Niall Toner is dedicated to the task at hand. The leader and namesake of the Niall Toner Band, he lives in a far corner of Ireland, allowing him the solitude to entirely focus on making his music.
“I live in a rural area in the Southeast of Ireland, in a place called Coolasnaughta — which means ‘field of snow’ — near the village of Myshall, in County Carlow,” he explains. “I am originally from Dublin, but I moved her 25 years ago to pursue my songwriting.”
He’s accompanied in that quest by the members of his band — Richard “Dick” Gladney on upright bass, vocals, and occasional autoharp, Andrea Booth, who plays banjo and ukulele and sings lead and harmony vocals, and Gerry Madden who contributes mandolin and sings lead and harmony vocals. Toner himself plays guitar and mandolin and sings. In addition, the band is occasionally augmented by Johnny Gleeson on dobro.
“Our sound is acoustic bluegrass, with influences from Americana, blues, and Irish music,” Toner says, naming Bill Monroe, The Carter Family, Flatt and Scruggs, Guy Clark, and Hank Williams among their influences.
Toner is something of a legend himself. He organized his first acoustic band in the early ’60s when he formed The Lee Valley String Band in Cork. He followed that with the Sackville String Band in 1975, a popular Dublin outfit that had a widespread following throughout the country.
“I befriended Bill Monroe when he played The Carling Country Music Festival in Cork in the ’80s,” Toner recalls. “In more recent times I have guested with Special Consensus during their Ireland visits. I also played with Guy Clark — RIP — and Don Stover and Red Rector.”
Toner went on to form Hank Halfhead & the Rambling Turkeys in the early ’80s prior to putting together the Niall Toner Band in 2001. To date, his songs have been recorded by Bill Wyman, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, Albert Lee, the Fleadh Cowboys, Special Consensus, and the band Red Wine, among various others. In addition, his composition Nuns Island Reel was included in the biggest-selling video game in history, Grand Theft Auto IV. His other credits include a radio show on RTE radio and various articles he’s contributed to a number of roots publications.
To date, The Niall Toner Band has recorded several albums, among them, Onwards and Upwards, for the North Carolina based bluegrass label Pinecastle Records. “We were the first Irish band to do so,” Toner notes. In addition, the band’s album Working On Love was recorded and produced by Keith Sewell (Dixie Chicks, Lyle Lovett, etc.) in Nashville. The band’s music is included on Spotify, and ten of their videos can be seen on YouTube.
“We focus exclusively on originals,” Toner maintains. “I also specialize in writing tribute songs in the style of Bill Monroe, including The Master’s Resting Place, Bill Monroe’s Mandolin, and William Smith Monroe.”
What’s more, Toner and company have made numerous major festival appearances over the years — among them, MerleFest, the Temple Bar Music Festival, the Cork Folk Festival, the Midlands Country Festival, the Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival, and the Omagh Bluegrass and Old Time Festival — in addition to tours in the US, Germany, and Holland.
“I have been attending IBMA since it was in Owensboro and Louisville — sometimes solo and sometimes with the band — as well as SPBGMA in Nashville most years,” Toner added. “Our music is reasonably popular here, although as you may understand, the competition for gigs is enormous. This is an island where everybody plays!”
It’s hardly surprising then that Toner has a ready explanation as to why bluegrass can claim such a widespread following. “It enjoys popularity in Europe because it’s real and accessible,” he insists. “Lots of bands tour from the US, and there’s now a fairly healthy live scene all over Europe. Audiences like to see people playing real instruments.”