Last fall, English (not to be confused with the Contemporary Christian artist) spent 10 weeks singing in Branson, Missouri, in a show filled with Irish song and dance. In February, he flew to Florida to perform for 10 days in front of the bluebloods aboard a Caribbean cruise liner. But as one of the headliners at this weekend's Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival, English is banking on three days of stage time to help cultivate his American fan base. And where better than in Northeast Ohio? "They've told us we'll be received like we're playing in Dublin," laughs English. "We'll think we haven't left home at all."
Growing up in a burg of 800 people in southern Ireland, English learned to play his homeland's tunes on the piano. Every Friday and Saturday night, he'd jam along to "Danny Boy" and "The Rose of Tralee" with his accordion-playing father and his dad's music buddies. By the time he was 11, he had written to the host of a late-night talk show, passionately pleading to sing and play piano on the air. "I decided it would be a great thing to be on my mother's favorite show," he recalls. "Surprisingly, they called me back for about five or six auditions, and I got a part on the show."
Six years later, in 1997, English -- still in high school -- recorded his first CD, The Nearest to Perfect, and the title track became a hit single in Ireland the following year. "One station played it, and the next station played it, and all of a sudden, we sold 100,000 copies," says English. "It was big, in a small country like Ireland."
English -- who's added two more albums to his repertoire since then -- is ready to expand beyond the Irish pubs, civic centers, and hotel lounges that have been part of his tour itinerary for the past eight years. In rehearsal for his Cleveland debut, English is impressed by the festival's nine entertainment stages, with acts ranging from Dublin rockers Hothouse Flowers and balladeers Foster & Allen to County Mayo's James Kilbane, the runner-up in last year's Irish version of American Idol. Aside from the music, more than 200 exhibitors will be on hand, including experts on native Irish dogs, instruments, and Guinness.
When he's not onstage, English will roam the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds in search of a bowl of beef-and-potato stew and a cup of Irish coffee, while looking for faces of people whose forefathers migrated from the land of his birth. "That's where I learned to play piano. That's where I learned to sing," says English. "It's all about Irish music of today and yesterday, and I know Americans will be thrilled and receptive at music they don't hear all that often."