Tony Friel, Ireland’s Bluegrass Boy

Tony Friel plays bluegrass on Donegal Bay Radio in northern Ireland. Known as the Bluegrass Boy, he hosts a weekly bluegrass internet radio show.

The music lover stated, “My radio show goes out every Tuesday evening from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. UK time. Time does not matter to listeners; I have people (tuning in) from all over the world. Bluegrass music is strong here in Ireland. I play Del McCoury, The Grascals, South Carolina Broadcasters, and many more.”

 “Since 1968, I have always been a collector of American country music.” The Irish deejay shared his back story. “I got interested when I heard Hank Snow being played in our local cinema. I got hooked on his voice. I did not know who he was, so I asked the man who showed the films at the picture house. He took me upstairs to the projection room to have a look. We found the recording.”

Friel scribbled down the name of the song, Nobody’s Child, in hopes of buying it at a local record shop. He got a surprise.

“Just as I was leaving, Mr. McCormack, the man in question, called me back. He’d found a second copy and said I could have it. I thanked him and left one happy guy!”

That encounter set Friel on a mission.

“I made up my mind to get every recording that Hank had recorded.”

This would prove to be a difficult task.

“You must remember that living in Lifford, Co. Donegal where I came from, it was hard to get American recordings. I wrote to every dealer that brought imported records to Ireland, and started to amass quite a large collection.”

Friel eventually managed to acquire all of Hank Snow’s recordings. The late country crooner still remains the Irishman’s favorite country music artist. His obsession for music led him to bluegrass.

“In my pursuit of country albums, I would come across bluegrass artists from time to time. One of the more easy to obtain was Reno & Smiley. I fell in love with their music.”

Friel began buying the bluegrass duo’s material. His musical interests shifted to bluegrass.

“I went out of my way to see what other bluegrass artists I could get. Pretty soon I came across Bill Monroe. At first, I did not like his voice. I was buying other bluegrass artists like Bill Clifton, Flatt & Scruggs, Ted Lundy & Bob Paisley, The Brewster Brothers, and people like that.”

Then in the 1980s, Friel attended the International Festival of Country Music at Wembley Arena in London, England. 

“I was doing some promo work for Drew Taylor Origination who was just starting Boxcar Willie on the road to fame. One day, we were in the canteen having lunch. The place was packed with all the great country music artists who were to perform that weekend. I turned to see if I there were any free tables. A voice said, ‘You can sit down here, boy.’ I turned and was face to face with the legend, Bill Monroe.”

“There was one space. At the table was Kenny Baker, Bill’s trusty fiddle player, and Brother Oswald and Charlie Collins from Roy Acuff’s band.”

 The young music enthusiast nervously took the remaining seat.

“Mr. Monroe asked where I was from. He didn’t recognize my accent. When I told him (Ireland), he said he must visit that country some time to play.”

That meeting sparked Friel to actively pursue Monroe’s music.

“I started to like his music and would buy it every chance I got. I am proud to say I have all his recorded material now in my collection.”

“As my knowledge of the music grew, I met other collectors, and became more aware of old time country and bluegrass music. I was very disheartened by the lack of bluegrass music being played on Irish radio.”

“I listened in to Ray Davis on WAMU out of Washington, DC. He was the reason that I became a bluegrass deejay. I wrote to Ray (for advice). He wrote back telling me to just be yourself when doing a show.”

“A few people who worked in radio approached me to do bluegrass programs. I talked to Richard Heart of Strabane Radio. He offered to put me on for a while to see how I got on. Richard was a great help to a rookie deejay doing radio for the first time.”

Friel worked for Strabane Radio for a few years. 

“I was not happy with the way things were heading so I left,” he admitted.

He worked with several stations, but according to Friel, “All were not so keen on bluegrass music.”

His friend, Charlie Doherty, joined the new radio station, Donegal Bay FM Radio, and suggested Friel come along. He did and got a job.

“The guy that runs Donegal Bay Radio was nice. He never bothers his presenters (deejays) and lets them have a free hand.”

“I have become personal friends with people like Everett Lilly, Jr. I got to know him through my love for his father’s band, The Lilly Brothers & Don Stover. More friends in bluegrass music include Linzey Ham, Kathy Barwick, Gary Ferguson, Laurie Lewis, Ruth McLean from the McLean Family Band, Alecia Nugent, and Laura Boosinger. Another great friend, Tom Mindte from Patuxent Records, sends me his latest releases every month. These are just a few, and sorry to all those left out.”

Friel concluded, “I have found as a bluegrass presenter how difficult it is to get artists to send you their music. We broadcast worldwide. So if any of you reading this have bluegrass CDs that you would like to have played on my show, please send them to me!”

Tony Friel
18 Sycamore Avenue
Sion Mills, Co Tyrone BY82-9HT
N Ireland

You can listen to The Bluegrass Boy’s weekly show online.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.