Meet the Co Tyrone clinical psychologist who spends her nights performing in a Johnny Cash tribute act
By day Caroline Parker holds down a demanding job in the health service, but in her spare time she appears on stage as June Carter. The mum-of-one from Sion Mills tells Lee Henry how she only rediscovered her singing voice a few years ago when her brother persuaded her to step onto the stage with him.
Country music has always been in Caroline Parker's life. Born and raised in Sion Mills, a picturesque village just south of Strabane, the 33-year-old recalls her parents Annette and John jiving at every opportunity and finding their car stuffed full of cassette tapes from the heavyweights in the game.
"We were brought up on country music," says Caroline. "My mother loved and still loves Patsy Cline and she would have cassettes playing while we drove to my Aunt Kathleen's house on a Friday evening or when we went for Sunday runs around the county. We would sing the hits, Two Cigarettes In An Ashtray and Crazy. They were great times."
It is perhaps no surprise then that Caroline should find herself performing as one half of Cash Returns, a popular Northern Irish tribute act to the legendary American singer-songwriter Johnny Cash, accompanying her older brother John Paul McCaulay onstage as Cash's muse June Carter.
What is surprising, however, is how long it took Caroline to pick up a microphone in earnest. It is only in the past five years that she has been performing around the country as Carter. It seems like a second life - the first was dedicated to years and years of study.
She explains: "I did my undergraduate psychology degree at Queen's University in 2006 and completed my Masters in applied psychology in the Ulster University at Magee Campus in 2008, followed by my doctorate in clinical psychology, also at Queen's in 2012. I was studying for almost 10 years. I just never had the chance to sing.
"I loved studying, particularly doing my doctorate, which was academic studies and NHS placement, as I met such lovely people and made great friends. At the time we complained every day, but now I look back and think: 'Take me back to the David Kerr Building and to Maggie May's for some chips'."
Post-doctorate, Caroline settled down to a career as a clinical psychologist. Today she works mainly with children and families and admits to loving her job, despite the obvious pressures.
"It's a privilege to work in the NHS and to offer care and support to our service users. I have had the pleasure of working with lovely staff and service users over the years and I'm very lucky in my job," she adds.
Singing, however, has always been an interest of Caroline's. As a girl growing up in rural Co Tyrone, she sang at school and in church choirs and as a teenager lent her vocals to family and friends' wedding ceremonies. "I sang a few acoustic nights with JP, but never on my own outside of a chapel. If I knew back then what I would be doing now, I'm not sure I would believe it," she laughs.
It was her brother John Paul (35) who encouraged her to sing later in life. That too came as a surprise to Caroline. She recalls family holidays abroad when John Paul would run away embarrassed rather than join in with karaoke. Somewhere along the line, however, he discovered a remarkable vocal resemblance to the Man in Black.
"The first time I heard him singing was over at my Granny McCauley's house after Sunday Mass," Caroline recalls. "All of our relatives were there - it was traditional that a sing-along would occur after the service - and JP started singing Ring Of Fire. I thought: 'Where did that come from?' He sounded so much like him.
"I went back home that evening and started listening to Johnny Cash CDs, to compare their voices, and was actually very impressed. JP still surprises me when I hear him today. He is just excellent at Johnny Cash, as many audiences around Northern Ireland will know."
Finally, after some coaxing, Caroline consented to join her brother for a short, unassuming Johnny Cash and June Carter duo performance in Dicey Riley's pub in Strabane.
It went very well and she enjoyed it. Her first fully-fledged, bona fide gig as Carter for real took place in the more dramatic environs of Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol to an audience of hundreds.
"I was wearing the dress, doing the dancing, the whole nine yards," she says.
"It was just two days after my graduation - JP had been asking me to sing June with him for years, but I was just too busy studying - and I said I would do it for one night to help him recreate the Folsom Prison Blues album. That was almost five years ago and I'm still here, singing June almost every weekend."
Though she was a little nervous on the night, Caroline's strongest memory of that in-at-the-deep-end maiden performance was one of pure exhilaration. "It was great," she beams. "The crowd were lovely from the minute I was called onto stage. I was so nervous but knew that I had to perform. People were looking and listening. It was surreal having people clapping and cheering."
Cash Returns have since performed in venues all over Northern Ireland, most notably in the Gaol, where tickets continue to sell out fast. The Cowboys And Heroes County Music Festival in Co Leitrim was a particular highlight for Caroline, who also enjoys performing closer to home for friends and family. "We played a few years ago in our local community hall in Glenmorman and it was great. The atmosphere was brilliant. It's heartwarming to get so much support from those we care about. We sing Crazy at our shows, which obviously isn't a June Carter song, but I love signing it as my mum beams from ear to ear. She is a very proud mummy. I could sing completely out of tune and my mum would still think I was the best in the room."
Being on the road as the only woman in the group can be challenging, Caroline admits, but with the group having become a close-knit unit over the past five years, things usually run smooth.
"It can be great craic at times, singing with my brother. We tease each other even during performances. A lot of people ask how do we not kill one another but we actually argue very little, which is different to when we were younger. However, we were always very protective of one another. Mum describes us as being as thick as thieves.
"There really aren't that many lowlights of performing with the band, although there are nights that I miss my husband and wee girl, but we Face Time quite regularly, so that makes it easier. Honestly, being the only girl in the band is probably harder on the boys than it is on me. I am the timekeeper, ensuring that we start on time and take appropriate breaks, but they love my organisation really," she quips.
Caroline married her husband Ronan in 2011 and the pair had their first child, baby Grace, in 2015. These days Caroline continues to work - "I'm still enjoying and managing both careers" - and spends her weekends meticulously studying videos of Carter on YouTube.
"Grace has loved music from day one," says Caroline. "She only settled when I sang to her. She now loves to sing at the top of her lungs, all the Disney tracks, but her favorite at the moment is Tale As Old As Time from Beauty And The Beast. Ronan loves that I'm singing now too, though he loved it more before Grace was born, as he got to come to all of the gigs.
"As a family, we love to go to the beach, regardless of what the weather is like, and going out to eat. But I love nothing more than those days when we're all at home watching Disney movies cuddling and singing lots of songs."
As for the woman beside the Man in Black, Caroline admires Carter for her "vibrant character and great sense of humour, which really comes across in their live performances. June and Johnny (left) seemed to have a lovely relationship and a great respect for one another. They didn't have life easy, but even in their later recordings their love and mutual admiration was very evident".
Caroline's personal favourite song to perform live on stage is that classic Cash standard Jackson - "We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout" - as well as the lesser known Guitar Picking Man. "It has great banter in it and really distils the essence of Johnny and June."
Cash Returns have gigs scheduled throughout summer 2017 and beyond, including a big show at the Clanree Hotel in Letterkenny on August 6 on John Paul's first wedding anniversary, but looking ahead, Caroline's greatest ambition is to one day play in the mecca of country music, Nashville.
She adds: "I would love to play there because Nashville is the heart of it all. That said, though, it's the audience that make a show. The crowds we play for are amazing; they are so attentive and appreciative. I am always overwhelmed by their feedback.
"For me, the more craic they have, the more craic we have. That's what's it's all about."