Mike Ireland – Straight Shooter
Hardly buff and mostly bald, but for a fringe that flaps loose when the music gets cooking, Ireland will probably have to make it on his hooks, not his looks. But the man has taste, make no mistake. He’s taken to adding “Life’s Little Ups And Downs” to his set; it’s a masterpiece, a Charlie Rich tune written by Rich’s wife, Margaret Ann, and as achingly beautiful a song as popular (or country) music can claim. All it takes is the suggestion of “Little Green Apples”, a 1968 #2 hit for O.C. Smith, and Ireland’s aesthetic comes into focus.
“‘It don’t rain in Indianapolis,'” he finishes the line. “That’s way on my radar of country things I grew up with. Because it was pretty much exclusively country things that would have crossed over to AM radio, that’s what we were talking about. There’s another song that isn’t discernibly country. You listen to that recording, and it sounds like a pop song. That’s what I find myself drawn to. Same thing with ‘Life’s Little Ups And Downs’. Is there anything about that song that’s particularly country?”
Well, is there anything about country radio that’s particularly country? That, in fact, would be Ireland’s point. “I find it hard to figure on both sides,” he says. “[The country] audience is moving toward this kind of pop-influenced country, but does not like — is completely wigged out by — the kind of pop country we’re doing. But critics who embrace us will lambaste any modern-day person who is making country music with pop leanings. And it just seems like there’s not that far a distance between these two camps. Admittedly some artists are doing stuff that I find horrible, but all of it is not terrible.”
And, he is not afraid to name names: “I just about love every Patty Loveless record. She’s one of the few modern artists who can actually get me to weep. Alan Jackson I think is great, but, then again, he leans toward that older stuff. But, you know, there’s pop in what he does. And of course the Mavericks.”
Aesthetics matter to Ireland, but they remain subordinate to the theme that so dominated Learning How To Live: love, and living through it. Among the seven songs on the demo his manager are shopping is a bouncy gem titled “Sweet Sweetheart”, the pleading “Let Me Hold You”, and the almost painful “Love’s The Hardest Thing We’ll Ever Do”. There’s another woman in his life, and a glimmer of happiness (even if the closing line to “Right Back Where I Started” is “’cause happy never lasts”).
“I wrote some happy songs,” Ireland repeats the question, and it’s the only time irony creeps into his voice. And then uncertainty. “I guess they’re happy. I mean, they’re happier than the last batch. You think they’re really happy? They don’t strike me as exactly happy.”
“Yeah, see, I think that. There are songs that seem to be receptive to, I don’t know, that’s kind of what’s on my mind, lately, the possibility of love. And I guess, if I get to make another record, that’s going to be sort of what it’s about. But I’m thinking about love a lot more, probably because I’m struggling to be in it.”
We all are, Mike.
“I think especially trying to be in love the second, third, fourth, and fifth time takes…it’s all you can do. And in some cases it’s all you can do to even attempt it, let alone get it right, or get it better, or even get it close to working….You know, it just seems like love usually doesn’t work out, and you can’t really go into it with the expectation that it’s going to work out. But, then, how do you go into it? I mean, if you go in knowing that it’s probably going to end, then it becomes a harder thing.”
Or a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Sort of. But the fact that it’s going to end, does that make it not worthwhile? Does that make it not worth the effort, not worth the trust and the faith?”
The love of a good woman aside, Ireland has plenty of reasons to retain faith in his music. First off, a couple labels seem seriously interested in his next album. More immediately, he was invited back to the Grand Ole Opry, where he appeared as part of the Christmas shows December 24-25.
His debut on the show, on August 14, 1999, was “wonderful and terrifying at the same time,” Ireland says. “Like riding an amusement park ride that you haven’t ridden. If this happened earlier I think I would have been much more terrified, but we’d done enough playing that I had some terror management ability. And it was [the song] ‘Worst Of All’ with like, god, the kitchen sink. You’re kind of just in your little moment, but when we got into the chorus and I was hearing the Carol Lee Singers swoop up onto the chords, it was great.”
The first appearance, he says, was arranged through Nashville publicist Nancy Russell. Being asked back means, “Oh, good, this wasn’t just a favor,” says Ireland. “You know, you can’t help not think that through it. You’re like, ‘This is great, this is fantastic; I wonder what kind of pressure came into play here.’ But when we actually got asked back, it was like, ‘Wow, this no one twisted an arm for.’ You don’t know how much that made my year.”
All the rest, the numbers that make critics type angrily and industry tycoons swear off good taste, all that is less important. At least so long as the bills get paid, somehow, the artist’s inevitable plight.
“I guess if I have to go one way or the other, then I choose to write unpopular songs that I like,” Ireland says. “I guess that’s why…what I’m doing. I like ’em, and I like to make ’em sound like something. You make a record and you go, ‘Look, see? That’s just what I was thinking, that’s what it sounds like.’ And that’s just fine. That’s good. If somebody else likes ’em, that’s gravy, and if somebody else actually wants to record ’em, that’s even more than you expected.”
“Which really suggests exactly my career trajectory.” And then he laughs.
Like all of us, No Depression co-editor Grant Alden is still learning how to live.