I left Melbourne in the slow- falling rain. Said my goodbyes and headed North again. That long and lonely road, the Newell Highway was a’callin out to me and I just had to heed the call.
Melbourne was my hometown, the “Florence” of the South, the so-called ‘intellectual capital of Australia’. I had been walking up and down its streets all my life, playing in its bars and pubs, driving round its suburbs, dreamin’, searchin’, and lookin’ for a way out I guess. I loved it and I hated it. Melbourne, with its big old buildings borne out of Empire and its crazy weather once quaintly nestled along the banks of the Yarra river in the traditional lands of the Wurrun(g)djeri people where the Kulin nations met and corroboree-ed.
These days it was just another modern, mega-city like many the world over. It’s new estates with their red-roofed houses and blue-grey asphalt were spreading out across the plains in all directions like some kind of unstoppable infection.
Anyway, one way out for me had always been to hit the road a’playing music.
After three hours driving North through Taunwurrung country and into Yorta Yorta lands I cross the Murray River and head into the vast lands of the Wiradjuri. Its another country, a different Australia, full of contradictions, sleeping lizard rocks, dust, plains, big distances and an even bigger skies.
I’m heading North up the dusty road to Tamworth, Australia’s country music capital. A large rural town in the heart of what is now known as New England, North New South Wales, Kamilaroy country….For untold centuries it has been a gathering place for people from the mountains, from the plains and coastal areas to come together for trading, socialising, dancing and gossip.
It was a big year for me. I had missed last year, struck down by Lymphoma. Yes it was life-threatening and I took the drugs and they saved my life and now I was keen to get back up on the stage and play music for the people .
It was just me in the old, green Peugeot but I didn’t feel alone. I always had a few old friends along for the ride,guitars , fiddles, a mandolin and a whole stack of driving music. I had recordings from Africa, Scandinavia, California, Brazil, Ireland, Louisiana, Texas, New York, Melbourne,all styles ,all eras, all languages. I had the songs of the whole world with me in my little green machine rolling down the highway. All these musics of different styles told the same stories.Stories of love, lost and found, of family, loneliness, loss of country, of joy and sorrow, of great hurt and great happiness, redemption, hope and good times. These songs were with me,ready to ring out at the flick of a switch and sing to me, alone, as I zoomed through the ancient/modern ruined landscape of this big broad land.
Every year in the heat of summer, people flock to Tamworth for Country music. It all happens,industry awards, competitions and talent quests, gigs from dawn till wee small hours, busking, poetry, drinking, romancing, gossiping listening. People take time out of their lives to lose themselves in the music and maybe to find themselves.
Its a combination of “ye olde country market” complete with prizes for the fattest pig or the best apple pie, and some kind of crazy longed-for affirmation of an Australian rural identity. Its also the yearly flag waving for the Australian Country Music Industry, that curious offshoot of the mainstream recording industry which attempts to make business selling it’s version of Australian country music-whatever that is.
I’d been coming up since about 1981. I remember the first trip out of Sydney, “the little Apple” as the beatniks used to call it. I jumped in a station wagon with a beat, junkie drummer and a stoned, hippie, ex -surf guitarist turned pedal steel player and off we flew down the dusty trail. We were all high on a mix of magic mushrooms, speed, hashish and whiskey careering up the New England highway; crazy and high like the American counter –culture hippies of the ‘60s that we’d all been totally influenced by. It was weird though because through some circuitous Australian-ised route we were listening to Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Bob Wills, all Southern U.S.A. musicians with no links to the hippy movement.
Somehow we made it in one piece and cruised into Peel St. wide-eyed, excited and looking for trouble. There was a conservative, redneck establishment in control of country music and we were there to give ‘em hell. We were the badboys from the city and we played our country rock music all weekend. We were jammed into one motel room and had a lead singer who had a thing about jumping into swimming pools fully clothed and also taking off with ‘buckle-bunnies’ mid song only to return dishevelled and more drunk after a lengthy instrumental piece or two…ah, the good old days…sex drugs and country music…. A far cry from bush ballads and songs about fishin’ and horses.
Those heady days are long gone. The crazy social experiments of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the idealism that went with them have been well and truly put back in the box and the lid has been nailed down. Now, it’s ‘Bundy-girls’ and chips and corporste country music, most of which just sounds like bad wannabe pop music.
The world is different now, but I’m still headin’ down that long and lonely road,a lot older and wiser. I’m lucky to be here still playing music better than ever. I have a new mission these days,to play strong and give people something that will make them feel;to make them reflect upon their lives, to open their eyes. It’s an emotional thing ,this music, this folk music, this country music. It’s simple music, heartfelt and powerful. It’s set in a majestic landscape of plains and rolling hills, of big old skies and ancient colours of purple and brown and soft yellows of the country evenings. Its energised by the heat of the sun and the vast blues of the endless skies. It’s tempered by the floods, the drought and the fires. Its made real by the red-brown dirt. Music and words, poetry and song, rustic, rural, bucolic, emotional, far away from the academies of the cities with their clever chords and theorising about harmony and modernity and how important they all are.
Just give me a big C and a G7,the old tonic and dominant, good enough for Mozart, Beethoven, African tribesmen, Cajuns, Stan Coster, Slim Dusty, John Lee Hooker, Skip James, John Coltrane, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizell, Wiradjuri wanderers and Charlie Batchelor with his fiddle. And, as for poetry, make me a direct line from Theocritus, Virgil, Horace, Chaucer, Keats, Frost, Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Hank Williams, Kev Carmody and Richard Frankland.Keep it simple but loaded,easy but multi-layered, popular, enjoyable and open….keep it country.
I’ve learned over many years of listening and playing that many of the greatest country musicians and singers are Indigenous Australians.I’ve heard singers in Arnhem land take Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me make it through the night” and transform it into an operatic aria of such power ,beauty and truth that I swear it would stop traffic in the busy streets of Melbourne town.
I’ve seen a charismatic magic man from the Flinders Ranges get up and silence a room with his rendition of “Almost Persuaded”, a commercially-penned Nashville ballad that often sounds plain bad. I’ve spent many hours sitting in the wide storm-water gutters of Tamworth’s streets listening to some nameless band from the Kimberleys playing more country music than you’d ever get to hear at any awards nights or Industry bash.
When Aboriginal singers sing the songs of American country music they invest the material with a power that is humbling. In rich powerful voices, as big as the land,they sing about themselves and by extension everybody else. I’ve seen and heard this time and time again and yet, Aboriginal country music has been largely ignored. It’s been under- recorded, misunderstood and just left forgotten while the big-city industry moguls, aping American trends, churn out their wannabe stars and cut their boring records in the hope of the big pay-off.
Aboriginal country music is a genre, style, phenomenon which, if in America would be held in the same respect as say Tex Mex, Cajun, Zydeco, Bluegrass, a rich folk hybrid, Australian black musicians re-interpreting a Southern white rural music style and making their own.
When the festival is over,as soon as the last chord is sounded,I load my old car up and head off into the Sunday sunset,as I’ve done time and time again. It’s always a lonely feeling.The vast emptiness of N.S.W. stretching out before me and I drive all night with my head full of melodies and memories of Country music .Down the dusty road I go