By John Fitzgerald
Sandy Kelly is among the all-time greats of Irish county music. Willie Nelson hailed her as “one of the top fifteen female artists in the world.” She has entertained for decades on both sides of the Atlantic and across the Irish Sea, but for many of us her singing duets with the great Johnny Cash will occupy a special place in our hearts, and in the glittering annals of showbiz history.
Sandy was born in 1954 in Ballintogher, Co. Sligo. Her talent as an entertainer was apparent from the tender age of three, when she served as a magician’s aide on her family’s travelling variety show. It was an early but significant introduction to the world of show business.
There were ten in the family and they toured the towns and villages with their lavish repertoires of sketches and musical treats. Sandy sang songs from the Wizard of Oz and other musicals and was allotted child roles in plays that were popular at the time, such as The Wild Colonial Boy.
She commenced her singing career as a teenager, starting as lead singer with the Fairways Showband before forming the Duskeys in the 1970s with her sister Barbara and two cousins. The band went on to represent Ireland in the 1982 Eurovision Song Contest.
Sandy became a star attraction on the cabaret scene and electrified dance halls in the years that followed, but she inevitably reverted to her beloved country music. She enjoyed stellar success, scooping the ‘Gold Star Award’ in the 1985 Country Music Masters contest, beating off stiff competition from twelve other countries.
Among the greatest honours bestowed on her was an invitation to represent Ireland at the Country Music Association International Show in Nashville, Tennessee in 1985.
Topping the list of Sandy’s favourite singers was Patsy Cline, one of the most iconic and influential American singers of all time, feted especially for her phenomenal success in crossing over from country music to pop.
In 1992 Sandy released a video comprising thirteen of Patsy Cline’s songs. Sandy was quickly hailed as possibly the greatest ever interpreter of the legendary singer’s unique style and she landed a lucrative record contract on the strength of this with K-Tel Records.
But another singing legend, one that she admired no end, was to cross her path and help Sandy to blaze another trail of glory on her skyrocketing country music career.
Sandy was on a routine visit to a County Cavan radio station in 1989 when a music show presenter casually announced that somebody wanted to speak to her on the phone. Her latest single, a lovely rendition of the Patsy Cline classic Crazy had finished playing on the radio.
Handing her the phone, the presenter indicated the caller was American. Nothing unusual about that: Another caller maybe reacting to a song, she thought, but then came that deep baritone voice, announcing “My name’s Johnny Cash.” Sandy is a practical no nonsense person and familiar with the way fame can attract all kinds of people. “And I’m Dolly Parton” she joked.
But the caller was insistent. It was the living legend himself. He was en route to Omagh with June Carter as part of an Irish tour. Her heart aflutter, Sandy almost fainted on the spot when Johnny asked her if she’d care to meet him backstage at the Omagh venue. Without hesitation she agreed, still overcome by the seeming unreality of the moment.
She’d been mesmerised by the world renowned singer, songwriter, musician, and actor. She could identify with the recurring themes of grief, struggle, and redemption in his songs, having endured much heartache and reversal in her own life. She’d courageously battled anti-Irish prejudice in Britain in the 1970s (the Troubles were raging) when she performed there, and somehow found the strength to cope with almost overpowering personal tragedy.
Though she loved her work, she loved her family even more, and was heartbroken by the death of her young brother from pneumonia; her mother’s passing from cancer at the age of 38, and the birth of a child afflicted by a life-altering ailment.
Dreamy-eyed and still partly disbelieving, Sandy drove to Omagh and, after introducing himself Johnny Cash invited her to join him in singing a few Patsy Cline songs at the gig. The audience loved it; raising the roof when the super talented duo sang songs including Crazy and I fall to Pieces.
Sandy was thrilled when Johnny suggested she go to Nashville. She’d been there in 1985, but this visit was extra special. Later that year she jetted again to the home of country music, accepting an invitation from Johnny Cash to call to his house where she met his family and top-notch production team.
She recorded Woodcarver with Johnny, a duet that melted the hearts of millions and won for Sandy her second Irish Gold Record. Sandy made an appearance on the Grand Old Opry, a long cherished ambition, and sang on highly rated American TV music shows. The two singers toured the USA for five years, winning countless new fans along the way. In 1990 they recorded The Ring of Fire, which promptly made it into the Irish charts.
And Sandy had discovered that the great American singer, despite his larger than life iconic image and almost mystical status on the music scene, was really a down to earth guy who had no “notions” about himself. “You could find him at the back of the tour bus making his own sandwiches”, she told Ryan Tubridy on a Late Late Show country music programme.
Sandy’s indefatigable schedule would have flummoxed many an entertainer but she seemed possessed of a boundless energy, though she never forgot her own family and her husband Mike was a rock of support throughout all her hectic never-a-dull-moment career.
Back in Ireland, Sandy did several TV shows and was the star of a critically acclaimed and popular one-woman drama inspired by the life of Patsy Cline. Sandy’s own life was celebrated in a play called The Showman’s Daughter in 2003.
The Johnny Cash on-and-off and musical partnership continued until his death in 2003. Sandy was the only Irish person to attend his private funeral.
Today Sandy Kelly still entertains and is deemed one of Ireland’s greatest musical ambassadors. Apart from her singing she has become a fearless advocate of the cause of home carers, drawing on personal experience as she speaks out for the rights of those who make huge sacrifices to look after their loved ones afflicted by illness or disability. And she has taken to the media recently to highlight the insuperable challenges faced by the entertainment industry throughout the bleak and unrelenting Coronavirus lockdown.
Long may she beguile us with her wonderful voice. Her songs bring joy to a world in need of cheering.