In the land where the hills roll soft towards the valleys, country music has resonated deep in the hearts of the people of rural Laois for many decades.
As they say in America, this is heartland country. And it is also home to Harry Ramsbottom, a proud Laois man of farming stock who has been associated with the country music scene for almost 50 years. To say that Harry is a bit of a legend in the midlands is an understatement. Almost everyone who ever held a guitar, never mind played one, has heard of Harry and his humourous exploits.
Harry began his career in showbiz in 1967 when he fronted a band called The Escorts.
“Most of the lads were from around my own area near Stradbally and Portlaoise. There were so many bands on the scene at the time. We were doing loads of gigs but there was not a whole lot of money in it.
“In 1972, I recorded my first single in the Eamonn Andrews Studios in Dublin – Home Is Where The Heart Is. It was arranged and produced by Dermot O’Brien. I recorded Love Has A Mind Of Its Own in 1973.
“There was a whole lot of prestige to bringing out a record in those times. We were asked to back Hank Locklin, the famous American country singer, when he did a show in the Carlton Cinema in O’Connell Street in Dublin,” says Har.
Around the mid-1970s, Har fronted The Tallmen.
“Hugo Duncan was the lead singer with The Tallmen but he left them around that time. Greg Hughes and Con Hynes owned the name and they passed it on to me.
“We were doing dance gigs all over the country in those times. We were never in the top division when it came to drawing people but we were well up in the middle divisions and we had strong pockets of support in various parts of the country. Noel Carty, who was based in Dublin and from Roscommon, handled most of our dates.
“The midlands were our best areas but we played a lot in Galway too and we played Pontoon, Glenamoy, and other places in Mayo as well as the Silver Slipper in Strandhill and Jury’s Hotel in Sligo.
“There was fierce craic and humour in the business in those times. We got some dates in the Lilac in Enniskean in Co Cork because the man who used to book it was into the vintage scene and was a regular at the Steam Festival in Stradbally.
“One evening we were heading down to do a dance in Ballydehob and we were passing through Enniskean. We knew the restaurant down the town where the bands were fed before they played for the dance. Brendan Bowyer and the big boys used to play on the Saturday night and boys like us on the Sunday nights.
“Out of pure devilment, we said we would call in to the restaurant as Ballydehob was still a fair bit away. The kind lady said: “Here’s the band.” And she gave us six teas and buns and all that for nothing and said: ‘We’ll be up later in the Lilac’. We said: “Thank you very much, Mam, good luck.” And we were on our way. She probably got a land when she went up to the hall that night and saw a different band on stage.
“There was a lot of innocent fun in those times. Members of bands would bring a pile of eggs with them and pelt them when they came across each other on the way home from gigs. The Dublin bands were especially into throwing eggs at the country bands.
“There were no such things as mobile phones back then. Now and again, some girls would ring our house number at home and my wife Mary would take the calls. They’d ask when would Har be back playing in their area. Some would ask her who she was …and she’d say: ‘Oh, I’m his housekeeper.’ They might then ask if I was married? and she’d say not at all. The women followers of the bands did not want you to be married and it was the same with all the bands.”
Har and The Tallmen kept their show on the road until the mid-1980s.
“The advent of the dance floor in the lounge bar sunk the dancehall scene that we knew. It was impossible for singers like me to get airplay on RTÉ. Pirate radios brought the scene back and that led to the legalisation of the regional stations.”
Har now does the occasional date here and there.
“I still love the music and I always will. I am more or less retired but I still do the odd party. I read all about the lads in the Irish Farmers Journal. I help out my son Bosco with the cow and suckler herd on the farm. Farming is in my blood and so is the music. I wouldn’t change a thing,” says the Co Laois legend. CL