From dazzling audiences in her family’s travelling show to sharing a stage with such stars as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Sandy Kelly has enjoyed a rollecoaster ride through a life in music. She shares her story with Kay Doyle.
Sandy Kelly was sitting in a local radio station in Cavan on an ordinary day in 1989, when the telephone rang. The presenter, who had just aired her latest single, a cover version of Patsy Cline’s country classic Crazy, answered the call, then handed her the receiver. “There’s an American fella on the phone and he wants to speak to you,” he said.
Sandy put the phone to her ear and said, “Hello.”
“Hello,” boomed the voice at the other end of the line, “my name’s Johnny Cash.” Sandy, who didn’t believe the caller, replied, “Yeah, and I’m Dolly Parton, pull the other one, it has bells on it!”
But it really was Johnny Cash.
“He had been doing an Irish tour and was driving up the country with June (Carter) on his way to play a gig in Omagh,” says Sandy, as we catch up for a late-winter chat for Ireland’s Own.
“He asked me if I would like to come along and meet him. I said of course, so he told me to come back-stage and say hello when I got there. For a minute I thought I was dreaming!
“I immediately called my husband, Mike, and asked him to meet me with a change of fresh clothes, and I headed for Omagh. When I got there I saw one of my own fans standing outside with a camera. I asked him if he would stand by, and get ready to take a picture of me with Johnny as Johnny came through the stage door. I told him it might be my only chance to get a picture with him, and he said he would do his best.
“The stage door opened, out came Johnny and I jumped in for a picture. When I looked around my friend was after fainting, and was lying flat out on the ground with the camera on his chest. Johnny’s security guards came and lifted him up and put him lying on the bonnet of a car – it was all a bit crazy.
“I introduced myself to Johnny, and he brought me back-stage. He called in his band and asked if I wanted to sing some Patsy Cline songs on stage with him that night. I sang four songs with him including Crazy and I Fall To Pieces. Afterwards he asked if I had any plans to go to Nashville. I told him that I had visited there in 1984, and had plans to go back soon. He told me to get I touch when I arrived. I went over that same year, and I looked him up. He invited me out to the house to meet his family, and production team. And then he asked me to record Woodcarver with him. It was such a wonderful experience.”
Sandy has had many remarkable moments in her lengthy musical career. Born Philomena Ellis, in Sligo, in 1954, she had one younger sister, Barbara, and her baby brother, Francis, who died when he was five months old. Her family business was a ‘fit-up’ roadshow which travelled the country entertaining people long before cinema came to rural Ireland.