Tony Cummings spoke to Colin Elliott about the award winning band from County Armagh, LIVE ISSUE
The most avid follower of Irish country music wouldn't claim that it is considered "cool" in the broader music world. But even those disinclined to listen to country emanating from the Emerald Isle would have to admit that Lurgan, County Armagh-based Live Issue have achieved a great amount in their chosen musical field. Their stream of albums and DVDs have sold well, their touring has built them a substantial fan base and they became the first group from Ireland, and only the second group from the British Isles, to perform on the hallowed stage of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.
Frontman Colin Elliott still has fond memories of their Grand Ole Opry appearance. "It was an amazing honour in itself and the dream of many a country singer or musician. I remember we were introduced on stage by the great Charlie Louvin and as the Opry staff band were leaving the stage so we could come on, I remember one of them saying, 'Just go out there boys and knock them dead!' We certainly were nervous because we were standing on the most famous stage in country music in front of an audience of over 4,000 people. Our good friend George Hamilton IV gave us a lovely welcome and then I had the chance to say hello. I remember asking if there was anyone in the audience from Ireland or the British Isles and a huge roar went up. From that point on we knew we were playing to an audience who were behind us all the way and we launched into our first song which was the old Johnny Cash track 'The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago'. One of my most enduring memories of that appearance was swinging round to face Carl Sands, our lead guitarist, during his guitar solo. I then realised that he was also on the huge stage screen behind us as well as being projected onto the large screens on either side of the stage. It was just an awesome experience and a real privilege to sing gspel music on such a prestigious stage."
Colin spoke about the changes in personnel for Live Issue down the years. "The current line up of the group is Roy Dreaning (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, mandolin, harmonica), Carl Sands (lead guitar, backing vocals, banjo, harmonica), Ivan McLernon (pedal steel guitar, dobro), Sam Armstrong (drums, backing vocals) and me (lead vocals, bass guitar, rhythm guitar). The current line up came together back in 2006 however Roy, Sam and I had played together in the first incarnation of Live Issue back in the mid 1980s. When we reformed in 2006 we were joined by a piano player called Samuel Purdy. Samuel was with us for about four years and then had to step back due to health reasons. Ivan McLernon officially joined us on steel guitar in 2012 but had been playing on many of our recordings and joining us for larger concerts a few years before that. We get along very well together and enjoy all the travelling and touring that we do. We are like brothers in many ways and look out for one another. It was this relationship that inspired us to record 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' on the last album."
Colin has some surprising views about country music purists who consider any non-American country as not the real deal. "Believe it or not I wouldn't totally disagree with people who say that. I do believe that good country music can be written and performed outside America but it definitely sounds much better when you actually hear your music being played in the United States. I think it must be the backdrop of the American landscape, Peterbilt trucks and the open highway. There are also some excellent Polish bands such as The Colorado Band who sound great and of course country and bluegrass music has its origins in Ireland through the traditional music that travelled with our ancestors to the United States. On the other hand, and without trying to be too controversial, there is a form of homegrown 'country' music that has developed in Ireland and some other parts of the British Isles in recent years that is quite frankly musically, vocally and lyrically below standard and can sometimes cast a shadow on whole genre of country music. I would even go as far as to say that some radio stations and programmes need to urgently review their quality control policies. (Rant Over!) Having said that it is my experience that when people hear good country music, no matter where it originates, they very often enjoy and appreciate it."
As well as touring and recording with Live Issue, Colin also tours as a solo and has made two appearances at the Grand Ole Opry in his own right. Somehow he still finds time to operate his own recording studio, Hillcrest Recordings in Portadown. He spoke about his Hillcrest activities, "I have always been fascinated with recording from the first time my parents bought me a little cassette recorder when I was about seven years old. Once I bought my first twin deck recorder with an integral radio, I thought I was George Martin himself and spent hours locked in my bedroom making compilations and trying to overdub parts. My first real studio was a Tascam four track and then I quickly progressed to an eight track reel to reel machine. Once digital recording developed, a whole new world opened up and I updated the studio using Cubase as the main recording platform. I have recorded all Live Issue's albums since 2006 and also several CDs for other people including George Hamilton IV. George is a great friend and mentor and it is actually an album that we did for him a few years ago that is my favourite."
Continued Colin, "George had been keen to record an album of traditional hymns and gospel songs that you do not hear sung as often as they used to be. The title of the album was 'Old Fashioned Hymns And Gospel Songs For Those Who Miss Them!' It was agreed that Live Issue would record the backing music and George Hamilton IV would duet with different friends from the Grand Ole Opry and gospel music on each track. The album quickly took on a life of its own and a good friend of mine called Dave Moody from Lamon Records in Nashville agreed to assist with the production and the recording of many of the artists in America. It was a mammoth task arranging each of the 28 songs and liaising with all the artists to ensure that the keys were right and their vocals were recorded perfectly in time. George Hamilton IV did all his vocals at Hillcrest Studios as did Tommy Cash, brother of the legendary Johnny Cash. Live Issue did the majority of the instrumentation however additional instrumental contributions from Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart and other musicians had to be recorded by Dave Moody in Nashville. Artists such as Charley Pride, Connie Smith, Pat Boone, George Beverly Shea, Bill Anderson and Charlie Louvin were keen to be involved and the recording of their vocals continued right up to the last minute before we hit the completion deadline.
