Peter Donegan, singer and song writer chats with Kevin Cooper about recording at Studio 19 in Nashville, what it was like growing up as Lonnie Donegan’s son, Billy Bragg’s book on the British Skiffle Movement and Peter’s mini album Superman.

Peter Donegan is a singer and songwriter, and is the son of the King Of Skiffle, the late Lonnie Donegan. Raised in Lake Tahoe, California he spent some of his childhood in Orlando and a great deal of time in Malaga Spain. He is a proficient pianist and after his dad passed away in 2002 he taught himself to play the acoustic guitar, mandolin, harmonica and ukulele.

Peter loves country music and considers himself to be a true British-American hybrid. He has just finished his highly anticipated album which shows the raw, heartfelt emotion and energy of a truly brilliant singer and songwriter, featuring all original songs; ranging from pure country to country rock. This mini album, entitled Superman, features five tracks and was a long time in the making.

Whilst busy promoting his album, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Peter how are you?

I’m alright Kevin thank you how are you?

I’m very well thank you and let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s my pleasure, thank you for taking the time to speak to me.

And just how is life treating you?

Life at the moment is going really well I have to say. I am just getting over a cold but other than that all is good I am pleased to report (laughter).

Well I have to tell you that I have been playing your mini-album Superman to death. I think that it is a great piece of work.

Thank you very much; it is so nice to hear that. I am so pleased that you like it. Do you have any particular favourite track?

I really do like Superman, but following closely behind is Ode To A Friend.

That’s interesting. Ode To A friend seems to be appealing more to the male demographic than to the female demographic at this moment in time.

I actually don’t think that there is a bad track on there; there are no fillers as each track stands up on its own merit and thinking about it you could very well add Little Man to my list of favourite tracks.

Thank you, that is lovely of you to say. When I put the album together obviously I was working within a budget which meant that I could either produce a full album and perhaps not get it to sound the way that I wanted it to or I could go for quality over quantity and pick the absolute best tracks that I had to put out, and that is what I decided to do.

Are you pleased with the response that it has been receiving?

I am, I mean fingers crossed and touch wood so far I have only received positive reviews for the album which really is wonderful.

You asked me if I had a favourite track on the album, now let me turn the tables and ask you the same question, do you have a favourite track?

That is so difficult for me to answer honestly because I am a little too close to the project. Plus whenever you produce your own album you go through a range of emotions all day long. Your emotions change as frequently as the British weather. You can go from ‘oh man this is going to sound great’ or ‘this sounds fantastic’ to ‘does it actually stand up to anything else’ or ‘oh my god I really do think that this is a load of crap’ (laughter). The funny thing is that you then start going back round again saying ‘actually this is cool, I quite like that track’ (laughter). It literally changes each and every day.

I will often ask my wife and my brother-in-law what they think and sure enough they will choose one track then go on to another and then they will go back to the original one which they chose (laughter). It almost changes by the hour. If I was going to be tortured and have to listen to one of the tracks off the album over and over again, for me I think that Ode To A Friend would have to be the one.

Were you relieved to finally get the album out there?

Yes one hundred per cent and for many reasons (laughter). First of all for me to be in a position to record in Nashville was a dream come true. I am a huge country music fan and I have been for such a long time. I grew up on it because of Dad and everything else as well. It is just one of those things that I feel that if you are going to do it then Nashville is the place to do it. Where else can you get that truly authentic Nashville sound? Let me tell you there is nowhere else in the world where you can get that authentic sound down in such a short amount of time whilst having as much fun as we did. It is an experience that I am so happy that I did. It also gets me out there as being an artist in my own right so to speak as opposed to always being ‘the son of’.

That must be difficult for you. How do you overcome that, is it simply by hard work and a good product?

Yes I think it is but this is something that I get asked frequently. I am always being asked if being the son of Lonnie Donegan is a help or a hindrance and I always answer in the same way, it really is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it opens a few doors, I love performing dads stuff because I am immensely proud of everything that dad achieved and I just love the songs for both their historical significance and also the fun that I have playing them. Whenever I play festivals and there is a mixed audience it is great to see everyone singing along to Worried Man. It is a very warm experience for me, seeing everyone remembering Dad like that.

