First Published March 2014
WARM, WITTY, AND WISE
They say you never forget your first time. And I can vouch for that. I mean, how could anyone forget a first time that involved a lady like Sandy Kelly?
Now before those of you with wayward minds drift somewhere you shouldn’t, I guess I should be just a little clearer on what I mean! What I’m talking about is the first time I realised that Ireland – our very own little country – could actually boast of stars so talented that even Johnny Cash wanted to hang out with them! Sandy Kelly was a household name when I was growing up and so was Johnny Cash. But Sandy was an Irish girl and Johnny was…JOHNNY CASH! And if he was so interested in singing with Sandy, then whatever she was, Sandy Kelly was not simply another Irish girl! She must have been something special. So I reasoned a way back when. And, as it turned out, I was right.
I had the pleasure of first meeting Sandy some years back when she appeared in the Bridge House on her Patsy Cline – Music And Memories tour and she was something special, a true lady of Irish music. As she prepares to perform in Tullamore again towards the end of the month, I had the pleasure of catching up with her again last week for a quick chat!
To get things under way, I asked Sandy how this tour with Mike (Denver) and Marc (Roberts) happened to come about in the first place, and if she was enjoying it so far?
“Well, how it came about, Anthony, is I met Mike, oh I suppose quite a few times at various concerts, and we always got on very well. So there was a friendship there anyway. Then Marc Roberts and I would be friends for years too. So I just got a phone call one day from Mike’s manager to ask if I’d be interested in guesting on his tour and I was thrilled to be asked. And then doubly excited when I heard Marc was going to be on the tour as well. It’s going great so far, I think everybody is delighted and amazed at how the three formats of music seem to really, really mix well. Marc, of course, is doing the songs of John Denver, while I’m doing the songs of Patsy Cline, and then of course Mike has his fans regardless of what he does, you know. So there’s a mixture of everything and for all age groups, children right up to grandmothers. It’s amazing so far.”
I wondered if Sandy’s early start in the business – she often used to appear on stage singing and tap-dancing from when she was just 3 years old, while touring with her father, Frank Ellis, who was part of the Duskey Family Show – has played a major role in helping her establish and maintain such a successful career over such a long period of time?
“Yeah, absolutely. The fact that I started in showbiz so early has actually, I think saved me, in many ways, Anthony. Because showbusiness can be a tricky enough business if you start believin’ your own publicity. I mean, if you start reading things in the newspaper about how great you are and you start believin’ it, then you have a problem! So because I was always surrounded by my family, whom were in the business, as a child and growing up, I just thought of it as being something normal. Rather than something extremely superhuman or super-special, ya know! It was always just what we did. And I think in a way, that both helped me to perform to my best, and hopefully I’m still learning to do that, and secondly, to survive a lot of the pitfalls that would be in our business.”
Certainly it sounds like it was better preparation for a life in music than is offered by so many of today’s reality based tv shows, where people are so often cast aside and left to fend for themselves as soon as this year’s ‘newer’ model steals the spotlight away. Would Sandy agree?
“I suppose in one way it’s nice that they’re given a chance and a platform to sing or perform or whatever their act is, that they wouldn’t otherwise get, you know, the tv coverage and audiences of hundreds of thousands in some cases. And yeah, that’s a good thing, I suppose. But as you say, Anthony, they are television shows and usually there’s only one winner. And even if you win, sometimes you’re not the winner! [as in, often times the acts that finish second or even third go on to greater success than the act that comes first]. And then everybody else is just cast by the wayside to go back to their normal, everyday lives. And that’s kind of what I said to you, about my family. If I was plucked from a ‘normal’ family and environment and put on the X-Factor and surrounded by all these people and media, then how would you go back to your ‘normal’ life if it didn’t work out?”
Sandy’s career has been intertwined with some of the biggest names in country music history. As well as recording with the likes of Willie Nelson and Glen Campbell, Sandy has played Tammy Wynette in the musical Stand By Your Man, and most famously perhaps, she has played the role of the late and so, so great Patsy Cline in the West End show Patsy Cline – The Musical, a show in which the fabulous George Hamilton IV also starred. But it’s impossible to talk about Sandy’s life without eventually getting around to the Man In Black himself, the one and only Johnny Cash.
When Sandy takes in the music scene of today, does she see anyone out there who might leave the same kind of legacies as Patsy and Johnny, her Woodcarver duet partner?
“Well country music has changed so much from the days of Johnny Cash. It’s gone almost mainstream poppy! There’s very little difference between a pop tune and a country tune because it’s all about the industry of selling records, Anthony. I think in Johnny Cash’s day it was more about the music. The real country music. So it’s difficult to say if anybody could directly follow in their footsteps. You’re still going to have huge artists, obviously. Garth Brooks is one, who’s amazing in his own right. But to me, it’s a different type of country music. And I don’t see anybody coming up that’s that traditional [as Johnny Cash]. Now, maybe there is and I just don’t know about them. That’s in mainstream country. Now in Ireland, I think the Irish country singers are sometimes more traditional than the Americans at the moment! I mean, you’ve got people like Mike Denver, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Mike sing live, Anthony (I have!), but he’s a fabulous country singer (he surely is that!). Marc and myself are probably more mainstream than traditional country, so you can’t count that. And I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Gerry Guthrie, have you? I would consider Gerry to be very contemporary, but having that traditional country feel. And also, like the Glen Campbell thing, he plays the guitar extremely well. So to me, Gerry would be someone I’d like to see going on [to success] if he’s given the chance.”
