Why Philomena is still the queen of country music

Philomena Begley  PIC: STEVEN MCAULEY
Philomena Begley PIC: STEVEN MCAULEY

JOANNE SAVAGE catches up with country singer Philomena to talk about how she started on the music scene and why she has no intention of hanging up her performing boots just yet

I interview Philomena Begley on a Monday and we’re both feeling blue - mostly because it’s January - the cruellest month - and a Monday, the beginning of the wretched working week.

Begley, 71, who hails from Pomeroy, Co Tyrone, and last year had the joy of watching her niece, Andrea Begley, win primetime talent show The Voice UK which secured her a lucrative recording deal, is in her kitchen on the family farm where she lives with her husband Tom.

Here Northern Ireland’s country music queen - who performed at the Grand Old Opry, Nashville in the 1970s - regularly minds her four grandchildren between indulging her love of baking and singing, of course.

“I love baking soda bread,” she confides. “I mean I’m sitting here with an apron on me and I’ve a lot to do to get the house in shape today.

“I love being at home in my tracksuit bottoms and only get dolled-up to go out and of course to perform.”

She is keen to talk about how proud she is of her niece Andrea, who was mentored by The Script’s Danny O’Donoghue on the primetime show and sent shivers down spines with her emotive vocals.

“I was watching Andrea and rooting for her every week on The Voice and then I went over to London to watch the final live. Aw, she was great, she did us all so proud.”

Begley’s own path to country singing stardom is well-documented, but tales of decent people like Philomena reaching the heights of fame never lose their power in the retelling.

“I never had a notion of becoming a singing star,” says Philomena, who sounds a relaxed, salt-of-the-earth woman who just happened to be blessed with an incredible singing voice.

“My daddy was always a wonderful singer and loved singing all the old time songs at home and so there was always music around me.

“I left school at 15. I always remember I left school on a Friday afternoon and on the Monday I went to work in a hat factory in Cookstown. We were mostly making blower hats, but the best thing was that it was excellent craic in there.

“The machines we used were so noisy so all of us women used to sing to amuse ourselves and we had to be loud to be heard over the machines.”

But Philomena’s voice demanded an audience. She joined a band and began touring the dance halls, singing traditional ballads and country classics.

“Soon my band and I were touring all over England and we began to be away off touring more and more often as we became more in demand. And pretty soon I had to give myself up to the music completely.

“I still remember going to ask my father if it would be OK for me to give up my job and work full-time as a singer. He was happy enough and I went on to marry a member of my band, Tom. I’ve been with Tom for almost as long as I’ve been singing. We’ve been married 40 years this year.”

Does she still recall the first time she stepped on stage, up to the microphone, under the bright lights?

“Oh I do indeed,” she laughs. “It was at a carnival in Forkhill in Armagh and I went on and messed up the words and felt it was a total disaster. There was a guy there with another band who saw I was struggling and he came up on stage and helped me out. It was the era of waltzes, jiving and quicksteps when I started singing out in front more and more, becoming known for my voice.”

Philomena’s voice is elementally strong, rousing, perfect for the songs she is best known for - Queen of the Silver Dollar, Blanket on the Ground and Truck Drivin’ Woman - among many others.

“Well, I’ve just been very lucky,” she says, playing down her star status. “And I’ve been so blessed to have a career that has taken me through 52 years of performing. I have enjoyed it so much. When I sing I am happy.”

I have to know more about her experiences in Nashville, the very seat of country music, the place where all the big country names gather and shine.

“I first went over there in 1975 and it soon became a matter of going over every year and Porter would always invite us to do a slot on his show. I loved it but I never got to see very much of Nashville itself; it was always the inside of recording studios, being on stage - which was great - but I would love to go sometime and just enjoy it.

“I did love performing there though - of course I did - it’s the dream, ideal place for any country singer to perform.”

Philomena has no intention of hanging up her performing boots and did some shows with Nathan Carter over Christmas and with her own son Aidan Quinn. In April she will perform at the Market Place Theatre in Armagh.

I ask Philomena why she feels country music has retained such a hold on local audiences? “Most of these ballads come from the heart,” says Philomena. “People relate to the stories in these songs - they speak to people. I get a better buzz out of performing now than I did when I first started out; I have the confidence that comes with age. I love having conversations with the audience. I just talk to them as I would chat away to someone in my kitchen at home.”

Market Place Theatre, Armagh, April 11. Visit www.marketplacearmagh.com or call 02837 521821.