How watching my musician dad die from motor neurone disease made me pursue my singing career
Downtown Radio's country music presenter and singer Kerry Fearon tells Lee Henry how losing her beloved father Frank prompted her to fulfil a lifelong ambition.
For fans of country music in Northern Ireland, the name Kerry Fearon will be all too familiar. Hers is the voice, after all, of the local scene, introducing new Irish acts to audiences here every weekday at 10pm on Downtown Country's The Homegrown Hour.
As a performer herself, Kerry's star is on the rise. While many of us whiled away our Christmas humming along to Mariah Carey and The Pogues, Northern Ireland's growing army of country music aficionados spent theirs singing along to the Co Down woman's rootin-tootin' cover of the Highway 101 track Bing Bang Boom, which topped the popular Hotdisc country chart in both the UK and Ireland over the festive period.
As well as that, Kerry rounded off her 2016 by winning the celebrated Horizon Award for most exciting newcomer at the Hotdisc Awards, having enjoyed a whirlwind year of high profile gigs and single releases.
But the 35-year-old from Jonesborough in Co Down may very well have gone the rest of her life, as she says "hiding my talent under a bushel" had it not been for the passing of her late father, Frank Fearon, in February 2015.
"My daddy was a great singer and accordion player, and he was well known around home for his voice. It really was something," she says. Although she never performed with her father, Kerry certainly learned from him - as did many other aspiring musicians from the Armagh area who caught Frank Fearon playing in venues like the Blue Anchor Bar and Donnelly's in Silverbridge.
In June 2012, however, the Fearon patriarch was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. "And by that September, he could no longer speak," recalls Kerry, adding that her father was forced to communicate thereafter by writing on a small white board.
"We were devastated," she adds. "He lost stones in a short space of time.
"It was heart-breaking to watch, as, for the first time in his life, he couldn't sing along when his favourite songs were being played.
"He loved songs like Galway Girl and The Green Glens of Antrim. It was after he passed that I decided I should finally do something with my voice."
Kerry, a qualified teacher, had never played a gig in her life.
Though she was used to "singing in the car and at home", and even performed at school on occasion, when her pupils had organised impromptu concerts, music for her was an informal, personal thing.
The idea of a career as an artist had never crossed her mind.
"I was born in 1981 and I'm the eldest of five, along with my brothers Tony and Emmett and sisters Edel and Chynel," she explains.
"Today I still live where I have lived my entire life, out in the countryside in south Armagh, just north of the Louth border, facing the beautiful Slieve Gullion mountain. I've been very lucky in that respect.
"I was brought up by parents, Frank and Geraldine, who were keen country music fans.
"We lived only minutes from (country singer) Susan McCann's homeplace, so it's no wonder I was interested in country from a young age.
"As children we went to see Dominic Kirwan and Paddy McElherron and the Wild Country Show Band, who would visit us quite often when in Ireland and playing close by. I played a lot of Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash on vinyl.
"My dad was a big influence on me in that way. I've always loved the country music scene, but for many, many years I kept my singing relatively private."
Such was the case after Kerry recorded her first tracks.
Having built up the courage to put her voice on tape, she admits to then "shelving the recordings". "I wasn't brave enough to do anything with them," she says.
"But then, after I shared my version of God Ain't Gonna Get Ya For That with a friend, and she uploaded it to Soundcloud and then to Facebook, it all took off. The reaction was great." So great, in fact, that it ultimately led to Kerry's very first gig - in one of Northern Ireland's largest and most prestigious venues, the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. "Imagine," she beams. "It's just crazy. I still can't believe I sang for so many people.
"It was February, around the time of daddy's anniversary, and a lady I had previously worked with called me and told me that there was a DJ on Q Radio looking for singers.
"She sent in my song and the next thing they rang me and asked if I would like to support Dominic Kirwan and Mary Duff at the Waterfront.
"I nearly died, I was so taken aback. And in the event they ended up having us there for the two nights, which was amazing.
"It was all new to me. I had no experience in playing gigs at all, but it's something I'll never forget."
Since then, she hasn't looked back.
Her instant impact on the UK and Irish country scene has seen her dubbed the Irish Dolly Parton, and it's not difficult to understand why.
She has the voice, the blonde hair and the stature to match Tennessee's greatest country export, though at 4ft 10in, Kerry comes in a full four inches shorter than the legendary American singer-songwriter, actress and country icon."Dolly is petite, but not as small as me," Kerry laughs.
