independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Music in the jeans... and boots

Willie Kelly and his country star mother Sandy have always been close, a bond forged touring the world together

'WHEN he was around 13, Willie used to beg me not to bring him to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville if I was singing there, and not to wear check country and western shirts and cowboys boots when I was collecting him from school. And now that he's grown up, what does he do, but join a bluegrass and alternative country band and wears the shirts and boots, so I give him a hard time over that," says singing star Sandy Kelly.

When your mum is first lady of the Irish country music scene, there is a fair chance that you might follow in her footsteps, which is the case for singer and drummer Willie Kelly. His band Rackhouse Pilfer are making a great name for themselves and will shortly support Imelda May at the Sligo Live festival.

"Mum and I have always been really close, but she was never afraid to put me into line when I was being a brat," says Willie, 34. "We're really good friends, and I used to love touring with her. It was hard when she was away working all over the world so much, but there was a cool pay-off when I'd get to meet people she was working with like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, who became heroes of mine."

As well as Willie, Sandy and her ex-husband Michael have a daughter Barbara, 32, who has special needs. She works in the resource centre in Sligo, and while she travelled the whole world with Sandy up until 10 years ago, she now lives semi-independently during the week in a group home with four friends with special needs and two house mothers. It was very hard for her mum to let her go, but she comes home at weekends and Sandy had to think of Barbara's long-term welfare.

Born Philomena Ellis, Sandy and her younger sister Barbara grew up in Ballintogher, Sligo. They also had a younger brother, Francis, who died of pneumonia as a small child. When Sandy's mum Barbara was only 38, she was rendered physically and mentally ill by a blood clot in her brain that haemorrhaged plus she contracted meningitis. She died aged 47 in 1979, four months before Sandy gave birth to Willie.

"She was wonderful," says Sandy, "and I would have loved her to meet my children."

As Sandy's family had a travelling musical show, The Duskey Roadshow, she started her showbiz career at three, but the authorities caught up with them and insisted she go to school (her mum was teaching her on the road). So she retired from showbusiness aged eight-and-a-half, and went to live in Sligo with her grandmother, Bridget, until she was 14. It was a huge wrench, she says, as her life was full of sequins and applause up to then, but she grew to love it and was very good at school, plus her grandmother gave her great stability. "She only died two years ago aged 106," says Sandy, "and up to the day she died, she was still asking me to stop the nonsense and get a proper job."

Sandy didn't take her advice, because while she worked as an accountant's clerk for a year, her star rose dramatically and she joined The Fairways Showband. She married the bass player, Michael Kelly, and they had Willie and Barbara together, but separated two years ago. They remain the best of friends and still work together.

"I did the Rose of Tralee three weeks before Willie was born, and I looked like an egg with legs on stage," she laughs. "He was quite a colourful child, and was fairly active," she says. "My dad Frank used to babysit Willie, and he was a great character and musician. We only discovered later that he used to sneak him out to gigs from the age of about 10. My dad would be sitting at the bar having a pint and chatting up the ladies, and Willie would be playing round with the drums. He died earlier this year, which was a huge blow to us all, and William really misses him as they were both drummers and he was a mentor to him."

The laid-back and funny Willie attended Ballyfermot Rock College, and worked as a percussionist with Sandy's band for three years. He spent a year living in Nashville to write songs and hone his craft, and his band, Rackhouse Pilfer, are currently raising funds through the crowd-funding website, (www.fundit.ie/project/rackhouse-pilfer-2nd-cd) He lives with his girlfriend Christina and boxer dog Bobbi.

"Willie told me that he loved me dearly but couldn't listen to me singing Crazy for one more night" – referring to her Patsy Cline tribute show – so he went off and did his own thing," says Sandy with a laugh, who will embark on an Irish tour at Christmas, and will then tour with Mike Denver.

"We have a fantastic relationship. He's very grounded and doesn't have an ego, and I'm so proud of him. He wanted to do it all by himself and the band is really taking off and they're wonderful."

"It was always a pleasure playing with mum's band, because she leads from the front and puts on a great show," says Willie. "I love watching herself myself, and am so proud of her and her recording history.

"And any time I'm in trouble, she is the first person I talk to, because she is such a kind person and keeps the whole family together."

Rackhouse Pilfer will play Whelan's, Dublin, tonight at 7pm. They will support Imelda May next Saturday, at Knocknarea Arena, Sligo IT, as part of the Sligo Live folk, roots and Indie festival, which runs from October 23–28. The festival also features Villagers, Midlake, LAPD, Dervish, Coleman's Call Concert and more than 80 performances from 300 artists. See www.sligolive.ie. Sandy Kelly stars in Ireland's Showbands with Dickie Rock, Roly Daniels and Brendan Shine at The Helix from January 3-5, 2014.

Sunday Independent

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