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Open Mike Night 

Mike Ireland treats the stage like a confessional

Way back when, Joy Division sang that "Love Will Tear Us Apart." Which is undeniable, of course. Witness divorce. Witness independence, or lack thereof. Witness two folks breaking up, wherein immediately both persons get sick for weeks. Easy enough, right? Love will tear us apart.The bigger question is: Can it put us back together again? Is love just one big unwieldy Humpty Dumpty too fragile for its own good?

These are questions Mike Ireland poses and answers on a weekly basis in clubs across America, as well as at more high-profile confessionals like the Grand Ole Opry. For whatever reason, it's stuck to him, this label. The Relationship Guy.

In the oft-told story, Ireland, a member of the promising young "half Johnny Cash, half Clash" band the Starkweathers, discovered that his wife had been having an affair with the band's lead singer. "Suddenly I was without a wife or a house or a band or a job or a best friend," Ireland told No Depression magazine in 1998.

Love may tear most of us apart, but it tore the shit out of Mike Ireland. Yet, as such things go, there was a silver lining. When one is out of options, they go inside themselves to search for answers and solutions, repairing themselves with their own flesh and blood instead of grafting themselves onto others. Ireland found healing by looking forward and backward at the same time. Mixing the string-heavy 70s countrypolitan music he so loved as a youth with the self-analysis printouts he suddenly began seeing in his songwriting notebook just weeks after the split, Ireland knew he was onto something. That something was an album called Learning How To Live.

But that's the old Mike Ireland, even though the man himself says he's reminded of the power of both love and those songs when he plays them onstage and starts crying. The new Mike Ireland has a record titled, appropriately enough, Try Again. It's the story of a ground-up repair job, told from within the not-yet-finished frame. It's a man proudly showing you the blueprints, explaining how this one's gonna be better than the last.

"I write fairly personal stuff based on what's going on in my head or in my life," says Ireland. "I guess there's nothing that I feel is too personal for an audience. I mean, they're coming, hopefully, to get something that is personal from an artist. That's sort of the little covenant that we have between each other -- me and an audience. I'm offering them some personal part of me, and they're coming because I think they want to share that.

"I think there's probably true-life stuff behind everything I write. I'm not so much of a great fictional writer. I mean, I wish I were, because then I'd probably be able to write a lot more songs. (laughs) That's sort of the stuff that comes out -- what I'm thinking about or what I'm dealing with -- so it's sort of all I have to choose from. This album is probably as much based on what's going on in my life as the last one. Although a little less tragic, I suppose."

Ireland, for his part, relishes when the initial emotions wash over him during a performance. It cleanses him anew, and serves as an indicator that he's not out there fooling anyone, least of all himself.

"You get a couple of weeks in, and things change," he says. "And that's good, because I stop thinking about anything and just focus on singing the song, and that can get really weird. But that's good, I think. Usually it works out well, but sometimes you sort of get -- overtaken -- by the whole thing and find yourself back into this mindset you didn't expect to be in. It makes me think, "Oh good. We're on the right track for the show.' Which I guess is sort of perverse, but you know, I trust that. If it's moving me -- actually moving me -- and I'm not just up there on stage going, "Well, I'm playing "House of Secrets" for the hundredth time,' that's good. I mean, if that's all it is, it seems to undermine the whole point of it."

But, I want to say, the average person isn't (usually) confronted nightly with situations or emotions that have troubled them in the past, something a touring songwriter is faced with weekly. They learn to avoid the emotions by avoiding the fuses that lit them in the first place, something a songwriter can't do and still make a living, unless they pen a song for Toby Keith on the side. And doesn't it make it tougher still when the stage of all your previous personal turmoil is indeed the stage itself, somewhere you still visit religiously?

"It's sort of kicking open old wounds and digging around in there to see what's still there," he continues. "There is definitely a pathology to the whole thing that I kind of wonder about."

"You know, I really thought this time around that it would just be very easy to do all the stuff off the first record, because it's been years," he says. "Every once in a while we hit it just right and I go, "Yep, there it is.' I guess that's true for events in life, too. If I sit around and think about things enough, those feelings come back to me anyway. I'm not sure that I ever really get rid of the past. I'm just better at putting it aside at times. (laughs)

And other times, not.

"Crying on stage?" Roy Acuff used to do it regularly, crying on stage. I was always kind of hoping I wouldn't go down that road, but I have, and still do. (laughs) I did it a couple of weeks ago. You never know where it's gonna come. And it doesn't always happen. Sometimes, you know, you sing a song, and it's fine and afterwards everything is still fine. Other times, it just really creeps back up on you. I hope it continues to, actually. I seem to get my best artistic impulses from that kind of inner response. I've seen George Jones any number of times, and that's just the kind of feeling I get when he comes out and sings. It's just out there. He's singing the songs, and when he sings a slow ballad, it's like his entire heart is in it. Frank Sinatra? The same way. I love him. He could come out there and just flat out put any emotion on the table. Of course, he can also sing a wildly ironic song, too. He could take one of them and right in the middle of it go, "Oh, how "bout that broad?' You never know. You can get a completely heartfelt thing, or you could get him cutting up, often all in the same concert. You just go, "Wow. He just jumped right out and jumped right back in.'"

Which, as Ireland probably knows all too well, is just about the only way one can do anything in life... including entertaining an audience of folks just as pathetically -- and gloriously human as you are.

Mike Ireland will perform Thursday at the Double Door Inn with special guest Tommy Womack. For more information, call 704-376-1446.

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