"In 2017, I got two suitcases and a fiddle, off I went on a jet airliner. Good luck to the cows and the calves.”
Mags McCarthy refers to her Nashville departure with rapturous laughter. In fact, the singer laughs a lot, a breath of fresh air during this pandemic. From the outset it’s pretty clear she’s fun and easy going.
From a dairy farm in Dripsey, she speaks with that distinctive Cork lilt and, in typical Rebel County style, she addresses this writer as ‘girl’ throughout the interview.
A multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and dancer, Mags’ favoured instrument is the fiddle and she has definitely got many strings to her bow. She’s a music teacher, has toured with Rhythm of the Dance and is now pursuing a country music career in Nashville.
In the past, she has played on stage with Dolly Parton and was also invited to perform for President Obama in the White House on St Patrick’s Day.
On leaving home for Nashville, Mags is pragmatic. She would definitely consider herself a home bird and loves being in Cork, but life is for living and she felt compelled to follow her dream of being a singer and musician.
For the last few years, Mags has been based in the Tennessee capital, but in between stints on the road, she returns to Cork. At the moment, Mags is home during the pandemic and is being kept plenty busy on the farm, a dairy enterprise where they also keep beef cattle.
In the past, she says she would come home from a world tour with Rhythm of the Dance – a dance show where she performed a fiddle-playing dance number - and there would be no room for rest, it’s straight to work the next day.
“Sure I remember years ago when I was touring with Rhythm of the Dance, I used to come home and I’d be after performing in front of 20,000 people at a show, the next day I’d be swinging tyres on the silage pit and driving tractors. They’re more interested in me helping out on the farm than they are in my music,” jokes Mags.
However, there’s not only been agriculture-related work happening on the McCarthy’s farm of late, music has nudged its way in there too. The video for Mags’ latest single, a cover of Dolly Parton’s Light of a Clear Blue Morning, was partly shot on their farm. The rest was filmed on a cousin’s farm by the coast.
Initially, Mags was unsure whether or not to get the farm involved, but decided it was time to show off that part of her identity.
“In the beginning I was going, ‘will I or won’t I?’ because it’s my own life involved in this video, what we do. My friends said ‘Mags, you should, people need to see that side of you’. I said, ‘Yeah, I love the calves and I love the cows’. It put them in the video and it’s just been amazing.
“It’s shot at home in Cork, which I think makes me even more proud, because if I was in Nashville I would have had to shoot it there. The scenery is amazing in this country, especially on a fine day.”
Although Light of a Clear Blue Morning, which was recently at number 58 on the US country chart, was to be Mags’s next release ever before coronavirus reared its head, many have remarked that the lyrics are very apt at present, as it’s a song of hope and reassurance.
Everything’s gonna be alright, gonna be OK
Music on the mind
Mags’s interest in performing began at age four, when she started Irish dancing. Soon after she got into playing music. Now she plays the fiddle, piano, banjo and guitar. Neither of her parents play music, but her grandfather did and she still carries a little bit of that tradition with her.
“Now my granddad, he died when I was two, so I never got to meet him. In fact, I actually play his fiddle, which is over 134 years old. We got it refurbished when I was about 16 years of age.”
Growing up, Mags was also very sporty. She chuckles that running, camogie and music encapsulated her entirely when she was young.
For Mags, there was never a question that she wouldn’t follow a path where music was involved one way or another, but she did often think about the struggles associated with a career in music.
“You have to have an open mind when you’re growing up, to figure things out, because you actually don’t even know where you’re going to end up with music.
"You really do need a job. It’s hard in music, not knowing where you’re going to find income of any sort.”
With this in mind, Mags did a degree in music in University College Cork (UCC), ultimately completing a Masters in music and a HDip, which allows her to teach music.
However, while she was in UCC, she dabbled in a couple of other musical elements. After her first year, she started to tour with Rhythm of the Dance.
Altogether, she completed three years with Rhythm of the Dance, visiting 42 countries, but attended college in between these years. Also, while at UCC, she went to Los Angles for a while to work on her music, which led to the invite to perform at the White House.
“They were always kind of worried in UCC that I would never finish it out, because people who had gone before me had done this and never came back.
"But I was like, ‘No, I’m coming back, don’t worry about me’. And I did. Not alone that, I ended up becoming a part-time teacher there. I teach Irish dance to international students. I never left,” smiles Mags.
Settling down and starting up
With her education complete, Mags thought it was time to settle down and get a “steady job” as some would say. “Then I got a real job as they call it, a nine to five, a paying job,” exclaims Mags good humouredly.
She’s a teacher at Terence MacSwiney Community College in Cork. Since 2009, Mags has been over and back to America in stints. In 2016, during a two-week school holiday, Mags travelled to Nashville to record 16 of her original songs.
This sparked the idea to give country music a go over there. So, in 2017, the Cork woman took a career break, which she’s still on, and struck off for the US.
It was hard to know where to start over there, but slowly Mags got to know some musicians, who would introduce her to other musicians. After some time, she began to play venues, even performing at the famous Wildhorse Saloon and on the biggest stage at the Country Music Association Fest.
After all this, she had gotten a band together, they released songs and went on a radio tour around parts of the US.
“We jumped into a pickup truck and drove all around the mid-west of America. I remember we travelled 6,000 miles in less than two weeks,” says Mags.
“The first day, it took nine hours to get to the radio station. We would have been visiting three radio stations a day. But I was enjoying it because I got to see the countryside, especially coming from a farm; driving up towards Iowa and seeing all the massive fields, seeing how their farming systems work.”
Although Mags is very excited and animated regaling tales of her American adventures, she’s realistic and doesn’t shy away from the tough elements of the music business.
“It’s been an amazing journey. I’ve had my ups and downs, I can tell you that. More probably downs than ups with the music, but at the same time I’m enjoying it.
"I’d be sleeping on an airbed in Nashville; I’d be saving my money to spend it on promoting myself there. It’s a hard road, but I’ve been lucky in places, so I’m delighted.
“Whether or not my music will ever happen for me, to go there, the life experience I’ve gotten and to be able to do this while I’m young is amazing. I don’t want to have any regrets in life.
"So I said, ‘You know what, life is short, you’ve got to make the most of it’. So off I went. I’m not doing too bad, now I’m home and I’m back farming, feeding calves and all that kind of craic.”
Going forward, when travel resumes and things open up a bit more, Mags would like to get back to Nashville.
“When things get back to some sort of normal, I’ll go back to Nashville, stay in my van there. Play and promote myself more, go visit radio stations and do the best I can. The fact that I’m not there is hard, but no one is anywhere at the moment.
“I’ll always come back to Ireland though, home will always be home.”