Mariah Butler may have been voted off in the quarter finals of the penultimate Voice of Ireland contest, but it marked a profound turning point in her life.
Westlifer Kian Egan described Mariah’s performance as absolutely incredible: “You to me are someone who would genuinely make it. You took that song and made it authentic. You could go to Nashville in the morning and get a record deal,” he exclaimed.
UK popster Jamelia labelled her fantastic: “When I’m watching you performing on stage, I’m imagining you next to Carrie Underwood and holding your own.”
A week later the Headford girl had booked a ticket to Nashville, changed her name to the more distinctive Riah – which was how she was known to family and friends, and quickly immersed herself in the absolute epicentre of American country music.
“I came over with nothing, I knew nobody but I was encouraged by what the judges had said and I thought, I’m young, if I don’t do it now I’ll never do it.”
Within two days she had struck gold. She had sent a few sample songs to an agent called American Country Star and was invited to perform at a downtown venue for a singer showcase. It turned out that she was singing in front of the city’s top record producers and country music bosses.
The showcase was a weekly affair and she kept getting through the heats. Eventually after three months, she was crowned the winner and for her prize was to pick songs from some of the best publishers in town to create her first EP.
“It was amazing. I was sitting in the offices of Warner Music and here they were playing songs for me to see if I wanted to record them.”
‘On Sundays’ was an immediate success in Ireland, shooting to the top of the Irish country charts. Riah performed solo gigs at home, mainly in Dublin and Galway where she had a fanbase from the RTE series.
Back in Nashville, it gained a lot of airplay on independent radio stations and opened the door to regular gigs in renowned country venues.
American Country Star sponsored her work visa, allowing her to go back and forth with ease. But she has so far chosen not to sign with anyone, preferring to remain independent until she fully finds her feet.
While immensely proud of her debut, she feels she picked some songs that were not the best reflection of her.
So, for the last year she has put the head down to write her own material, all the while living the dream. A dream, she reveals, that is almost a mirror reflection of what’s depicted on the hit TV show Nashville.
“I was actually an extra on Nashville when I first came over. I got a chance to meet all the cast. And like the actors, I work part-time in a bar, I play gigs, I do what’s called a songwriters’ round, where you get paid to sing new material with other songwriters. I also meet up and co-write with other songwriters, something I never thought possible until I came here.”
A native of Ballycurran outside Headford, her dad Donal is in construction and her mam Marie is a tour guide in Galway City Museum. Their love of American country music such as Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks and Randy Travis inspired her from a young age. They took her to her first concert in 1997 to see Garth Brooks in Croke Park.
She went on to take on starring roles in the Renmore Pantomine where she honed her craft before a live audience.
But it was always country music which was her first love.
“Back home people don’t know who the hell I’m talking about when I mentioned certain country singers. Over here, it’s huge – it’s bigger than pop music. Here country singers are superstars.”
She’ll have the chance to play with some of those superstars when she takes to the stage at Harvest 2017, a two-day country music festival in both Westport and Enniskillen in late August.
She’s particularly excited about singing alongside American country music grammy award winner Miranda Lambert, Texas and Oklahoma duo Maddie and Tae whose debut single ‘Girl In A Country Song’ made them only the third female duo to peak their debut single at number in the history of the Billboard Country singles chart, as well as Nashville singer-songwriter Kip Moore.
“This is the first big American county music festival ever to come to the west. It’s going to be huge. It’s the stuff I adore – the more contemporary, modern country music. To be on a bill with people like that, it’s unbelievable.”
Her ambition is to tour with the likes of Miranda Lambert; another is to someday play the Grand Ole Opry, a weekly country music stage concert in Nashville.
She has fit right into Nashville, which lives and breathes country music.
“It honestly feels like home – it’s one of the friendliest cities I’ve ever been to. I thought with everyone doing the same thing it would be competitive, but it’s not – it’s completely the opposite. Everyone is so supportive, they want to co-write songs every day. They are probably some of the best friends I’ve ever made.”
Riah Butler will perform at Harvest 2017, a two-day country music festival featuring 40 international and Irish acts over four stages, which takes place at Enniskillen Airport and Westport House on August 26 and 27. The main headliners are Nathan Carter, Miranda Lambert and Charley Pride.
The Harvest Café will feature the people behind top hits, such as Earl Bud Lee, who wrote ‘Friends In Low Places’ (Garth Brooks), ‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’ (Blake Shelton) and ‘One Night at a Time’ (George Strait); Don Mescall, who wrote ‘Secret Smile’ (Rascal Flatts); Victoria Shaw, author of ‘The River’ (Garth Brooks) and ‘I Love The Way You Love Me’ (John Michael Montgomery).
