For every musician who hits it big, there are many more who release an album or two and disappear for various reasons. We have written about some of those artists who have created some great music and then disappeared from center stage, such as Sinéad Lohan (leaving us for a quieter life) and Teddy Morgan (leaving us for Kevin Costner). Another one of these missing artists who we love and miss is Mike Ireland & Holler, who released two excellent alt-country albums around the turn of the century that were born out of Ireland’s personal turmoil. And then, Ireland disappeared.
Learning How to Live
Ireland, a tall bald man with long sideburns who grew up in Kansas City, did not look like the typical country musician. But the albums he created with his band Holler — Learning How to Live (1998) and Try Again (2002) — are built around a beautiful aching tenor twang that also led to appearances on the Grand Ole Opry as well as opening for Buck Owens.
Below, Ireland performs the title track from Learning How to Live on Signal to Noise. He is accompanied by the members of his band Holler — Mike Lemon, Paul Lemon, and Dan Mesh. Check it out.
Critics loved the album. In describing this 1998 album, Allmusic noted that “few artists cut as deeply with raw, honest desperation,” calling Learning to Live “one of the finest (and certainly most underappreciated) country albums of the decade.” A September 1998 Los Angeles Times review of a live show before “barely a dozen customers” compared him to Gram Parsons.
Unfortunately, though, Learning to Live did not sell well for the Sub Pop label. It sold only around 2,500 copies in the first four years, while Ireland played shows to small audiences (even though he also got to play the Grand Ole Opry). But it was an unfair result for an album wherein the singer-songwriter poured so much of his soul. To understand how Learning How to Live came about, one must go back several years.
Holler’s Beginnings and Mike Ireland’s Heartbreak
Long before Mike Ireland put together his band Holler, he played music while in college in Columbia, Missouri. There, he teamed up with singer-songwriter Rich Smith and formed a band called And How.
Several years later, the two reunited to form a band called The Starkweathers. In the early 1990s, The Starkweathers were starting to garner some success with a 1994 EP release. The group’s country-punk sound featured Ireland’s harmonies with lead singer Smith. Below is the band’s song, “Burn the Flag.”
The Starkweathers had formed out of an impromptu performance of friends at Ireland’s wedding. But his relationship with his wife would ultimately lead to the destruction of the band too.
Just as the band members were starting to put more time into their music and after Ireland quit his day job teaching English composition, in October 1995 Ireland found out that his wife was having an affair with his band partner Smith.
After the discover of the affair, the band broke up. Rich Smith left the music business for awhile, working in a music store, before he would later try to start a new band, The Broadsides.
So, Ireland not only lost his wife, he lost his band and his friend. As Ireland later explained, “So suddenly I was without a wife or a house or a band or a job or a best friend. And it was pretty devastating.”
Creating Music Out of Pain
He thought his life in music was ending. But Ireland poured the pain of his personal life into writing new songs. His life, which now sounded like an old country song, led him to find a connection to a more traditional country sound, incorporating honky-tonk and Billy Sherrill-like countrypolitan styles. The result was his 1998 debut solo album, Learning to Live, which features ten original compositions and two covers.
The album leads off with a song, “House of Secrets,” a song about a man burning down a house holding his wife and her lover. It is an angry song that only could have been written by a man who genuinely felt betrayed.
Other highlights on the album included a cover of the murder ballad “Banks of the Ohio.” Ireland also recorded a song Chimesfreedom ranked among the most depressing Christmas songs ever, “Christmas Past.”
As noted above, Learning to Live did not sell well. But in 2002, he released a second album with Holler, Try Again. The album features some bigger arrangements on songs like the honky-tonk title track, “Try Again.”
Ireland’s sophomore album is still tempered with reality. One of the highlights is Ireland’s excellent cover of Charlie Rich’s “Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs,” which was written by Rich’s wife Margaret Ann Rich.
But Ireland was much happier around the time of this album. So, many of the songs show some rays of hope. “I’d Like To” is one of the songs on the album also featured in a bonus disk version.
Disappearance From the Music Industry
As of today, that seems to be it for Mike Ireland & Holler. Many who have heard Ireland’s music find a deep connection to it. At least one writer has called Ireland’s second album a “masterpiece,” while another called his first album “timeless.” But unfortunately, not enough people have heard his music.
It is unclear what Mike Ireland has been doing since his last album came out in 2002. The most recent mention of him seems to be of a December 2005 Mike Ireland and Holler show at Mike’s Tavern in Ireland’s hometown Kansas City.
Yet, there seems to be no news on the Internet about him in more than a decade. Another musician who played drums with Holler, Matt Brahl, went on to play with a number of bands, including The Hardship Letters, Potter’s Field, The Naughty Pines, and The Liz Finity Affair. Other band members included Michael Lemon, Paul Lemon, and Dan Mesh (who went on to play with Howard Iceberg and the Titanics).
A rare clue to Ireland’s whereabouts is that someone commented on a YoutTube video, claiming that Ireland is semi-retired. But it is unclear how that person got the information.
I wonder if Mike Ireland’s exit from the music industry might partly be related to the fact that his music career was so intimately connected to a sad time in his life. I can imagine that playing his songs of heartbreak brings back painful memories. Additionally, every interview with him always included some discussion of his wife’s affair.
Perhaps Ireland no longer wanted to bear that wound so publicly. Other artists have created great works resulting from pain. But, for example, when Frank Sinatra documented his relationship with Ava Gardner in In the Wee Small Hours, that album became just one part of a vast catalog. For Ireland, both of his albums remain connected to his heartbreak and his recovery.
Hopefully, Ireland is somewhere still singing and writing songs. I hope we will hear more from him, but I also hope he is happy.
Even if the two albums are all we will ever hear from Mike Ireland & Holler, I’ll cherish those albums. Maybe his disappearance from the stage is him just teaching us again that “Some Things You Lose.” Ah, but sometimes the journey is worth the pain of our losses.
Leave your two cents in the comments.
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)