University, followed by a PGCE in Edinburgh - but teaching in a classroom was not the life she yearned for. “I was one of those really annoying children who would just not shut up,” she recalls. “I always wanted to be out performing, but I knew performing was never a guaranteed profession, so I decided to delve into the more technical side, the instrumentation, learning the theory and all that.

“I remember sitting chatting to my mum about it all one day and saying, ‘Look, what am I going to do?’ I had been offered a teaching position, I had student loans and everything to pay back, but my passion has always been to be on that stage, singing country music.

“My mum told me to ‘give it a go’ and then, whatever happened, I would have no regrets. That was 2015 and thank the good Lord above, I have just kept going.”

In a way, she did return to teaching with ‘Just Sing’ workshops for schoolchildren across Ireland in 2019. “I met so many lovely kids,” she says. “I really wanted that project to help young people get a kick-start into arts and music. I wanted to give back because I had amazing music teachers in school who encouraged me and gave me so many opportunities to learn my craft.”

After the Dolly tour, a new venture awaits with music holiday project, Sizzle in the Sun, featuring various music acts – herself and her husband’s band, Take it to the Limit, included. “I am just so excited about this,” she gushes. “It is a complete package music holiday in the Barceló Punta Umbría Beach Resort in Huelva, Spain.

“I am the first woman within country music to have done this – the guys in country music have put on some amazing trips in the past and when I was asked to perform in them, I always thought I would love to organise one myself and put my own stamp on it.

“I really can’t wait – music, sunshine and lots and lots of fun. I want people to go home saying, ‘Wow, that was the best holiday ever.”

Cliona Hagan brings The Dolly Songbook to the Grand Opera House, Belfast, on March 21 and the Millennium Forum, Derry on March 28. Sizzle in the Sun details at clionahagan.com