Susan McCann is an Irish country music legend who for more than fifty years has toured the world playing at prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry, the famous Wembley Country Music shows and Dollywood.
She has toured Russia and sung for former US President George H. W. Bush. and his son George W. Bush.
In the 1970s Susan had a hit with Big Tom is Still the King, which became a Number 1 in the Irish charts, made her first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry and won the European Star Award.
In the past couple of years, Susan has had two hit singles The Old Man on the Porch and, more recently, Teach Your Children Well, which featured her granddaughter Sinead Heaney. They performed it together on RTE’s Late Late Show Country Music Special earlier this year.
IW: Tell us again how you started in this mad business.
“I started with the John Murphy Ceili Band, when I was 16 singing Irish songs. Then Big Tom started bringing in the country music and was doing Buck Owens and all those American country songs going around the Country.
“Then, myself, and Philomena Begley, started covering Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette songs.”
IW: It was a different world back then with the showbands.
“Oh, sure it was completely different then and has changed such a lot. I was recently interviewed by a student from a college in Dundalk who was doing a degree thesis on the Queens of Country, like myself and Philomena, and she was originally from Mayo, this girl.
“I was telling her about the dance halls, and I told her you could have played Mayo for a month as there were so many dance halls then. It was so much easier, to be honest with you, to make it then and draw a big crowd. It was the same all over the country.”
IW: How do you see it now and has there been a significant revival of the Irish country music scene with people like Nathan Carter shaking it all up?
“That’s a myth, Michael. I was talking to the manager of a hotel in Donegal and he was listening to them all talking about the dance halls and I don’t do them anymore, but he said there is no revival although it did improve for a while and Nathan did bring more in, mainly young people learning to jive, but they have all gone now and the dancehall scene is back to where it was.
“Even Nathan is doing more concerts now, like before, when you worked with Daniel O’Donnell, he started with his sister Margo but you and Ritz worked with him and he left the dances and became a huge international concert artiste – but there is only one Daniel O’Donnell, there will always only be one Daniel O’Donnell.
“I don’t care if Nathan Carter plays from now to forever, he will never be as big as Daniel O’Donnell. Daniel has what some people may call “a message’ and he just has that something special with an audience and you know it when he’d walk in a room, he has a presence.
“It is a way he has with an audience and if we knew what it was, we could bottle it and there would be singers all over the country. Daniel O’Donnell is out on his own as far as keeping with an audience and even if he had not seen you for twenty years, he would still remember your name.”
IW: So, is it harder now?
“There is no doubt in the world about it. The fellas seem to be doing better than the girls, it is hard now but, in our day, it was the girls who nearly did better than the fellas.
“In my day if Philomena or I did not do 1,800 to 2,000 people in a hall they would be giving out to you, but those days are long gone.
“When I went professional on my own, aged about 27, there was nothing else to do for young people but to go out to the dance.
“There were few channels on the TV, and it went off at 11 o’clock or midnight and there were no mobile phones so they only way young people could meet up would be to go to a dance.
“Now it is all so different. I have a grandson who made his First Holy Communion and he got £600 pounds for his communion money – on the Bank Holiday he was going with his mummy and daddy over the border to Belfast to buy an iPad with his money and he is just seven years of age. There was none of that when I started.”
IW: What have been your best memories from a long career?
“I suppose getting the Gold Star Country Award in Holland so early in my career was so important for me, it helped my career so much, as it got me to Holland and to Norway and to all kind of places where I would not have been known before and that was a big help back in ‘83.
IW: Didn’t Porter Wagoner spot you and get you to appear on his shows like he had with Dolly Parton?
“I did his TV show and he produced a few albums for me and that was a lovely time too and I remember the first time I went into the studio and I’ll never forget it. I could not believe it but there sitting in the studio with their instruments ready to go were all these legendary great musicians that I had read about on the backs of album covers by Patsy Kline or Dolly Parton or other great names that they had played for and here they were just for me.
“I thought ‘Jesus Mary and Joseph’ and I was pinching myself and was terrified. Here I was in a studio in Nashville I did not have a clue and was nervous, but they were great, and I was not long learning. There’s lots of highlights Mick, too many to remember.
“Although there is one special day I’ll never ever forget as long as I live, and I will take the memory to the grave with me. I lost my daddy when I was only 33, God Rest His Soul, but after I won the Gold Star Award Daddy was so proud of me, but he was not in good health. I was doing a series of concerts and was doing one on the road down to Limerick from Dublin on a Monday night and the place held maybe 300 people but crowds had come who could not get in so they put speakers outside the door for the people who could not get in as there were no screens that time.
“I went upstairs to change and took Daddy up with me and I was putting my make-up on and Daddy was sitting by the window looking out and it was a lovely sunny evening and he just said ‘Look at all these people, Susan, and they are all here to see you’. He was so proud. I can seen him now. That was special.”
IW: Will you ever retire?
“I’d only retire if I had to. So far, my health’s good, I am doing alright and have given up smoking and do a bit of walking and Pilates to try to keep fit and going. I’m positive now and very grateful to have the health that I have at 70 and I am looking forward to all the shows we are doing up to 2020 and we are hoping to be doing some shows in England, which would be lovely to do so we hope to see you then.”