However, at the same time, I do use it as an outlet for my own songs in order to see what the response is. So far I haven’t had any bad feedback or response to the songs that are on the album so at the moment all is good. I do get people asking me to play more of my own stuff but then again I do get asked quite frequently to sing My Old Man’s A Dustman (laughter).

Why do you think that country music is now on everyone’s playlist?

I think that it is just a case of history repeating itself because back in the 1980s and early 1990s country was on everyone’s playlist. I clearly remember in 1992 when Billy Ray Cyrus released Achy Breaky Heart that everyone was singing that particular song. We have had everything massively over produced for a while now which to start with was good but I think that people simply need that breath of fresh air afterwards and go back to having everything rawer and more heartfelt. We have had a hell of a lot of songs that have all been generically the same with nothing really meaningful in them. It was right for the time but I now think that people simply want to breathe out and listen to songs that mean something to them.

You have to remember that country music has changed. It has kept its core whilst adding other genres to it which relates back to some of the stuff that my dad was doing. If you think back to the 1950s when my Dad was releasing skiffle he was taking Americana music in general, country, folk, rockabilly, all of that and making a hybrid in order to create something distinctly British which was skiffle. The word itself already existed but they just created a new meaning for it. I think that is kind of going on now. If you listen to people like The Zac Brown Band for instance, they do a lot of things which are kind of borderline reggae with country. There is also pop country, rock country, R&B country, there is also rapping over a country song. It is crossing genres and it is able to relate to more people now as well.

I have to be totally honest with you and tell you that for many years if artists were not black and recording on Motown I simply wouldn’t listen to them (laughter).

That’s okay and I can totally sympathise with you on that score because Motown is absolutely awesome. The grooves that you got on the Motown sessions were absolutely brilliant.

Going back to your time spent in Nashville, what was it like working with producer Eric Kohn?

(Laughter) funnily enough Eric was the one person that I didn’t get to physically meet (laughter). After I had recorded the album over there in Nashville I had to return to the UK and play a few gigs that had already been finalised. So Eric did the final mastering over in Nashville whilst I was on the road here in the UK. The mixing of the album was carried out by Mills Logan who I did get to meet. Mills is a lovely man and we shot the breeze and put the world to rights before he had even heard the album (laughter). He really is a wonderful man. Going back to your original question, I only know about Eric Kohn through the co-producer of the album who put everything together for Eric, a guy called Pete Young over there in Nashville. He recommended Eric very highly and as I trust Pete wholeheartedly I was sold on the idea (laughter).

It is almost like a conveyor belt over there in Nashville isn’t it?

It is and the great thing is that there are zero egos involved. All of the musicians over there complement each other. When Mills was working on the album and I kept changing my mind as to what I wanted, not once did he get angry with me (laughter).

On the subject of egos, did you ever feel nervous when you were recording at Studio 19, thinking of all of the greats who had recorded there before you, such as Dolly Parton, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Ringo Starr and Tracy Nelson to name but a few?

Nervous no, and to be totally honest with you I was in fact very excited. For me to be in a position to set foot into a place where the likes of Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton had recorded was absolutely fantastic. For me to be able to step into their history and to be recording in the exact place as those guys had stood before me was absolutely marvellous. I found the whole experience inspirational and not once did I feel nervous. I have heard a lot of stories about artists who have gone over to Nashville and have withered away under the pressure of ‘oh my god, everybody is so good this is far too much pressure for me’ (laughter). But for me it was ‘everybody is so good, I can learn from all of this. I want to play with all of these people and learn what it is that they are doing and be amongst it all’. I personally feel that there is no better place to do that and if I could I would love to spend all of my time over in Nashville learning from these multi-talented people.

Will we be seeing you out on the road touring the album anytime soon?