"The album became a compilation of country and gospel music legends all dueting on their favourite hymns with George Hamilton IV. From very early on in the project I became aware that I was responsible for recording more than just an album but a piece of musical history. Once everything was recorded both at home and in Nashville, it was my job to compile all the tracks into a seamless album of duets. It took about 18 months of hard work to complete the double CD but we managed to pull it off. The album was released at the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium and the Texas Troubadour Theatre in Nashville on 10th July 2010 with many of the artists who sang on the album taking part in the launch concert. I remember being introduced on stage at the Grand Ole Opry by Emmylou Harris and for the rest of the evening I had the opportunity to lead the Opry staff band, who are some of the best musicians in Nashville. We were greatly honoured and humbled when the album got nominated for a Dove Award in 2011."
Live Issue's latest album 'On The Line' got a glowing Cross Rhythms review. Colin spoke about the project, "'On The Line' was certainly a lovely album to record and I believe there is a good range of material on it. Although the album fits nicely into the country music genre, there are also some songs that have a strong '60s influence such as 'You First Loved Me', 'Jesus Is The Only One For Me' and of course 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother'. On reflection the album probably is our best yet with regard to instrumentation and harmony arrangements but our previous albums had many strong tracks too and they are still selling well, so I will let our listeners have the final say on that one."
Colin spoke about how new songs find their way into Live Issue's repertoire. "We write some of our own material and we are hoping that the new album that we are just starting to record will contain more original songs than previous albums. The other songs are usually found on obscure country/gospel albums or songs we have picked up in the United States. There is a lot of vetting that goes into choosing our songs and we have a good filtering process among the five of us. Sometimes people write songs and send them to us, but again these need to go into the mix with all the other potential material. The odd one makes it through but most do not."
Do Live Issue consider themselves musical evangelists? Elliott responded, "Our good friend George Hamilton IV summed it up nicely a few years ago when he called us 'musicianaries'. We love our music and we love to sing about our Christian faith which means so much to each one of us in Live Issue. Our music is 90 per cent gospel, however we do have some nice crossover songs such as 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' and 'Welcome To My World' which have a great message. The lyrics of the songs generally speak for themselves but it is always nice to share our faith in Jesus with an audience and relate to them what a particular song means to us."
As well as their countless appearances at events and festivals, Live Issue are also responsible for the annual Gospel Fest in County Down. Colin spoke about the event, "Gospel Fest is the brainchild of Roy Dreaning, who sings with Live Issue, but we all chip in and help him with the organisation in the run up to the event. Roy had the idea while out for a walk along the country roads close to his house outside the town of Banbridge in Co Down. Roy thought how good it would be to have the sound of gospel music echoing through the countryside and people coming from all over to hear it. Live Issue had also played at many festivals and gospel music conventions in England and America and there was always a good contingent of Northern Ireland singers taking part. At the same time there was no specific event in our home country that celebrated gospel music in all its different forms and that is how Gospel Fest was conceived.
"There is no preaching as such, just good music and fellowship. This means that many people come to Gospel Fest who would never normally attend church or any other form of gospel event. In the past four years it has grown into a major gospel music festival with over 4,000 people attending throughout the middle weekend of each August. Gospel Fest is held on Roy's farmland in a huge marquee and people travel from throughout the British Isles to attend the event. We have had artists from Ireland, the UK, Europe and America and next year is shaping up to be better than ever with an additional youth event planned and therefore Gospel Fest will run for an extra night. We are all surprised by the success of Gospel Fest and we hope it will continue to grow and be a blessing to many in the years ahead. The Gospel Fest weekend will run from Thursday 14th to Sunday 17th August 2014."
Down the years Colin Elliott has served country gospel music with considerable passion. What keeps him going? "I think we see the band and our music as a calling by the Lord and therefore we feel it is important to serve him in this way. We have been blessed over the years by the fact that we have always been working on different projects and taking new opportunities as they arise. Sometimes we have the chance to work on individual projects or with other people and I think that is a good thing. I like to think we do not get paranoid if one of us does a solo album or joins another band for some concerts. We always find our way back home to Live Issue and are usually enriched and refreshed by the experience of doing something different. We also love playing music together and the great reaction we get from an audience to our songs. The big difference between music ministry and simply playing songs for entertainment is that we are singing from our heart about a personal faith in Jesus that is very important to us. It's not really work."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.