A monthly round-up of the country's
heart-warming best by Paul Davis
The Real Situations of RAYMOND McCULLOUGH
Most of Raymond McCullough’s songs – he says - are about real situations, dealing with difficult issues - like people letting you down, or judging you unfairly - that sort of thing. Raymond says, "People can always relate to a song that tells a story, especially if the tune is memorable. I don’t know whether my music is very well received or not? But one Celtic instrumental track, from my first album, spent 42 weeks on an internet ‘Celtic’ chart in 2004 - with 14 weeks at No.1! So, I presume what they liked was the catchy tune in that case."
Raymond says that he has definitely been accused of being a people person. Philosophically he says, "What more important resource does this world have to offer than people. Even the alcoholic, with sick in his beard, has a story to tell! I am passionately opposed to increasing globalisation - the world being run for the sake of faceless corporations, who care for neither planet, nor the people living on it! That's why I’m not afraid to get involved with the marginalised - drug addicts, Native Americans, broken people and such."
Gregarious to the core, Raymond’s friends say that it is quite hard to shut him up - especially when he gets worked up about something. He used to edit an Irish magazine, ‘Bread’, and he says that he could always let off steam by putting his thoughts and feelings into editorials. With a smile, Raymond recalls, "One guy in Dublin used to jump straight to my editorial with the words, ‘Let’s see who you’re having a go at this time!’ "
Can't Stand Lies
What Raymond is clear in what he detests most in people. "I hate people lying to me - especially if they smile at me at the same time! I can forgive most things - even murder - but where do you stand with lies and insincerity? You can’t really have any relationship with a person like that. There is no trust."
Born and bred in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, Raymond grew up in the County Down countryside – which he described as "a real bonus. Until recently I’ve still had fields beside me - so now I’ll have to move house!"
Raymond’s father was an electrician who worked his way up to foreman and eventually Works Manager in a large factory. He is a Methodist and his mother is a Presbyterian, so Raymond says that he’s always been a bit of a hybrid! "A lot of my family background would be of Scots origin - although the name ‘McCullough’ is actually Irish. I only met Roman Catholics for the first time when I went to a secret all-night conference, at the height of the ‘Troubles’ in the 70s, when I was 18. I realised that they were no different from me and that has affected the course of my life since."
Bright as a youngster, Raymond went to grammar school in Lisburn and then the Technical College. At that point he dropped out of education. Then later, when he was married with 4 kids, he went back to College, and then University, as a mature student. He remembers, "It was a lot harder then, but you tend to appreciate it a lot more. I did an HNC in Building Studies and then a British Computer Society course - so I ended up as a Lecturer in Computing!"
In the Seventies he was pretty much into rock music - of the heavy variety. But he always preferred bands, like The Who, for instance, who majored on the lyrics and a strong melody. Nowadays, he thinks that he has graduated and even mellowed. "Over the years I’ve graduated into simpler, more acoustic stuff - mostly folk-Celtic, with some bluegrass and country. Country-wise, I’ve always enjoyed the late Johnny Cash, along with Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, of course. Cash’s ‘When the man comes around’ always sends shivers through me."
Raymond’s signature song is one called, ‘I want to be different’, which was written from a very personal standpoint. "I got a lot of feelings out of my system with that song! It originally had three verses, but I added a fourth to deal with a particular group of people who'd been ‘getting on my case’ for a while."
‘You may criticise me, you may put me down,
I can’t fall further, I’m already on the ground;
And I may be crawling on a steep and rocky slope,
So, the only way now for me to go - is up!’
His favourite country song, at the moment, he says would be ‘the new Johnny Cash’ - Bright Eyes - with the song he sang on NBC's Jay Leno Show, ‘When the President talks to God’. Raymond says, "A good song has something to say, a story to tell. It needs to have a hook line that is original and a tune that you just can’t get out of your head. I am continually striving to write the perfect song. In the process, some reasonable songs have materialised - but one is always reaching for perfection, I think."
Raymond’s newest album in 2005, ‘Into Jerusalem’, is described as a ‘Celtic/Hebrew worship’ album but he says that doesn't mean that it is not secular. "I don't really distinguish between the religious and the secular. The Creator is a very central part of my life, so when I write a song, He provides the inspiration behind it - filtered through my personality, of course. But then even that is a gift from Him. When I play in a pub, I don’t feel that I have to leave God at the door! Every song has some spirit behind it. I obviously don’t hold a worship service in a pub - well, not usually, but I did do once! - but I have played a number of the songs on this album in pubs and similar settings, and people have just joined in on the choruses!"
