Regular Ellen viewers can skip to the next paragraph – you’ll already know all about the latest sensation to break from the burgeoning Irish showband scene. Everybody else, allow me to introduce you to Crystal Swing, East Cork’s answer to the Carter Family and, as of a few hours ago, the most successful singing group in Irish music history.
The mother-daughter-son group (Dad is the sound engineer) consists of mother Mary Murray-Burke, daughter Dervla and son Derek. The trio have been on a rapid incline since the release of their album The Best Years of Our Lives in 2009. A performance video of ‘He Drinks Tequila,’ an old American country tune from the ’70s, from a local TV broadcast was picked up by Irish drag queen Panti, and from there the local music media. Their story soon became the thing of internet legend, earning the group an appearance on Ireland’s equivalent of the Late Show, the, err, Late Late Show, as well as a number of other national talk shows. From there, they were discovered by the white people’s answer to Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, and featured on her St. Paddy’s Day special.
Smitten, Ellen vowed to have the band appear live on the show, and on April 12 her wish became a reality. And aside from perhaps the most lengthy and shameless plug for a hard liquor company in US network TV history, Crystal Schwing’s appearance on Ellen was an unqualified success. They were given a full ten minute slot, which included a guided tour of their hometown in Cork and performances of both ‘He Drinks Tequila’ (full band) and Derek’s uniquely loose-legged interpretation of the Chubby Checker song, ‘The Hucklebuck.’
If you haven’t seen Derek perform before, it is truly a unique experience. When the 19-year-old duets with his 17-year-old sister, the tension is inescapable; but as a solo performer, relieved of the obvious pressure, the man is a joy to behold. We simply haven’t seen legs this radiant since a certain E. A. Presley graced the stage of the Ed Sullivan show. Suffice to say, those stick-like hips will make one lucky woman very, very satisfied one day.
“But David,” I imagine you say, “isn’t their success built almost entirely on the ironic praise of an increasingly vindictive and culturally elitist blogosphere?” Why, yes, [insert name here]! You are almost entirely right! Crystal Schwing’s rapid journey to the world stage has been punctuated all the way with the titters and dismissive laughter of bloggers and tweeters (include my good self) everywhere – so much so that, during the Ellen broadcast, the host herself could hardly contain her laughter amid Derek’s unique take on ‘The Hucklebuck.’
However, Ellen is a smart woman, and she knows her audience. Likewise, she knows that, while the kids on the internet will rightly erupt in laughter at the downright cheesiness of the music and performance, there is a significant number of more mature viewers (i.e. people who actually buy records instead of stealing them) who eat this kind of schtick up. Crystal Schwing already do a roaring trade on the wedding and showband (i.e. sanitised rock n’ roll) circuit of south-west Ireland, and their profile has been raised inexorably in recent months. They’ll never break the US, but this will be their meal ticket at home for many a year.
The tradtional media reaction in Ireland has been more mixed: Irish Times columnist Brian Boyd branded the coverage of Crystal Swing a “disgrace” and pontificated on what he perceives to be bullying by media and online commentators. He had more choice words for DeGeneres. Sunday Tribune articleress Una Mullally, on the other hand, had to endure casual abuse as she openly mocked the threesome, while Irish Independent journalist Niall Byrne removed an MP3 rip of ‘He Drinks Tequila’ from his blog because, in his own words, “I’d like to move on with posting music I actually enjoy.”
For all the petty squabbling, however, the critical consensus is clear on one point: Crystal Schwing are musically redundant, relics of a bygone era that we’d all rather forget. But watching the audience reaction on the Ellen Show (two standing ovations), it’s clear that they’re more than just a joke. Mary and Dervla are naturally introverted, but Derek is 100% showbiz – he knows how to work an audience, even when that audience can’t understand a word he’s saying. It’s a kind of sickly showbiz that only seems to survive in radio DJs and pageant performers, but it’s showbiz nonetheless.
Which brings us to the entire crux of the Crystal Schwing issue. They obviously love what they do (Mary actually retired a couple of weeks ago, but rejoined the group for the Ellen appearance), but they’ve been elevated to infamy on a wave of derisive laughter from traditional and online media. They’re obviously aware of the low esteem in which they’re held – it would be impossible not to be – but they’ve ignored the insults because they know they have an audience that appreciates them, and it’s only going to grow. So what better place to showcase their talents than LA, where individuals habitually humiliate themselves on TV in pursuit of their 15 minutes of fame? I wish Crystal Schwing the best of luck in their search for the elusive Yankee Dollar. They deserve it.