Country singer Sandy Kelly told David Hennessy about her new memoir, singing with everyone from Johnny Cash to Big Tom and also the never ending grief after her sister committed suicide.
Sandy Kelly has achieved much in her career.
She has sung with Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson, Big Tom, Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride: If you name a country music great, the chances are she has performed with them.
She has also represented Ireland in the Eurovision, starred onstage in the West End and presented her own RTE chat show.
But there have also been hard times in her personal life.
In the new autobiography, In My Own Words, Sandy reveals all about the struggles of her mother’s illness- Sandy’s mother passed away at 47 after many years of not being herself due to sickness-, the difficulties of having a child with special needs and the suicide of her sister, Barbara.
It was always going to be showbusiness for Sandy who was born into a family of travelling entertainers so her childhood was nomadic up until the age of nine when she was sent to live with her granny and attend school properly.
Sandy told The Irish World: “I always find it funny when most interviews start, particularly with radio/ TV, with, ‘How did you get into show business?’
“Or, ‘When did you decide you wanted to be in showbusiness?’
“Of course I never had that decision. I was just plucked out of the cot and put onto the stage if they needed a baby in a play or something like that.
“And then from once I could walk and talk, I think I was doing the best Shirley Temple impression in Ireland at the time.”
And you never wanted to do anything else, did you?
“Well it wasn’t that I didn’t want to.
“I did want to do anything but be in showbusiness.
“Although I started school very late in life, I did particularly well at school.
“I didn’t see showbusiness as anything to strive to be famous or successful.
“’Normal’ was a big word in my mind.
“I wanted to be a ‘normal’ person. That equated to somebody who had a job, had a car, got in the car, went to the job, lived in a house as opposed to a caravan, didn’t move from place to place every week.
“So I would dream about one day being a real regular person.
“But of course, that never happened because as I grew older, I discovered that I was better at showbusiness.
“And also, I was making more money in showbusiness. So that was the deciding factor really.”
Sandy finished her schooling in Wales after the family moved there when she was 14.
It was this side of the water that Sandy, going by her birth name of Philomena Ellis, joined her first band who were named The Jaguars. She would then replace none other than Bonnie Tyler as lead female singer in Steve Hare and the Bunnies.
However it was also in Wales that Sandy got her best taste of a ‘normal’ life. She writes of being an office clerk as being a happy time.
“I loved it.
“I can honestly say, that was the happiest time in my life: That first morning that I put on my little uniform, and got on the minibus with the rest of the staff and went to the job for the first day.
“I honestly felt like I had achieved what I really wanted to do and I was now like everybody else.
“I looked around the room and there was nobody tap dancing, telling jokes, or singing songs. They were all doing the job, a structured job and in my head, that’s what I wanted to do.
“But of course, I was very young.
“I didn’t have full realisation of life and the reality of life.
“I was dreaming outside of the box that I was always meant to be in.”
The family would return home to Ireland on the advice of a doctor who could no more for Sandy’s mother.
“We were advised to do so.
“Her neurosurgeon was a wonderful man and he took a great personal interest in my mother, and in us, because I suppose it was a pretty tragic and sad story.
“He advised us that after her third brain surgery, there really was nothing else they could do for her.
“I suppose what he was telling us, without being blunt about it, was she wasn’t going to get better, she was only going to get worse.
“And he felt that bringing her home to Ireland to be near her mother and her family might be the best thing for her.”
Sandy thought she had retired from the entertainment industry at the age of 19 but on her return to Ireland, things would take off for her with the Fairways Showband.
Sandy may have desired a career as a clerk or some other ‘normal’ job but using her singing gift was more practical especially in hard times for her family.
“I came back to Ireland to look after my mother, with no intentions at all of going back to music at age 19.
“In my mind, I was totally retired because at that stage I felt I had been singing for 150 years.
“(But) it just worked.
“When I joined the Fairways, it just worked.
“I suppose that was the start of a very long journey building my career.
“As you know, I ended up with Johnny Cash and all of that but it was a long, difficult journey and obviously, there were difficult times.
“Writing the book, I was forced to rethink and remember stories and places and situations.
“The thing that kept coming to my mind was the people.
“What it made me do was go under my stairs, and up to my attic and take out boxes that had been there since 1989.
“There were three boxes of memorabilia with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, all the people that I had ever worked with.
