Susan McCann is still on song

Susan McCann with Garth Brooks in 1991
Susan McCann with Garth Brooks in 1991

When it comes to country music one Northern Ireland name is synonymous with the local scene.

And with 40 years in the business clocked up, it’s no wonder Susan McCann was dubbed the ‘First Lady of Irish country’ many years ago.

Now 67, Susan is probably best known for her hits String of Diamonds and Big Tom Is Still The King.

She’s travelled the world representing the local country fraternity and has a whopping 15 gold and platinum disks under her belt.

On meeting Susan there’s a real warmth to her, like she’s been in your life forever.

No doubt this friendly and affable nature is why so many people love her.

Born in Forkhill, Co. Armagh, Susan now lives in nearby Newry, Co Down where she has the luxury of enjoying time at home with her grandchildren and choosing the concerts she wants to play.

Having been singing for five decades of which four were professional, Susan’s vast back catalogue of music is eye-popping.

“I’ve been singing professionally from 26th of November 1976, I don’t perform as much these days, just the odd gig or a special weekend in Ireland or England,” she said.

“I’m getting too long in the tooth to be tramping the roads.

‘‘I choose the work I like and that’s what I do now.

“I’m a granny now so I spend a lot of time with them.

‘‘I missed out when I was rearing my own you know, so I spend a lot of time with my grandkids.

“I’m not sure how many singles I’ve had – I suppose about 50 singles and probably 40 albums.

‘‘I know I recorded 650 songs in the last 40 years.”

Along with her impressive discography Susan has bagged herself a few awards along the way including everything from a European Gold Star Award to European Singer Of The Year.

Despite her success Susan admits that she was almost plucked from obscurity back in the mid-70s which she describes as “literally from the kitchen sink”.

From there she went on to have her first number one with Big Tom Is Still The King in May 1977 where it remained in the Top 20 for 11 weeks.

“I’ve always loved singing, it was just a hobby at the start, but then I discovered I could also make a few pound, which helped to cover the costs of family life – it was a gradual process,” she said.

“From an early age I can remember singing and dancing to an old record player to singers like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Bridie Gallagher and Margo - who is a living legend.

“I started working with the band in November 1976 and during the summer of 1977 we did 89 consecutive nights.

‘‘It would have been more only the car went off the road one night and we all ended up in hospital.”

Thankfully the casualties that night were minimal and Susan’s shot to fame across the UK, Europe and America.

Talking about her career it’s impossible for Susan not to drop internationally famous names from Presidents George W Bush and his father to global superstars such as Garth Brooks.

And of course, with those famous names are stories of the road that many new artists could only dream of.

She even vouched for Garth Brooks at one point.

“Back in the day I used to do festivals in America like the Strawberry Festival in Florida,” said Susan.

“In fact I even worked with Garth Brooks about 20/30-odd years ago at the Strawberry Festival.

“There would be around 80-100,000 people passing through the park in any day.

“I wasn’t the main act by any stretch of the imagination but I was there and there was a huge marquee for me set out and I would be advertised as the “Irish girl” because the Americans loved the Irish songs.

“Back then I wasn’t to sing any country, just the Irish stuff but we used to have a great time.

‘‘I did that particular festival about five or six times over the years but it really sticks out in my mind and in my career.

“There was one year Garth Brooks was on the festival bill, although he was headlining the festival over there he wasn’t even known here in Ireland.

“But I had my picture taken with him as I thought he was an exceptionally good act and I remember saying to the boys that I thought he was fabulous.

“He was just starting off at the time but I was one of the first here to sing his praises and not so long afterwards he was known worldwide. That’s a long time ago now.”

And Garth Brooks wasn’t the only major country star Susan would meet on her travels.

“I worked with a lot of the other ones too such as Tammy Wynette and Kenny Rogers.

‘‘A lot of the American country singers like Loretta Lynn, they all topped the bill on those shows and we would be in the same dressing room or backstage area.”

One of Susan’s best known qualities is her ability to tell people exactly what she thinks, there’s no holding back.

“I didn’t feel the pressure of being a woman in the industry in the sense that I am thick skinned.

‘‘I was always able to hold my corner,” she said.

“When it comes to how I look, I always felt the need to be dressed well, both on and off stage.

‘‘I think when people pay money to come and see a show they expect to see everybody on the stage dressed to perfection.

“I think my good friend Margo summed it up in her book when she said ‘Susan shoots straight from the hip’. If I have something to say to you, you won’t hear it from someone else.”

In recent years Susan celebrated 50 years of marriage with her husband Dennis as well as four decades in the business.

Her secret to success? “I think the secret to our success of working together is to have the same goal.

‘‘We think exactly the same, in fact sometimes it scares me how close our thoughts are,” said Susan.

“Having my husband with me made it all so much easier over the years.

‘‘We were fortunate we had the same interests and he is such a good musician.

“He helps me with everything, we have our own record company and he does all the things I don’t want to, we work well as a team.”

As for dreams Susan says she’s been lucky enough in her life to achieve everything she’s ever wanted.

She said: “I thank God that he gave me the health to do it, and I think I’d be very selfish to look for anything more.

“I’m very happy with what I’ve got in life and I’m extremely happy with my five grandchildren and so I really can’t ask for anything more.

“For the future I just hope for good health, that I live to see them all get bigger you know, through the different stages of life and that’s what I look forward to now.

“I also look forward to coming out and doing things like local festivals and keeping my hand in the business.”

Although there is one song she hopes to add to her still growing catalogue.

“My father’s favourite song was Two Loves.

‘‘I always sing this song at parties, but I never got round to recording it. Maybe someday I will.”

Musically Susan is still very much a recording and touring artist, albeit only the projects she genuinely wants to do now.

And she’s happy with that.

“I’m going to be doing some recording with my Irish TV presenter Malachi Cush.

‘‘ I’m looking forward to that – we have great fun together,” she said.

“I’m also looking forward to ending my 40 years celebration with a weekend in the Carrickdale Hotel, Dundalk in January 2017.

‘‘ I’m calling it the String of Diamonds Festival Weekend, with a host of my Diamond Buddies in the show business.”

For more information about Susan log onto www.susanmccann.com