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MUSIC The Mayo man behind Daniel O’Donnell

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John Ryan at work in the recording studio.
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John Ryan at work in the recording studio.

The Mayo man behind Daniel O’Donnell


Henry McGlade

John Ryan started playing the button accordion at nine years of age, taught by his late father Pat – himself a very talented musician. The young Kilmeena musician also took to the piano, and he soon started playing at céilís and local events in Kilmeena and Newport with his brother, father and uncle in a family band called The Purple Heather Group. He moved on in the early ’60s. playing with some of the leading dance bands in Mayo, including The Tony Chambers band from Newport, the Beat Minstrels from Louisburgh, The Frielmen from Westport and the Royal Chords from Castlebar.
John’s big break came at the height of the showband scene when he was asked to join the finest Ray Lynam and The Hillbillies as their keyboard player. The band enjoyed great success both at home and abroad, even recording an album in Nashville. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s they were famous for being able to faultlessly reproduce the exact sound of their recordings in their live shows.
Their entire repertoire of material, live and recorded, featured genuine traditional country music, and they performed several times at the Wembley Country Music Festival. During their years together, Ray and The Hillbillies had a string of hits, including ‘Gypsy Joe and Me’, ‘The Selfishness Of Man’, ‘Rosie Bouquet’, ‘Second Hand Flowers’, ‘Papa’s Wagon’, ‘The Light’s On In The Hall’ and ‘The Gambler’.
John’s musical talent was recognised by many showband stars, and he became a session musician in his spare time, and he can be heard on many of the show-band hits over the years.
The Kilmeena man also went on to produce records for Ray Lynam, Big Tom, Philomena Begley, Larry Cunningham, Gene Stuart, Margo, Dan The Street Singer, Brian Coll, Mick Flavin, John Hogan, our own Frank McCaffrey, Mary Duff, Michael English, Brendan Quinn, Gloria and many more. He produced all but one of Daniel O’ Donnell’s albums since 1986, and from 1988 until 1992, he toured with Daniel as his musical director on the road, in Ireland, Canada, the UK and the US before leaving to become a full-time producer in 1992.
Working as musical director on all of Daniel O’Donnell’s TV series gave John the opportunity to work with many international artists who appeared on the series, including Charlie Pride, Loretta Lynn, Ed Bruce, Lorrie Morgan, The Judds, The Bellamy Brothers,  Pat Boone, Bonnie Tyler and Leo Sayer.
Since moving back home to Kilmeena with his family in 2009, John commutes to Dublin when working in the recording studios. He has just completed work on Daniel’s latest release, ‘Songs From The Movies’, which topped the easy-listening charts this Christmas.
Between recording and travelling, John is finding himself in great demand locally, giving accordion lessons to interested young students, which he enjoys immensely. His own son John Jr plays the piano accordion and is now an accomplished player. He has played on one of Daniel’s albums, and on Frank McCaffrey’s latest release.
In the coming months, John will be working with Ray Lynam, re-recording some of the original hits recorded with The Hillbillies that are no longer available on CD – hits such as ‘Gypsy Jo and Me’, ‘The Door Is Always Open’ and ‘Borrowed Angel’.
Further on down the line, John hopes to continue recording and to work with new talent, maybe expand a little further teaching the accordion and perhaps even record an album with his son. In the meantime, he will be looking forward to a trip down memory lane by doing a tour with Ray Lynam and The Hillbillies. No doubt fans from years past will be lining up to see the shows.