“I had a trove, an Aladdin’s cave of memories right there with letters and photographs and gifts that they had given to me and little messages, the personal messages. That was heartwarming.”
Speaking of gifts, do you still have that spirit mantle that Johnny Cash made you? “I’m looking at it as I’m talking to you.”
Although already well known in Ireland, Sandy Kelly’s star would explode when she duetted with Johnny Cash on Woodcarver.
You wrote that you found Johnny Cash a lonely figure in a way…
“There were times when Johnny Cash was in personal company with his family and close friends, you could hear him laughing for miles.
“He had like a real hearty belly laugh and he had the most wonderful sense of humour.
“He and Waylon Jennings were very like that and if the two of them were together, it was unreal.
“I always remember that: His laugh, his sense of humour, his almost childlike pranks that he would play when you’d be on the road.
“I remember waking up on the tour bus- probably looking like sh*t with my hair sticking up in the air- And there was Johnny Cash hovering over me with a camera, taking pictures.
“And of course, I lunged at him saying, ‘Don’t do that. Give me back that’.
“And he went flying up the bus back to the seat in roars of laughter.
“I was horrified wondering if he’d ever develop them, what the hell would he see?
“But he just thought it was hilarious.
“So there was that side of him.
“Then you saw the side of him that just walked out on the stage, still very much the same person.
“He just was larger than life in reality.
“And then the occasion you see him by himself and he wouldn’t know maybe that you were even looking at him: He would just look to me like the loneliest person in the whole world.
“I had the feeling that sometimes he just wished he could shed his Johnny Cash-ness and walk down the street and go into the pub and just sit up beside somebody and talk, because he could never do that. He never had that in his life.
“He could never be himself.”
It was her single Crazy that brought Sandy to Johnny Cash’s attention.
She would be at a radio station in Cavan when the man in black, who had been listening as he was in Ireland at the time, would ring the station to talk to her.
Sandy had been singing since the age of three but it would be singing with Johnny Cash that established her as a name in country music.
“Once I met Johnny Cash, the rest is history.
“That changed everything, and that brought me across the line to being something different. That if Johnny Cash saw something or gave me the seal of his approval, maybe then I’m worth listening to.”
Someone else you sang with was Big Tom. I laughed reading that you were told not to sit too close to him for pictures to avoid upsetting his female fans..
“Oh God, a handful of them used to get up and walk out every time I sang with him.
“It was hilarious.
“He was the most gentle, kind man.
“I could liken Big Tom to Johnny Cash in a personal way.
“He was a big, gentle giant, and really didn’t live his fame and fortune.
“In reality, he just lived a normal life as did Johnny Cash in his own time.
“But also he was funny, very funny. He had a great, dry wit about him.
“And I have to give credit to Big Tom in a huge way because when I say Johnny Cash brought me over the line of the next step in being successful, the person who brought me over the line into country music from pop music was Big Tom.
“If Big Tom hadn’t done that, maybe Johnny Cash would never have heard me in the first place.
“And Tom and I remained friends.
“He was just a wonderful human being, he really was.
“There’ll never be people like them again.
“They can’t be replaced.”
Before all this, and before Sandy had gone solo she and her post- Fairways band The Duskeys would represent Ireland at the 1982 Eurovision Song Contest with Here Today Gone Tomorrow.
This came at a hard time for Sandy as her baby daughter Barbara would be going through surgery at home.
“I had a lot on,” Sandy reflects.
“But I think my saviour has always been being brought up on my grandfather’s show and absorbing showbusiness.
“It’s in every part of my body that, as difficult as it is, I can separate emotion from the job I have to do.
“I think that’s what Eurovision was.
“I took the decision to go and do the Eurovision, to represent my country so I wasn’t going to go half hearted.
“I was going to give it 1,000% obviously mindful of what was going on at home and calling every five minutes that I could and wanting to get back.”
Back in 2020, and in lockdown, Sandy opened up to the Claire Byrne show and this publication about the challenges of looking after her special needs daughter Barbara during lockdown with neither of them getting any respite from each other.
“It was a huge challenge,” she says of that time.
“It was a nightmare.
“I have never had a nervous breakdown but that was as close as I’ve ever come.
“That’s just being honest.
“There was me feeling sorry for myself at the time going, ‘How am I going to cope?’