To be honest with you I have put bookings on hold for the time being as most of my time is currently being taken up with PR for the album. I really do need to concentrate all of my efforts into the new album. I will be speaking to my agent regarding bookings within the next few days. In an ideal world I would love to be able to combine the two; my new songs together with dad’s songs. I will never stop performing dads songs because it needs to be kept going and I love doing it. There are some great songs and I don’t think that I will ever stop finishing the set with something like Rock Island Line, especially the way that we do it. It is a hard hitting number, it is an important number and it is a great number to do. I also feel that it is important that I continue to do songs like I’ll Never Fall In Love Again which Dad wrote.

On the subject of I’ll Never Fall In Love Again didn’t Pye Records release the wrong version?

(Laughter) yes they did, that’s right. Pye Records wanted it to be more of a jazz number so they released the wrong version, and it ended up being a massive hit for Tom Jones (laughter).

How far ahead do you work; are you already thinking about the next project?

(Laughter) yes I am, because I think that when you have a creative mind and you have created something that is now out there and on the road, you could be at home sat playing the guitar and suddenly think ‘that’s a nice idea for a song’ and to be honest I have already started writing songs for the next album. I feel that it is a dangerous thing to stand still anyway. In this game you simply cannot afford to rest on your laurels. As the album is a first for me, I need some strong material to follow it up with and that is what I am going to be working on.

Will the next project be another mini album or will you go the whole hog and produce a full album this time?

I personally would like to go the whole hog this time and put out a full album. That would be perfect for me to put out a full album. Possibly a single in the meantime would be a nice idea but at the moment that is in discussion.

How do you work, is it lyrics or melody first?

For me nine times out of ten it happens to be the melody first unless the melody has been inspired by a particular phrase for instance. For example, I had a riff on the guitar for years which I kept playing but I had never written a song around it until one day shortly after my son was born I was playing with him in the living room, and I started playing that riff and thought ‘I always call him my Little Man’ simply because he never looked like a baby. To me he has always looked like a little old man (laughter). So that is why I decided to record that particular song. I already had the title, so I set about writing the chorus and then the verses for it. That is in an ideal world a great way to write a song but let me tell you, it doesn’t always flow that way (laughter).

I did read that Bob Dylan has to write a song every day but surely a lot of that will be dross don’t you think?

Oh yes, you certainly write a hell of a lot of dross, believe me (laughter). I will often start to write something, get half way through it and think ‘what a pile of manure this is’ (laughter). However, I will never throw anything away. I will always keep it in my digital storage because often I will think there is a lovely line or a lovely riff in that song but the rest of it was poor. That doesn’t stop me putting the riff or the lyric into another song. You should never throw anything away because you can always salvage something from it. There is however a lot of stuff where I will say ‘oh god I’m not doing that again’ (laughter).

Have you ever discarded a song for not being good enough, started to write a new song and then realised that you are rewriting the original song that you had discarded?

Yes, yes I have (laughter). I did that on a past album actually. I had some chord structures all worked out but threw the song away as it wasn’t quite working as well as I had wanted it to. I then began writing a new song but after a while looked and thought I have already had these chord structures written out but not with these lyrics (laughter). Fortunately all worked out well in the end and the song actually made its way onto the last album that I made with my Dad.

I have the utmost respect for songwriters because every day you are trying to reinvent the wheel.

In some respects yes we are but a lot of the time you are trying to redevelop it whilst paying homage to a previous design, if you know what I am saying. I find myself thinking that I really do love, for example, the way that Waylon (Jennings) sang that song and I would love to write something in that style but at the same time you don’t want it to sound like a tribute to Waylon.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

There are a couple of things. Firstly, I would have to say that definitely a highlight was when I got to open for Crystal Gayle on her UK tour back in 2008. That for me was a wonderful experience. That really solidified for me the fact that I really wanted to play country music. She was an absolute delight to be on tour with. It really did prove to me that major country starts really are down to earth. Secondly, was the time that I actually got to stand on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry when I was over in Nashville. That for me really was a dream come true. A bonus for me was that I got to meet Charlie Daniels whilst I was being shown around backstage at the Grand Ole Opry.

I was just amazed at how down to earth everyone was. I approached everyone, asked them a couple a questions and they were all so cool about that. There was no pretentious behaviour at all, it really was wonderful. And then I think that the final one would have to be, and for me it was a very bittersweet occasion, back in 2004 when I played at the tribute concert for my Dad at The Royal Albert Hall here in London. It’s funny because I found myself the compere for the event because the late John Peel’s car had broken down in Portugal on his way to the gig. It was going to be a surprise so as you can imagine no one had realised that John hadn’t turned up (laughter).

