Susan McCann: First lady of Irish Country music
Tuesday, 4 February 2014
SUSAN McCann has had an amazing non-stop journey to the summit of the Irish musical industry.
The First Lady of Country Music, who has a powerful voice, classic good looks and a personality to match, has seen it all, done it all and has the gold records, international awards, and an incredible list of achievements to prove it.
Her musical extravaganza began in 1965 and has continued right to the present day. Susan has travelled around the world, played in some of the biggest venues, met presidents and statesmen and rubbed shoulders with massive stars of stage and screen, all the while putting her home town of Newry and Irish country music on the map.
Incidentally, the former United States president George W Bush, his father George Bush (senior), plus General Norman Schwarzkopf (the famous Stormin' Norman) are just three important people who have been entertained by Susan and her band, The Storytellers.
Susan has played everywhere, including the Wembley International Country Music Festival (four times), The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee (six times), Florida's Strawberry Festival (six times), New York's Carnegie Hall, Country Music Festivals in Germany, Switzerland and Norway, Nashville's Dollywood Theme Park, and London's Royal Albert Hall, to name but a few. So much for her much-published declaration at the start of her career that she would not travel more than 60 miles from her home to play a gig.
Susan was also a hit, had a huge following, and made three highly successful concert tours of South Africa and made the same number of appearances on South African television. Furthermore, she gigged at a multi-cultural extravaganza called the White Nights Festival in St Petersburg, Russia, where she sang her country and Irish songs to 5,000 people, including leading Russian statesmen. Another career highlight was appearing on the huge networked Porter Wagoner television show from Nashville, Tennessee where she sang with the host.
JUST some of the legendary artists in the music business she has met and played with are: Crystal Gale, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks, Waylon Jennings, Marty Robbins, Charlie Pride, George Jones, Lorrie Morgan, Buck Owens, Reba McEntire, Porter Wagoner, Boxcar Willie, Ray Stevens, Dolly Parton, Hank Loughlin and her big favourite Tammy Wynette. And Susan goes on record as saying: "I found out that they were all down-to-earth people with no airs or graces."
On the recording scene Susan was every bit as prolific. Her first disc, cut in December 1976, was entitled Santa and The Kids, but her first major hit (in 1977), written by Galway's Michael Commins, was a song dedicated to Castleblayney's Big Tom McBride and entitled Big Tom Is Still The King. This record went to number one in Ireland and stayed in the charts for 11 weeks.
After that followed a string of hits. Susan won three gold, three platinum and two silver discs with singles and albums such as: When the Sun Says Goodbye to the Mountains, Papa's Wagon, Susan McCann sings Country, In Nashville, String of Diamonds, and The Sound of Music.
Furthermore, along with over 50 local and national newspaper, magazine and radio awards, the Newry lady has won major accolades in Ireland and indeed all over the globe. She was RTE's Singer of the Year five years in succession, was voted Irish National Entertainer of the Year, won the International Country Music awards in Texas two years in a row and to cap it all, in 1982 in Holland she won the much-coveted Gold Star Award as the Top European Country artist.
Susan said winning the Gold Star Award was the crowning moment in her career. She went to Holland with her band the Storytellers, along with two other Irish entries, Brendan Shine and Two's Company. Each country had three categories, male, female, and group. And, despite losing her voice the night before the event, Susan first won the female category.
Susan sang a couple of numbers that memorable evening: Down to My Last Broken Heart and While I was Making Love to You. However, as she was in direct opposition to 12 other European nations, she said: "I didn't think in a million years I'd win the overall award." When it was announced that the Gold Star Award-winner was Ireland's Susan McCann, the deep shock on her face told its own story.
And a nice wee touch; when she arrived back to her Ashgrove Road home in Newry after claiming the Gold Star award, she had another surprise waiting. Her two children Brendan and Linda had erected a huge banner with the words on it: "My Mammy - the Best Singer in the World."
THAT was a touching moment for the First Lady of Irish Country music and another touching moment came a few weeks later. Susan was booked to play in a concert in Ardee, county Louth and so packed was the hall that the organisers had to put a public address system outside the building to accommodate the huge crowd that couldn't get inside.
Susan arranged for her late father Eddie to walk her up to the stage and as the pair strolled on to massive applause, her father turned to his daughter to proudly say: "All these people are here just to see you." As an emotional Susan told me this, she was close to tears.
If those successes were not enough to be going on, Susan McCann is universally acclaimed for her dress sense. Everywhere she goes the First Lady, and fashion icon, initially wins over the audiences with her sense of style. Although not always. There was the time in Belmullet, county Mayo, when she arrived at a gig, clad in brown boots and a big woolly jumper, but without her stage clothes. That evening she had to go on and sing in a borrowed MATERNITY dress.
And another time, just before she was due to appear at New York's famous Carnegie Hall, Susan discovered that she had left her stage clothes in Cork. Along with her manager Tony Loughman and fellow Irish singer Philomena Begley, she hailed a Yellow Cab to take her to the world-renowned Bloomindales store, famous for designer dresses, shoes and bags. The cabbie asked: "Where are we going, buddy?" And Susan and Philomena folded up with laughter as Tony Loughman blithely replied: "Blossoms!"
Dennis is the Wind beneath my Wings
BUT as Susan McCann tells everyone, she wouldn't have made it to the top without the rock in her life - her husband Dennis Heaney.
The pair met in 1965 when Susan was just 16-years-of-age and just after she had joined her first musical combination, The John Murphy Bandshow from Crossmaglen. Silverbridge native Dennis, an All Ireland champion accordion player, was playing in the band and the pair soon hit it off and were married six years later. Susan says of her husband: "Dennis and I are a team. It wouldn't have worked without him by my side. He's a quiet guy and when I recorded the song Wind Beneath My Wings, I did it for Dennis."
Susan was born in Carrickasticken, Forkhill, county Armagh, one of Eddie and Bridget McCann's eight children. It was a musical family and Susan's huge ambition from an early age was to become a singer. After a few years playing with the extremely popular John Murphy Bandshow, Susan and Dennis left to form their own group The Fairylanders. And along with guitarist Brendan Murphy and drummer Sean Rogers they did lots of small gigs in and around Newry. At the same time Susan trained to become a qualified hair-dresser while Dennis passed his accountancy exams.
Susan's big break came when Tony Loughman heard her sing and took her under his wing. And in 1976 she formed the Storytellers, a band that included guitarist Tony McAlvenna, bass player Kieran Doherty, drummer Brendan McGarrity, trumpeter and percussionist Trevor Gibb, saxophonist and guitarist Michael Lynch, Martin Campbell on trombone and of course her husband Dennis Heaney on keyboards and accordion.
Soon after this, the hits, the bookings and the world tours began happening. But before she turned professional, and remember by then she had two children, Susan asked her father for his advice and she has always cherished his wise words. Eddie told her: "Go ahead and do what you have to do to bring up your kids - but if you ever see it interfering with your family get out of it." Susan said: "I followed my daddy's advice: the kids didn't miss out but Dennis and I did."
At present son Brendan, a triathlete and marathon runner, with his own lorry business, and daughter Linda, a classical pianist and flautist, who is employed as a music teacher in Newry's Sacred Heart School, have married and left home.
But Susan, who still sings a couple of times a month, and Dennis have their hands full looking after their four grandchildren, Sinead, Josh, Laura and Emma. Susan says Linda's daughter Laura and Brendan's daughter Sinead have good singing voices while Linda's son Josh has the makings of a good footballer.
So perhaps there's possibly a second or even a third Lady of Country music in the Heaney/McCann family or maybe another Pat Jennings.
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