The first ever Northern Ireland Country Music Awards take place next week, acknowledging the central place of C'*'W in the Ulster tradition. To mark the occasion, Damien Murray spoke to 'Queen of Country' Philomena Begley about how she got started and the secret of her longevity
With me, what you see is what you get ... warts and all
It is not often I speak to a singer who has been at the top of her game for years to find her busy with the unexpected excuse that "I was tryin' to get me veggies on for the dinner before you phoned" ... but, then, Philomena Begley is no ordinary singer.
She may be Ireland's undisputed 'Queen Of Country', but, at home, it appears that she is still simply Mum.
This little incident highlights just how down-to-earth and normal Begley has remained, despite having achieved massive success in the field of country music.
Celebrating 45 years in the music business this year, it all began, almost by accident, for the Co Tyrone singer when she joined The Old Cross Ceili Band as a youngster.
"At that time, the band played all of the usual ceili music and, during the break, someone from the crowd would get up and sing a few Irish ballads and things," Begley recalls. "I got up one night for a bit of craic and it all snowballed from there with the band taking me on as its vocalist.
"It wasn't long, though, before one of the lads in the band introduced me to country music, as we listened to the American Forces programme on the radio (where she first heard her future signature song, Blanket On The Ground) when we were driving home from gigs. He then lent me some Hank Williams LPs and I was soon listening to Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette and Jean Sheppard records too. I just loved it and took to the music immediately.
"George Jones would have been my all-time favourite though and I hope to get to meet him when he plays at the UTV Country Fest in Dungannon this August."
Not surprisingly, the ceili band soon evolved into a country-flavoured outfit with the apt name, Country Flavour, and by 1974, the singer was fronting her own new band, Philomena Begley and The Ramblin' Men, who were quickly to become one of the country's top musical attractions.
She has since appeared at some of the world's most prestigious theatres and events, including Carnegie Hall in New York, The Wembley Festival, London's Royal Albert Hall and even in Australia to mention a few.
Indeed, after Larry Cunningham, Begley, along with Brian Coll, would have been one of the first local performers to regularly visit Nashville, where she performed many times at The Grand Old Opry, following an invitation from her good friend Porter Wagoner, who produced many of her 25 albums.
Begley's frequent trips to Music City Row undoubtedly opened doors for many other aspiring singer-songwriters from this island over the years.
Her successful recording of the Billie Jo Spears hit, Blanket On The Ground, soon outsold the original American version at home. However, the ever-modest Begley is quick to point out: "To be fair, Billie Jo didn't get time to get it into Ireland, as I was one step ahead of her on that one."
As anyone who caught Begley with Spears on the recent 'Queens Of Country' tour could tell, there remains a great camaraderie between the two singers, who have become close friends over the years.
The extremely likeable Begley has also got to know many other big name country artists that she has met and worked alongside with Jeanne Pruett, Jean Sheppard, Charley Pride, Glen Campbell and Don Williams numbering among her favourites.
As a live performer, Begley's natural approach and ability to communicate with her audience between songs has also been an undoubted factor in her success.
"I still get a buzz every time I step out on stage and I never stop to think what I am saying sometimes. With me, what you see is what you get ... warts and all. I would just rattle away and talk to anyone I might recognise in the crowd, but it has never gotten me into any trouble because everyone knows that it is all just a bit of craic.
"I am just myself and, as the man says, sure there's no point in starting to change your accent now," she explains in her broad Tyrone tones.
As someone who has been at the heart of country music for so long, I wondered if she knew why the genre was so popular, especially here at home.
"A lot of people make fun of the music and laugh at the words, but everybody can identify with the lyrics of most country songs, as they are about real situations and things like alcoholism, broken marriages and broken homes. These things are all a reality now, and, sadly, probably always will be.
"Many country songs have very sad lyrics and messages that really hit home. I have one at the moment called Don't Tell Mama which is a real tear-jerker about a lad having a fatal car accident while under the influence of drink."
Although she would be the first to admit that a few of the newer country artists are a bit 'over the top' at times, she believes country music is in a healthy state and that the majority of up and coming artists have still been heavily influenced by the country greats.
Begley herself is now busier than ever appearing at music festivals throughout the world, including Spain, Portugal, New York, South Africa and the Caribbean.
In addition to touring with both the Bellamy Brothers and Gene Watson later this year and taking part in the UTV Country Fest in August, she is currently touring in Spain ahead of performing at next week's inaugural Northern Ireland Country Music Awards.
As someone who has constantly been receiving awards since 1972, she is glad to see the emergence of next week's local Country Awards, particularly as they are solely for those who specialise in the genre.
Begley may soon be promoting a CD of older and previously recorded material, but has ambitions to make a good DVD of a live performance and to go back into the recording studio.
"I would like to record a few of the old Irish traditional songs that I started out singing in the early days and, maybe, some of the old traditional country songs too," she admits, adding, with a laugh "... I think I need to do another one before it's too late!
"I'm hoping now that there's a few years left in me yet, because I have no notion of retiring or anything like that."
Philomena Begley is just one of the many country artists appearing at the inaugural Northern Ireland Country Music Awards at Ballymena's Tullyglass House Hotel on Wednesday, April 30.
Hosted by a selection Northern Ireland TV personalities, the evening will see the presentation of 11 award categories including Best Country Male, Best Country Female, Male and Female Lifetime Achievement Awards, Song of the Year, Best International Country Artist, Best Newcomer, Radio Presenter of the Year, Best Album of the Year and Best Live Country Act.
Other performers on the night will include Big Tom, Jimmy Buckley, Mike Denver, John McNicholl, Philomena Begley, Eamon McCann, Warren Smyth, Steven Smyth, Shaun Loughrey, Louise Morrissey, Thomas Maguire, Fiona Ennis and many more.
Tickets are available from both Tullyglass House Hotel (2565 2639) and Camerons of Ballymena.