Susan McCann: First Lady of Country music in Ireland…and abroad
There is no stopping Susan McCann, Ireland’s First Lady of Country music and even after over 40 years in showbusiness she continues to diversity, forge new career paths, win awards and gain even greater admiration for her talents from fans and music industry chiefs both at home and abroad.
What is the secret of her success in the competitive cauldron that the Country music scene in Ireland and internationally can be? Well perhaps it is down to the sincerity she has shown since starting out as a teenage singer at 16 of always putting the fans first and to diversify for their demands.
Susan’s hit songs spring to mind whenever the First Lady of Country’s name is mentioned such as Broken Speed of the Sound of Loneliness to her first number one Big Tom is still the King to her European Gold Star Award winner in Holland While I Was Making Love to You to the multi-lingual When the Sun Says Goodbye to the Mountains – some of which she sings in French. Her iconic hit String of Diamonds medley (bits of the hits) has now given its name to a range of jewellery and cosmetics.
But there’s more to Susan than singing. She has successfully co-hosted her own TV series, presents a syndicated radio show, entertained two former US Presidents, shared stages with the greats of American Country including Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette gigging from Newry to Nashville to Norway, to St Petersburg in Russia to South Africa to Florida’s famous Strawberry Festival to Switzerland.
Awards have come her way aplenty, over 50 in total, with the latest being inducted into the UK’s Country Music Hall of Fame in November 2017, only the second performer from Northern Ireland to get this honour, the other being her great friend from the music scene Philomena Begley in 2003.
Susan’s winning ways go back even further than the aforementioned European Gold Star Award (Country music’s equivalent of the Eurovision) in 1982 to twice winning the International Country Singer award in the hotbed of Country, Texas, USA.
The awards include RTE’s Singer of the Year for five successive years as well as being voted Ireland’s National Entertainer of the Year and being presented in 2010 with The Sunday World Hall of Fame Award and the Northern Ireland Lifetime Achievement Award. The array of Gold Discs and Silver Discs that adorn the walls of her home in Newry are testament to her massive album sales over the years.
But when she started singing in ’65 as a 16-year-old teen from Forkhill, Co. Armagh, with the locally popular John Murphy Bandshow, Susan could never have imagined where singing would take her. Romance blossomed too for her in the band when she and accordion player, Dennis Heaney fell in love.
She had become a qualified hair stylist while Dennis had passed his accountancy exams before they married. They had two children putting a clause into their music work of not travelling any further that 60 miles from their family home in Newry.
That clause could have no chance of surviving after she became an overnight sensation in 1977 with her first Number One hit Big Tom is Still the King. Susan’s singing talent was spotted a year earlier by well known showbusiness impresario Tony Loughman who signed her to a recording contract with Spin Records and her Irish and international career started spinning faster than anyone could have ever imagined!
The sudden stardom shattered any hopes Susan had of being a stay-at-home mother but she says that while her whirlwind worldwide success didn’t result in the kids missing out, both she and Dennis did miss out, on them growing up.
However both their children now have successful careers of their own. Brendan has his own road haulage company while Linda, a classical pianist and flautist, is a music teacher at Newry’s Sacred Heart School. Both Brendan and Linda are married with homes of their own and the five grandchildren, Sinead, Josh, Laura, Emma and Tom give endless hours of joy to Susan and Dennis who are determined not to miss out on their growing up.
Her husband Dennis has remained as Susan’s rock of strength through the years, they work as a team, and he still plays in her band and is her manager while being a trained accountant is another added advantage.
“Dennis and I are a team. It wouldn’t have worked without him by my side. He is a quiet guy and when I recorded The Wind Beneath my Wings I did it for Dennis,” she says.
Across the Atlantic in the home of Country, Nashville, Susan’s unique singing style was quickly spotted too by the man who launched Dolly Parton to stardom, Porter Wagoner. Similar to Dolly he sang with her on his popular network TV show and produced two of her best-selling albums in his Fireside Studios. Speaking on his TV show Porter Wagonor said: “This lady from Ireland is so talented that I invited her to the US to sing on TV with me”. That’s praise indeed from the man who discovered Dolly Parton and launched her career.
She made six appearances on the iconic Grand Ole Opry and at Florida’s famous Strawberry Fair where she entertained two former US Presidents George Bush (Snr) and George W Bush as well as General Norman Schwarzkopf, famously know as Stormin’ Norman.
Susan came home from one of her appearances at the Florida Strawberry Festival telling everyone about a young fellow she shared the stage with named Garth Brooks who she said was destined for stardom – how right she was. It’s appropriate that Garth is pictured with Susan on her double album My Heroes which also shows her with other stars she worked with including Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Charley Pride, Don Williams and many more.
“I discovered they were all down-to-earth people with no airs and graces,” says Susan.
She played at four of the Wembley International Country Festivals in London and packed over 4,000 fans into the Royal Albert Hall there, played at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Dolly Parton’s theme park Dollywood in Tennessee and before 5,000 people, including Russian statesmen, at a multi-genre music festival, featuring everything from Rap ‘n’ Rock to Country in St. Petersburg.
In a seven page feature, plus a colour cover spread on Susan, in Ireland’s longest established weekly magazine, Ireland’s Own, the headline read ‘Super Susan – still First Lady of Country’. Those seven words sum up the singing success that Susan McCann continues to be, not alone in Ireland and the UK, but across many other parts of the world as well.