The stage manager at the time turned to me and said “well you know everyone who is on the bill, you will have to fill in” (laughter). I looked at him and thought ‘crap, I haven’t prepared anything’ (laughter). Anyway, I got the chance to introduce as well as play with people like Van Morrison, Chas & Dave, Roger Daltrey together with the late Joe Cocker to name but a few. It really was very sweet having all of these marvellous people turning up to sing Dad’s songs in order to pay homage to him but obviously bitter that he wasn’t there to see it. So I think that maybe that would have to be the highlight of my career so far, purely because of the sentiment involved in it.

What was the first record that you bought?

Ah, I do know this (laughter). It was actually Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July. I chose that record because of the artwork on the cover (laughter). The record that I played most on that album was Happy Birthday.

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

God that was such a long time ago (laughter). Other than Dad, that would most probably have been either Chas & Dave or Joe Cocker.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Well I know that you will think that this is a cop out because it is one of my own songs, but it really does get to me every time and it’s Little Man. It gets to me whether I am singing it live to an audience or simply singing it in the house. It really does grab me.

I have to ask you, what was it like growing up in the Donegan household?

(Laughter) well it was never dull. When you had someone who was as active and as lively as my dad then there was never a dull moment. He was always keeping us involved in things; if we were outside playing he would always come outside and join us in playing football. He would join in on my guitar and piano practice sessions so as you can imagine it was always a very musical household. Most of the time there would be comedy on the TV, so there was always a lot of laughter going on. As far as I remember there were always old episodes of Barney Miller, Cheers and The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast on the TV. Dad was a massive fan of American stand-up comedian Don Rickles and he would use that as inspiration when he was out there on stage.

If you were able to do a lot of Don Rickles stuff then it was a great way for you to get through a lot of the cabaret nights. That was something that I picked up as well because I cut my teeth playing a lot of gigs in the working men’s clubs and I once had a compere introduce me and it went something like this, “right, now it’s your turn. I didn’t like his Dad and I don’t think that I am going to like him but I was overruled. If I can wear a full suit then I don’t know why he can’t. Anyway, here he is, Pete Donegan’ (laughter). You had to deal with all of that and then right in the middle of singing a song like I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, a real deep meaningful ballad you would hear “I just wanted to say that the food will be ready in five minutes in the dining room” (laughter).

And then no doubt you had to contend with the bingo didn’t you?

I had almost forgotten about the bingo. Thanks for reminding me (laughter). It was the bane of my life.

Was it always going to be a career in show business?

Not always as there was a brief period when I wanted to be a professional goalkeeper because I used to take football seriously. I played for the school football team and when we were living in Southern Spain I tried out for the Malaga youth system and they actually invited me to try out for goalkeeper for Malaga. I took their offer under serious consideration and I sat down with Dad who said “if you are going to go down the football route or the music route, remember that you are going to have to dedicate yourself to it one hundred percent in order to be the best that you can”. It didn’t matter to Dad whether I wanted to become a vet, an accountant, a goalkeeper or a musician.

He had the same outlook, whichever I chose then I had to be dedicated. He said to me “are you still going to enjoy football once you have to take it that seriously. Is it still going to be fun” and the simple answer to that really was ‘No’. I still really do enjoy football and I can’t resist getting involved in a five a side game whenever the opportunity arises. But the idea of having to take it that seriously; knowing that an injury could be just around the corner; made me choose music. Yes I know that I could injure myself on stage but I should still be able to sing afterwards, I could still play afterwards, I could still write afterwards and I could still teach afterwards. There were far more options open to me in music than there were with sport. So as a fifteen year old at the time I decided to stick with the music because the idea of taking music that seriously was still fun to me.

In April 2005 Mark Knopfler recorded Donegan’s Gone on The Trawlerman’s Song EP. How did that feel?