Raymond’s first album was, he says, a sort of taster - a mixture of quite different styles of songs. His CD ‘Into Jerusalem’ is also a mixture, in that it is fairly eclectic - but varying only within a folk-country spectrum. The songs on it range from a rock anthem and acoustic rock; to bluegrass/gospel and country/bluegrass anthem; Scottish reel, Irish jig and folk/rock march; Celtic hymns and slow airs; plus three Jewish/Israeli-style melodies. Thoughtfully, Raymond says, "The intention was to provide a complete worship experience - a natural flow in the songs from a lively and bouncy start, through progressively more contemplative songs - ending with a country/bluegrass anthem. I think it works! Even the Jewish songs, though, use Celtic instruments - such as fiddle, accordion and Uilleann pipes - which actually gives them a very middle-eastern feel. Playing Uilleann pipes in the key of D Minor is a bit of a challenge - requiring two sets of pipes!"
Asked about career highlights, Raymond smiles and says that he hopes that some of those may still be in the future. "Actually, I was asked to play in ‘Whaley’s Bar’ in Beijing, China, to a bunch of world-travelling backpackers. I had an American playing guitar with me and we eventually sang ourselves hoarse, (with no PA!). I also played for about 3 1/2 hours in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, with up to 100 Chinese people gathered around. At one point we attracted military attention and a little ‘clockwork’ Red Army soldier marched over, swiveled his head towards me, swiveled it back, and then marched off again! The crowd of Chinese people had, meanwhile, just melted away. Friends said not to make a song about that but, of course, I did - I called it ‘Ballad of Beijing!’
Very Supportive Family
The McCulloughs have four children - two boys and two girls. Three of them have kids of their own, so there are now four grandchildren. "All of my family seem to be writers - of one kind, or another. Amazingly, in this day and age, we seem to get on together extremely well - very mutually supportive."
He is based between Bangor and Newtownards, in Co. Down because he hates the idea of moving house! "I do like the idea of being settled in one place - having a base to come home to after wandering the globe, as I seem to do. Actually, we probably will move at some stage in the near future. I’m involved in Media Production - which obviously includes music, but also web design and now television, also. We have just been offered some funding towards filming of a one-hour documentary on the link between Ireland/Scotland, Native Americans in Manitoba, Canada, and Israel/Judaism! I've never had a great longing to visit the USA, or Canada, but I've now been there twice - the second time to plan the TV production, buy equipment and do some of the filming. We hope to go back in the spring of 2006 and finish off filming - so it may be ready by the end of the summer."
As a boy, Raymond was aware of wanting to know ‘the Creator’ from very early on, but was thirteen before he understood what faith was. "I had a few struggles as a teenager, but ‘fell in with’ a like-minded group of young people - essential at that age. I’ve endeavoured ever since to be part of a small group of people who pray for one another and back one another up. I’ve spoken at two funerals - one a suicide and the other a murder victim - where few of those attending had ever ‘darkened a church door!’ In both cases I felt that I needed to apologise to these people for the failure of the church to truly represent the Messiah - Y’Shua (Jesus). Most people have no problem with Y’Shua - it's His representatives that often let Him down - because they are only human and often get it wrong, just like myself!"
Raymond has found himself in some pretty sticky situations - like standing in the middle of Beijing, having had his wallet stolen; or being threatened nose-to-nose by a para-military thug. "I also once walked into a sniper armed with an Armalite rifle. In those situations one only has time for a quick prayer - but they have always been answered! When you call a plumber, and he turns up - that's what I call service! When I've really needed Him, He has always turned up!"
Raymond says that he feels that sometimes success is someone getting angry and walking out! It may mean the message is getting through. "When people take the time to email me to say how much they appreciated a song - that is success. I’ve met one or two people with sharp suits and millions in the bank - who have no hope and no joy - that is definitely NOT success! I’ve seen broken lives transformed, people given hope, even miracles of healing - that IS success. I guess if I’m at peace about what I’m doing with my - limited - time on this earth, and even excited about it, then I am already achieving success. I"d just like to reach more people - both musically, with TV documentaries and speaking/performing. I also have enough material for at least four more albums. I’d like to get those recorded and released before I call it a day. Who knows what is around the corner? If I were to die tomorrow, I might have just a few fleeting regrets, but I’d know I’ve given it my best shot. What more can anyone do?"