“And then, when I did the Claire Byrne interview, I got all these messages on Facebook, personal messages from people who were in a much worse situations than me which brought me to, ‘What the hell am I complaining about?’
“So that kind of snapped me out of it pretty quick. That I was not badly off at all. And I felt better then after that.”
The hardest chapter to read and no doubt the toughest for Sandra to write is the one that sees Sandy deal with the 2018 suicide of her sister Barbara.
“I think that’s something that’s with you forever,” Sandy says.
“Grief is something that never leaves.
“My only sibling Barbara decided to take her own life and leave us.
“Even though things weren’t great between my sister and my family, everything is fixable.
“But this last time, when she chose to just leave without any explanation, or note or phone call or anything, that was heartbreaking and completely devastating for the whole family, especially her daughter Sandie.
“And I suppose I went out of my mind somewhere.
“I was just completely destroyed but my staying point, yet again, to reel myself back to some sort of sanity and normality and daily routine was Sandie, her daughter, who’s a wonderful girl, and my own daughter, Barbara and my grandson, there are other reasons to retain some sort of sanity and normality in your life that are worth doing it for.
“One of the things I live with losing my sister through suicide is the ‘what if?’s ‘What if I’d done this? What if I’d done that?’
“And then, why? Why did you do it?
“And then just the anger.
“On the one hand, I miss her to the point that it brings me to my knees sobbing sometimes and then on another day, I’m angry. Because why did she do it?
“But then, of course, people have told me that the person that takes their own life, they don’t know exactly what they’re doing or what it’s going to do to people so it comes with that forgiveness.
“That’s the last thing, I forgive her.”
Haunting for Sandy is that Barbara’s last words to her were to mind her daughter Sandie. Of course Sandy had no idea what Barbara was planning to do.
“I thought it was because I was bringing Sandie on a cruise I was working on.
“I was only driving the car yesterday and it came into my head.
“That’s what she meant, that she was going to take her own life.
“Why did I not see that? That’s what happens. You start playing games with yourself.
“Why did you say that to me? I should have thought about that.
“You want to go back and say, ‘Don’t do that’.
“But I suppose that’s just our minds, isn’t it?”
Sandy presented her own song on RTE for three years and it would see her duetting with more of the industry’s big names.
One time when Sandy’s mind went black provides a funny recollection in the book.
“We had no autocue back then.
“I had to memorise songs, the lyrics, the introductions.
“One of my favourite guests was Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners and I remember they were standing on the left all in a row.
“And Ronnie Drew very rarely behaved himself, but he did on this occasion.
“I was standing over to the right giving them this huge introduction.
“I was giving the audience the dental records for Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners: This band blah blah blah, and they achieved this and sang in Carnegie Hall.
“And when it came to saying, ‘Please welcome…’
“I put out my arm, couldn’t remember who they were. And they were in a straight line.
“I’ll never forget Ronnie Drew just leaning forward and looking over at me, you know those big sharp blue eyes just looking at me going, ‘What the f**k?
“That would happen.
“I’d learn the whole thing and then forget who I was introducing.”
As well as the book, Sandy is also releasing the album Leaving it All Behind- her first solo studio album in 30 years. Recorded at Cash Cabin and produced by Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, it also reflects on Sandy’s career and journey and includes collaborations with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
“The album was the very same emotional experience and journey as the book.
“The songs are very emotional and very honest and very close to the journey in my life.
“Learning them was emotional, but I did it.
“And I sang them at Cash Cabin, which was emotional.
“When I was driving away from Cash Cabin and we’d done it, I cried.
“And (my son) Willie said as we were driving away, ‘Mum, are you crying?’
“And I said, ‘Yes’.
“And he said, ‘Why are you crying?’
“I said, ‘Willie, I’m crying because I’m happy because I honestly feel that on those recordings and what I left there behind, I am leaving it all behind’.
“It sounds ridiculous to say I miss Johnny Cash, but I do.
And I miss Waylon Jennings.
“I miss them, not as superstars, I miss them being here and in my life and so having the chance to go back there and visit the ghosts of my past- I said,
I’m not carrying them with me every day.
“And I said, ‘I want to thank you for making me do it, because you had to make me do it’.”
In My Own Words by Sandy Kelly is out now on O’Brien books.
Leaving it All Behind is out now.
Sandy Kelly tours the UK next year.
For more information, click here.