I was amazed. Every artists who played at the memorial concert for Dad were asked which of his songs they would like to perform. I asked Mark because we were struggling to find one of Dad’s songs that we thought would suit Mark’s voice and his style of playing. At that time he said that he would like to play Darling Corey but was quick to point out that he had written a song about Dad that he would love to do. I asked him to send me a copy but being Mark I knew that it was going to be good. He sent it over to me and the first thing that hits you is just how cleverly written the song is. There is a strong bluesy, country rhythm to the song, it sounds like a clucking chicken but in a good way obviously (laughter). We were all totally blown away with it.

I understand that you were recently at the book launch for Billy Bragg’s new book Roots, Radicals and Rockers which is a history of the British Skiffle movement, looking at its 1950s boom back to Ragtime, blues, jazz and American folk music. What do you think to the book?

(Laughter) well being totally honest with you I haven’t actually had the time to read it as yet. It is currently sitting by the bed but with all of the promotion for the new album together with the fact that I now have a two year old in the house I haven’t as yet had the chance to get round to it yet. But it is the next thing that I am going to read. I intend to take it with me on the road and read it between gigs. I was at the book launch with Bob Harris and I did get the chance to read the cover notes together with the first few pages and the one thing that I immediately noticed was the research that has gone into it is so in depth which I think is unprecedented for this subject. You cannot fail to be impressed with it and more to the point it is non-biased too.

There have been people who have previously reviewed that period in time who were jazz purists who saw my dad as this evil incarnate who did away with jazz at that time. It wasn’t like that at all; it was simply down to natural progression. Dad loved the traditional jazz stuff and this book has taken it all apart, analysed it, taken all of the stories, and has presented the facts as it is. I think that it is a wonderful book that should sit in a British music history library forever. In my opinion it is simply a long time overdue. I know that Billy has been working on the book for a long time because he has been liaising with us over some things, photographs and people to speak to, stuff like that. We have known Billy for a little while now and I have to say that he is a lovely man.

I have spoken to Billy a number of times and what strikes me is his love and respect for Lonnie.

It’s true. Whenever I have spoken to him that love and respect comes across massively. I take that as being one hundred percent genuine because I don’t think that the man is capable of telling a lie (laughter). Billy has a cut-throat honesty which I have immense respect for and so did Dad.

Well I have to tell you that during our chat Billy actually educated me when he informed me that Lonnie was the very first UK artist to have a number one single that featured an electric guitar.

Really, well I didn’t know that either so you have, in turn, educated me about my Dad (laughter).

Whenever I think of Lonnie I think of songs such as Rock Island Line, John Henry, Cumberland Gap, Jack O’ Diamonds and The Grand Coulee Dam to name but a few. However, there is still a very large part of the British public who will only remember him for Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?) or My Old Man’s A Dustman, his comedy songs let’s say. Did he ever regret going down the comedy song route?

I think that a small part of him did, yes, and to be perfectly honest I think that I do in some ways, so maybe I am colouring it a bit my own way. What you should remember is that Dad influenced the music industry. However, if his only hit had been My Old Man’s A Dustman then he would never have had that influence in order to bring about changes, but as we all know it wasn’t. Rock Island Line was the big hit for Dad and that did influence everybody. That’s the one that made everyone stand up and take notice of the energy which was there in Cumberland Gap and The Grand Coulee Dam. I know that they are old American folk songs which had been sung by Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly but Dad made them his and I think that these are the songs that he should be remembered for.

Even Putting On The Style and Lorelei which are fun songs to perform there is a hell of a lot more core to his songs like that. Looking throughout the history of music everyone has a comedy song or two in their locker don’t they? Whenever I think of the late Chuck Berry I immediately think about his great songs such as Rock And Roll Music, Sweet Little Rock And Roll, Roll Over Beethoven, and Maybellene to name but a few. However, I know that a hell of a lot of people will only remember Chuck Berry for My Ding-a-Ling. Whenever I hear people discussing this I think ‘seriously, is that the only Chuck Berry song that you can remember?’ (laughter).

Peter on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been brilliant.

Thanks Kevin I’ve had a great time, thanks for that and I hope to catch up with you sometime soon. Bye for now and thank you very much.