Hugo Duncan: How my friend Billy's cracker show has helped to raise £1.2m
When it comes to longevity in the country music business, my long-time friend Billy McFarland takes some beating. The popular Ballymena entertainer has been part of the Ulster scene for six decades.
A veteran of the showband era, Billy fronted The Students in the old days and was a popular figure in what were then known as the 'dry halls' (in other words, no drink) across the province.
He may have chalked up the years, but right now Billy is planning to undertake more concert work and guest spots in 2019.
Never one to refuse an invitation to perform at any fundraising function, Billy and his wife Nan have been instrumental in generating many thousands of pounds for different causes.
Just the other day, he regaled me with the story of an incident that took place when he was still very young. He was being taken on the bar of his father's bicycle to his granny's house, when they met another man on the road, who imparted the solemn news that the Second World War had just broken out.
"My father said that was sad news," recalls Billy. "But we still had to get to the granny's."
When the showband era petered out, Billy thought that the curtain had come down on his career as an entertainer, but, in reality, it signalled the start of a new beginning for him.
"Cabaret shows, concerts and music lounges then came into vogue and this has taken us to where we are today," he explains.
Billy was no stranger to success in the recording sphere either. No Tears My Lady, The Older The Violin The Sweeter The Tune and Goodnight Irene are just some of the songs with which he became synonymous.
While plush hotels are now, for the most part, venues in which concerts and shows are held, Billy still has fond memories of the old days - and, indeed, some not-so-fond memories.
He will tell you, if prompted, that he was cycling home to Ahoghill after performing in Larne on a particularly foggy night, when the light fell off his bicycle.
After a spell spent on his hands and knees on the ground, Billy was unable to locate the light and, with his heart in his mouth, as he puts it himself, off he went on his bicycle in the direction of Ahoghill - or so he thought.
That was until he suddenly found himself on the outskirts of Larne again.
"It was a lesson well Larne-ed, I can tell you," laughs Billy. "I never got lost again after that."
Shortly after the popular Radio Cracker station was launched in Ballymena, Billy was approached and invited to come on board. Delighted to be confronted by a new challenge, he immediately agreed and has been part-and-parcel of the team to this day.
His daily radio show, from 3.30pm until 5.30pm, invariably attracts calls from places as far away as Australia. On Wednesday of this week, Billy received two messages from Canada and one from the United States.
Not only does Radio Cracker prove an invaluable source of all that is good in country music, but down through the years it has been a major force in raising funds for Third World countries.
And Billy is at pains to point out that all the money goes to those who need it most.
"There are no administration charges, no hidden costs. I reckon we have realised up to £1.2m since we started and we have no intention of stopping, I can assure you," he adds.
Billy's zeal and commitment are legendary - when he fronted his own band, trips to Cork and Kerry on what were by no means good roads never daunted him.
And in Ulster he made a point of playing here, there and everywhere - to Billy, people were all equal, the unifying bond being a love of country music.