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Mike Ireland is a happy boy

By Jon Johnson, June 2002

Mike Ireland is a happy guy.

And, oddly enough, this will probably comes as something of a surprise to some of his fans, who perhaps have a mental picture of him as mopey, bitter and angry.

Given the evidence, it's easy to understand why. Ireland's 1998 debut, "Learning How to Live," was easily one of the angriest debuts from a country artist in recent memory, even kicking off with a number ("House of Secrets") in which the singer burns down his old house while his ex-wife and her new lover are still inside.

"It's amazing," says Ireland four years after the album's release. "When I look back I think,'Wow, I was really angry.'"

"A lot of people seem surprised that I'm as happy as I am. I guess that's inevitable when your entire record is about heartache, loss, anger and revenge. I think, like most people, sometimes I'm depressed, and sometimes I'm happy. For me, writing songs is therapy."

Interviewed at the Boston home of his manager, Ireland, in fact, strikes one as friendly, talkative, articulate and, yes, happy. With good reason; his excellent second album, "Try Again," was released in May on the Boston-based Ashmont label. In addition, he's made several appearances on the Grand Ole Opry over the past three years, and his singing and songwriting are as highly regarded as any artist working in country music today.

A longtime resident of Kansas City, Mo., his previous band -- The Starkweathers -- had released an EP and a few singles and had just signed with the Seattle-based SubPop label in 1995 when Ireland discovered that his wife and the band's vocalist, Richard Smith, were having an affair, predictably resulting in the group's demise.

To this day, Ireland remains uncertain whether the woman who inspired much of his first album has actually heard it.

"Nobody's ever asked me that. It's the weirdest thing. I have not spoken to her in, like, five years. Not out of any big avoidance thing. We live in the same town, and we live within probably five miles of one another. But in all that time I have not ended up crossing paths with her. I'd be curious. So much of the music on there -- I think -- is not a detailed list of grievances against her: 'That bitch! She did this and this and this...' Because that's not how I felt. We were two people who did a lot of things to mess up a relationship. It's easier for me in retrospect to look back and think, 'You know, I could have been a much better husband.'"

Picked up by SubPop -- known for its early '90s signings of bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden -- as a solo act, Ireland poured his heartbreak into a series of songs which would eventually end up on his debut, on which he was accompanied by his new band Holler, featuring two other ex-Starkweathers and rhythm guitarist Dan Mesh.

Ireland's debut garnered excellent reviews, was well-publicized, and he toured heavily in 1998 and '99 to support it. For all that, sales were disappointing, with the album moving about 2,500 copies to date. Four years on, does Ireland think SubPop could have done anything different to promote the album?

"That's such a hard question," says Ireland. "You almost have to question the question. The people who liked it reaaaaalllly liked it (but) I don't know that it deserved to sell better than anything else. Why (didn't) 10-million people feel that way? I don't know. Maybe having 45 minutes of a bummer record isn't everybody's cup of tea."

"I'm not sure what I'm doing falls into a real marketable category. SubPop did a lot to push it. They got the word out, they got ads out, and the publicity people they hired were fantastic. It's as mysterious to me as to anybody else. Maybe it sold to exactly who it needed to sell to."

Although it was reported initially that Ireland had been dropped by SubPop the following year in the aftermath of the album's weak sales, Ireland states that he actually left the label on his own.

"I, for better or for worse, walked away from them. They wanted to make another record, and they told me they wanted me to stay. Thank God, they didn't actually threaten (me) or anything."

Though sometimes painted as hidebound and calcified, the Opry has gone out of its way to reach out to alt.-country acts like Gillian Welch, Dale Watson and Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys to a far greater degree than has country radio.

Oddly enough, Ireland was invited to appear on the Opry around the same time he left SubPop; an irony that hasn't escaped his notice. In all, Ireland has made about a half-dozen appearances with the venerable country music institution over the past three years, with more to come.

"It was a thrill. (I had) the feeling that it was a favor from someone. The more encouraging part of it was that they actually asked me back. Pete Fisher, the guy who does the booking, has been so supportive (and) so nice. He'll call and say, 'When are you going to be coming down?'"

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