"I can barely reach the pedals on my car. But it's certainly not a bad comparison to make. I suppose it was added to when I released my first proper single, What Would Dolly Do?, by Kristin Chenoweth, and then (Eurovision winner) Charlie McGettigan actually made the comparison on television when I was performing on Glor Tire."
It would seem that the televised talent show plays a part in most musical artists' careers these days, and Kerry's was no different.
Appearing on the flagship TG4 programme further boosted her career, introducing her to audiences south of the border, and becoming a finalist further established her credentials as a country music performer to watch.
"It wasn't my first time on television, thankfully. I previously had the chance to speak as gaeilge on Opry an Iuir in 2015. That was an enjoyable opportunity and it was great for me, as it was recorded in our own town hall in Newry, which I have danced in many times as an Irish dancer. But Glor Tire was another level altogether.
"I was very fortunate to have been chosen as a contestant for the series by (Northern Irish country singer) John McNicholl, and it was a tremendous experience to reach the final, the experience of a lifetime, really.
"I often wish I could be back to the Quays in Galway to sing on that stage again. It gave me fantastic exposure and all of my friends and family were incredibly supportive, urging as many people as they could find to vote for me, week in, week out."
As a result of her remarkable run on Glor Tire, she was offered a regular spot on Downtown Country, and these days also presents the Country Top 20 every Sunday night.
It's even more remarkable that she manages to fit it all in, however, given that she continues to work as a teacher.
Kerry pre-records her nightly shows in one solid chunk during the week and spends the rest of her time teaching at Rathmore Special School in Newry, as well as finding the time to gig as often as possible in venues all across Northern Ireland and beyond.
"I'm delighted to be a part of the Downtown Country team," she says.
"My chart show is on every Sunday after Big T's show, so I'm in good company. And I've been able to meet some of my musical heroes there.
"I've interviewed the likes of Nathan Carter, Susan McCann and Philomena Begley, and I get to play the best in emerging Irish country."
Increasingly younger audiences listen in their droves - teenagers obsessed with the jiving dance craze made popular by Carter and Derek Ryan, among others - yet Kerry admits that her biggest fans are a little closer to home.
"The pupils in my school," she smiles. "They're the most important people in the world.
"For the last few years, I mainly worked in Sacred Heart Grammar School in Newry and did a wee bit of subbing in my current school, and I've been there since the autumn.
"It's all special needs kids, and my wee class are all multi-sensory. They're all in chairs, they can't talk, they take seizures, they're very sick. So it's totally different to anything I've ever done.
"With my particular classroom, the pupils' medical needs come first, and the classroom assistants are a great help with regards to tube feeds and that sort of thing, which obviously takes priority.
"It takes a lot of prep as a teacher, but I love it. The kids love their country music, and I sing for them all the time."
It has truly been a year to remember for one of our fastest rising country stars, and with so many musical plates spinning this way and that, 2017 is shaping up to be another year filled with many musical highlights.
Kerry admits to being "over the moon" with her trajectory thus far, and has one man to thank for her success more than many most: her father.
"I honestly believe he has been part of it from the beginning," she says, "Helping me along."
- Kerry hosts Downtown Country's The Homegrown Hour each weekday at 10am
What is motor neurone disease?
The term motor neurone disease describes a group of related diseases, affecting the motor nerves or neurones in the brain and spinal cord, which pass messages to the muscles, telling them what to do.
MND is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks the upper and lower motor neurones.
Degeneration of the motor neurones leads to weakness and wasting of muscles, causing increasing loss of mobility in the limbs, and difficulties with speech, swallowing and breathing.
The muscles first affected tend to be those in the hands, feet and mouth, depending on which type of the disease you are diagnosed with.
MND does not usually affect the senses (sight, sound, touch) or the bladder and bowel. Some people may experience changes in thinking and behaviour, often referred to as cognitive impairment, but only a few will experience severe cognitive change.
The effects of MND can vary enormously from person to person, from the presenting symptoms, and the rate and pattern of the disease progression, to the length of survival time after diagnosis.
Motor neurone disease can be extremely difficult to diagnose for several reasons:
The early symptoms can be quite slight, such as clumsiness, mild weakness or slightly slurred speech, all of which can be attributed to other causes. It can be some time before someone feels it necessary to see a GP.
The disease affects each individual in a different way, so there is no definitive set of symptoms.
For support, contact Motor Neurone Disease Association, tel: 016 0425 0505, email enquiries @mndassociation.org or visit mndassociation.org.