As well as the music, there will be dedicated dancing sessions over the weekend. It features a food village, market stalls, funfair, full bar facilities, camping options including glamping, campervan facilities and family camping area.
Weekend camping and day tickets are available from Ticketmaster.
‘Give even one big GAA game to Ballinasloe’
It’s the most centrally located ground in the country but Ballinasloe’s Duggan Park won’t host a single inter-county match this year – much to the annoyance of one local councillor who wants the GAA to allocate at least one big game to the venue.
Cllr Michael Connolly told a meeting of Ballinasloe Municipal Council that the ground is entitled to host major football and hurling fixtures – even though all but one of the Galway footballers’ home league games are assigned to Pearse Stadium with the other one in Tuam.
“If they gave us one match in Duggan Park, it would be something,” he said. “But at the moment, it seems as if it is being ignored.”
The Moylough councillor described it as the most accessible ground in the country and a venue in which players and supporters like to travel to – unlike, he suggested, Pearse Stadium.
He said that it was “a hateful venue” and few GAA supporters relished the prospect of travelling to the “far side of the city” to watch a football or hurling match.
A recent meeting in Gullane’s Hotel to discuss Duggan Park was attended by Deputy Denis Naughton, Senator Aisling Dolan, Cllr Evelyn Parsons and Cllr Declan Kelly among others.
But the Duggan Park Committee then issued a statement saying that the ground is owned by Galway GAA and any use of the facility needed to be authorised – and no authorisation was given to the meeting organiser, former Mayor of Ballinasloe Joe Kelly, for this purpose.
Mr Kelly has been a staunch campaigner for the redevelopment of Duggan Park and has called on the local authority to row in behind this initiative.
They went on to say that there is a plan in place for the development of Duggan Park which is multiple staged which started with the new dressing rooms, flood lights and a new entrance to the venue.
Planning permission is in place for this development and that €500,000 has already been spent in the Duggan Park over the past number of years carrying out these projects.
The work in the ground, they say, is done to an excellent standard by local contractors with the support of the previous Town Council for grants and sports capital grants.
Former tourism magnet officially on register of derelict sites
The fire-ravaged hotel that was once one of the most popular in the county is now officially considered a derelict site – and that has led a local councillor to call for it to be either redeveloped or levelled.
Portumna’s Shannon Oaks Hotel, for so long popular with anglers and golfers in particular, has been boarded up for more than a decade since it was destroyed by fire.
Local councillor, Jimmy McClearn, has called on the owners to reopen or sell the property – adding that it should either be levelled or redeveloped.
“We are a tourist town and we need a hotel. The last thing we want is for a hotel to be shut up,” he said.
“It is a fine facility and on an extensive site so there is no reason why it should be boarded up,” he added.
The Shannon Oaks saga has gone on for the past twelve years – but now the owners, the multi-millionaire Comer brothers, will be forced to pay a derelict site levy if they do not reopen or redevelop.
That amounts to a seven per cent levy based on the market value of the property, which is worth around €1 million even in its derelict state.
The Shannon Oaks was ravaged by fire in September 2011 and four years later, the site was acquired by the Comer Group who, at the time, gave an undertaking that it would be reopened.
Around two years ago, planning permission was granted by Galway County Council to Barry Comer of the Comer Group to renovate the hotel by providing 60 new bedrooms along with 40 apartments to the rear of the structure.
However, there has been little or no movement on the site since then and now the owners are being again asked to give some indication as to when the hotel will be rebuilt.
It is considered an integral part of the tourism industry for the town and that is why pressure is mounting on the owners to rebuild the hotel.
Cllr McClearn said that all he is asking for is the owners to develop the site and provide a hotel there. “It’s not much to ask in a tourist town,” he added.
More than €200,000 worth of cannabis seized in East Galway
More than €200,000 worth of cannabis was seized in during two separate search operations in East Galway on Saturday.
Gardai from the Divisional Drugs Unit conducted a search at a residence in Aughrim and seized cannabis plants with an estimated street value of €146,000 and €20,000 worth of cannabis herb which will now be sent for analysis.
Two men (both in their 30s) were arrested at the scene in connection with the investigation and are currently detained at Galway Garda station under Section 2 of the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act, 1996. Both men remain in custody.
A separate search was carried out at a residence in Ballinasloe yesterday afternoon and cannabis herb with an estimated street value of €35,000 was seized. Cannabis jellies and €7,510 in cash were also seized.
A man in his 40s was arrested and later released without charge and a file will be prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions.