Having a Coffee with ……………. Niall Toner

Niall TonerThis is the first in a fun new series in which we ask bluegrass music personalities, some famous, some not so famous, about some of their interests as well as about the music that they love. Welcome, Niall Toner.

What would you like to drink?

I’ll have a good strong black coffee with some warm milk on the side. No sugar, thanks.

Do you want anything to eat as well?

My favorite snack with coffee is a thing called Chocolate Biscuit Cake, or Tiffin, so if they have a good version of that, I’ll treat myself to just one piece.

What is your favorite food?

Probably Oriental and I mean everything from Cantonese to Malaysian and Japanese to Vietnamese.

What’s the nicest meal that you have ever had?

I would have to say that my all-time favourite meal was in the Imperial Restaurant in Dublin, and it was on an afternoon that my wife and I had noticed that this eatery was full of Chinese people, and we took that to be a sign of a good restaurant. They were serving a huge array of small portions called Dim Sum, which translates loosely as ‘Afternoon Tea’. Not only was the range of tastes and smells and textures just amazing, but the extensive meal for two, with copious quantities of Green Tea, was very inexpensive when compared with the normal evening menu.

What drink would you have with that?

I suppose I have already answered that question by mentioning the Green Tea. Tea would always be my preferred drink, especially with Oriental Food, but since I don’t use alcohol, tea or coffee, as above, would always be my preferred liquid refreshment.

Let’s talk bluegrass…..

Where/when did you first hear bluegrass music?

My parents bought me a guitar for my 12th birthday, and I got stuck in, learning the tunes of the day, from Lonnie Donegan, Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley, and so on. One night, I was tuned to Radio Luxembourg, when I heard Blue Moon of Kentucky, by a guy called Elvis Presley, and I thought that it was the most amazing sound I had ever heard. The following day, I couldn’t wait to tell my Buddy, Fran, about the sound I had heard, and he said to me, ‘Wait ‘till you hear the original’. I had no idea what he meant, until we got to his house, and he took a vinyl album off the shelf, placed it on the Dansette turntable, and out comes Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, with Blue Moon Of Kentucky ! My ears were ‘pinned-back’, and my entire life was changed. My friend went on to play me the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Hank Snow, and there was no going back ………

Which of your own songs do you have a particular liking for?

I began writing songs in the early seventies, but for many years I was intimidated by the incredible standard that was already out there. John Prine, Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, the list is endless, and it wasn’t until around 1990 that I felt that I was beginning to write songs that could stand up against even the most basic Flatt and Scruggs or Ernest Tubb number. As to my own songs, it’s very hard to pick a favorite, but I am particularly fond of Million Dollar Bill, from my current album, and probably William Smith Monroe, which is also on there too. I also love a song I wrote with Keith Sewell, called Josie’s Reel. It’s a song about his grandmother, who was a dancer, and it was recorded in a really great version by Special Consensus, a superb bluegrass band from Chicago.

What about a song written by someone else?

I love all the older bluegrass and country songwriters, and I’m also crazy about Guy Clark and a fellow called Larry Cordle. Larry’s I Know How It Feels is a masterpiece, but if I had to choose just one song from another writer, I would have to pick The Story Of The Day That I Died. It’s the new single from Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice, and it was composed by Ashby Frank. If there’s any justice in this world, this song will win an award at IBMA 2013.

Which particular album do you like best and why?

My first Bill Monroe album, the one with the photo of the horses in a field on the cover, which has no banjo, just Monroe’s driving mandolin and a couple of fiddles, and some accordion, is still my outright favourite bluegrass album. It defines what Monroe believed his music was all about, and it sounds as fresh and lively today as if it were just recorded yesterday. Blue Moon Of Kentucky, Bluegrass Stomp, an instrumental, and Can’t You Hear Me Callin’, with Mac Wiseman taking the lead vocal. It does not get any better than this!

[Toner is referring to The Great Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys LP, Harmony / Columbia, HL7290.]

You play a …….

I play guitar and mandolin, and I’m also a closet five-string banjo player. I own a Vanden F-Style mandolin, made for me by Michael Vanden, and I have two old Gibson acoustic guitars, one made in 1939, and the other in 1973. They are all working instruments, and I use all three on stage with Niall Toner Band. The other members of Niall Toner Band are Clem O’Brien, who plays mandolin and guitar, and Richard Gladney, who plays upright bass and autoharp. We have release four all-original CDs to date.

What’s your favourite bluegrass memory?

In 1983, Bill Monroe came to Cork to play a double bill with Jerry Lee Lewis as part of the Carling Country Music Festival. I interviewed Monroe for an RTE radio show called Country Heartland, and after the formal part of our interview, Bill invited me to dinner and then asked me if I would take him out the next day, to ‘survey the territory’ (his words). We spent the next two days together, and got on with each other like the proverbial house on fire. At one point Bill taught me a tune he had composed ‘for the people of Ireland’ (his words) called The Chilly Winds Of Shannon., thereby making me a ‘keeper-of-the-flame’. That’s my bluegrass memory ……….

Are you a sports fan? Who do you follow?

I’m not interested in sports, unless you include mandolin-tickling or guitar-licking …

What hobbies do you have?

I collect bluegrass, Old-Time, Blues, Ragtime, Gospel Music and Rock ‘n’ Roll, all on vinyl.

What is your favourite film and why?

Fargo and Dog Day Afternoon, both classics.

Do you get much time to watch TV?

Not a lot, but I enjoy a good murder mystery or a spy movie.

Do you have a pet?

I have four cats, Daisy, Mini-Beast, Pinecastle and Hairy Molly. We live in a rural spot and they earn their keep by keeping the small-and-furry population under control.

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in bluegrass music?

I made a decision to be in bluegrass when I was 12 years old. Had I made a different decision, I would probably be a marine biologist.


Niall Toner is widely regarded as one of Ireland’s leading experts on bluegrass and American Country Music, and he brings this knowledge of music to a wide audience, both through his recordings, his live performances with his Niall Toner Band and various workshops, as well as through his Radio Show, Roots Freeway, which is broadcast on Ireland’s national radio station, RTE Radio One.

A prolific songwriter, his songs have been recorded by the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Special Consensus. He formed the Niall Toner Band in 2001. His latest album is the highly acclaimed Onwards & Upwards, released by Pinecastle Records on October 30, 2012.

Toner, who is the first recipient of the EBMA European Bluegrass Personality of the Year Award, lives in the Blackstairs mountains region (County Carlow and County Wexford) of Ireland. He was unable to attend the presentation itself – held this past weekend during the 5th annual Bluegrass Summit in Prague. But he did create this brief video to be played at the ceremony, offering his thanks to the association for the honor.


The text of Toner’s acceptance speech is substantially the same as with his message published at Bluegrass Today on March 7.

2012 was an exceptional year for Niall with his signing to Pinecastle Records, the North Carolina-based label, and the ready acceptance of their first album, as a whole, as well as tracks therefrom.

In November last Onwards and Upwards, reached the #1 position on the AirPlay Direct (APD) all-genres Top Fifty radio download chart today (12 Nov. 2012). It was at that time also at #23 in the all-genres APD all-time Top Fifty Albums chart, and at #22 in today’s APD Bluegrass/Folk Album Radio Downloads chart.

The video, like others recently done recently for Toner, was made by his grandson, Kyle O’Neill.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.