When she says ‘a different type of country music’, does Sandy mean that’s a bad thing? Or just the way most forms of music naturally evolve in some way or another over time?
“I don’t think you can actually say it’s bad, Anthony, it’s just the way music evolves, you’re right. And if that’s what it takes for it to survive and capture a younger audience, well, then that’s the way you have to go, isn’t it. You find all the young people in America, whereas they’re only catching on here, but for years and years in America they’ve been following all the country bands. And line-dancing, and wearing cute, hip country clothes which were seen as being totally uncool here! My son, Willie, is in a band called ‘Rackhouse Pilfer’, they’re a bluegrass, alternative American country band, and they’ve just come back from Nashville with their new album. And they’re a 6-piece, original band, Anthony. Totally 100% original music and that’s something new, I think, for Ireland. RTE Radio 1 play-listed them this week even though they’re unsigned. Actually, would you believe it, Anthony, they won an award at the Bluegrass festival down in Tullamore last year.”
For many involved in the arts, what they do often feels much more like it’s a vocation rather than just being ‘a job.’ What they do is just something they absolutely have to do, no matter what! That being said, of course, there are also people involved in the arts for whom what they do – unfortunately! – is little more than just a job! I wondered if this was something Sandy had experienced during her life in music? People who were involved from their heart first, and those who are never more deeply involved than their head tells them they need to be?
“I think both, Anthony. There are some people that, even though they should probably get out of show-business [for their own sake] a lot sooner than they do, and get a real job, don’t! But there’s just something in them that drives them. Nearly like an addiction. An audience and applause and the spotlight, that can become like an addiction for some people. I think there are a lot of people in show-business who shouldn’t be in it. But they’re just driven. Then you’ve got people that are exceptionally talented; singers, songwriters, musicians, whom are driven as well, but for a different reason. That’s their lifetimes’ ambition and their passion. And then I think there’s a small percentage of people who just see show-business as a quick-fix to stardom and money, and big cars! Which is something totally false. But I think because of all these reality shows and that…., I mean, have you ever seen as many kids in music, dance, singing and acting classes?! I mean they’re nearly auditioning for egg and spoon races now, you know! They all want this quick-fix, ‘discover-me’, x-factor thing.”
Having had the honour of representing Ireland at Eurovision with the Duskey Sisters (Here Today, Gone Tomorrow) in 1982, I couldn’t but ask Sandy for her thoughts on our Eurovision…ahem, ‘troubles!’, of more recent times! What does she think of the mentor system currently favoured for the selection process of our entry?
“Well, obviously I’d be very friendly with Louis Walsh and Linda Martin, and Aslan! And all the people that are fighting, so at the moment I’m keeping my head down, haha. I don’t want to be in the line of fire, Anthony! But joking aside and on a personal note, I do think they need to change it and go back to the more traditional way. So that it’s not so ‘in-house’, you know. I don’t think anybody meant any harm by trying to get these people [Louis, Linda, etc] together on panels or whatever, because after all, I suppose they are experts. But I think the old way worked best.”
Lastly, but by no means least, we came to my favourite question of all because it has the potential to offer the best insight into the lessons learned along the roads travelled by genuine stars of the stage and studio, of which Sandy is most definitely one. From everything she has experienced herself, what advice would she offer to anyone just starting out in show-business today, or to someone who is already involved, but perhaps struggling to make a breakthrough?
“Well Anthony, my advice is always very boring! But obviously, I’d say if you’re very young to not discontinue your education, because an education is very important. And no matter what line of work you’re in, but especially in show-business, Anthony. You have to be able to present yourself very well, be it at a dinner table or standing on stage, you have to be able to speak properly, you know. And you have to be able to count money, assuming you make some! So I think an education is the first thing. I think at a very early stage if you think you want to be an actress or a singer or a dancer or whatever, you have to take lessons or classes from the best possible people available to you. And then, like an athlete, you have to make that the number one priority in your life. Nothing else. That’s what I did. My singing was my number one priority in my whole life. You have to do without a social life and do without all the other normal things a teenager would do, and dedicate your life to it [singing, performing, etc]. Research it, work on every aspect of it. Because it’s difficult, honestly. If you’re struggling, if you’re already in the business but struggling, then persistence [is the key]. When I was in Nashville recording with Johnny Cash, there was a sign on the wall, in a frame. And it said, ‘Talent alone is not what helps you succeed, but persistence.’ So you must have talent, Anthony, but you must also have the persistence to keep trying. And then never give up!”
Would Sandy agree that many people have no idea about the level of sacrifice demanded of anyone who wants to be successful in the music business?
“I think most people don’t know about that at all, they really don’t. You know, that’s the one thing that’s really stood by Willie, is that he grew up around us and it certainly wasn’t a glamorous lifestyle by any stretch of the imagination! It was a lot of hard work. And a lot of people don’t get that chance, to witness that, when they’re growing up. They just see people on tv, in nice clothes, with people applauding them and records and stuff. But that’s really just the end result. If you’re lucky, that’s the end result! And that then is only part of the journey you’re about to begin. But fame is like a bubble, Anthony, it only lasts a certain amount of time and you have to be able to cope with it. You have to remember, too, the word ‘business’ in show-business. Surround yourself with good people; a trustworthy manager and solicitor and stuff like that. Because I was in court more times than I was on stage probably! So I wish somebody had given me the advice that I’ve just told you, haha. And you can tell everybody I’m not a beacon of exceptional knowledge; I’m just speaking from all the mistakes I’ve made myself!”