This photo and story is taken from "The Australian Magazine" dated January 16-17 1993|
Not for the first time there's talk of a golden age for Australia's country
music. But now, say the devoted, it's catching on with the pop-minded masses. On the eve of the
Tamworth festival, the industry's premiere occasion, Mike Safe listens to the evidence.
You turn left off the Hume Highway, leaving behind the
car yards, shopping centres and traffic. Past the rows of suburban domesticity and Magic Kingdom
fun park, you turn right at the Liverpool golf course. Another kilometre and you're in outlaw
country, the languid waters of the Georges River on one side, bush on the other.
The deserted road is potholed and there's not a house to be seen. Then a faded white sign with
black letters straddles the road:
Hollywood Country Music Club You drive under it and onto an even more rutted dirt track.
A couple of hundred metres on through the trees and there it is - a honky-tonk, a snakepit, a
Picture By Andrew Rankin taken at Hollywood Country Club
We are deep in the heart of Sydney's wild western
suburbs and is where cowboy myth collides with Australian reality. It's as if the place has been
lifted from somewhere else - a Louisiana bayou, a west texas two-lane blacktop - and dropped on
this forsaken backlot. It has seen better days; the paint is faded, the side fence near-collapse
and the antlered stag head above the enterance looks anything but proud.
As you climb out of the saddle - in the case of an out
- of - place Honda Civic - the music drifts hot and thick on the summer heat haze. The thump of
an electric base, the twang of a Fender guitar, the whine of a peddle steel. Then comes the vocal;
a lonesome sound, another somebody-done-me-wrong song.
The very popular Gina Jeffreys
Three bucks gets you in. The club is dark and close, its dance floor scuffed and rickerty. The
stage is small and cramped, outlined by the obligatory flashing red light bulbs and occasional
But the beer is cold, served from a battered bar that has propped up more than it's
share of bad ol' boys with their hard drinking habbits and stories to match. Today, the atmosphere
is as relaxed as the Sunday afternoon outside and while the sun slips slowly into the west, the
50 or so customers, country music diehards, slip quickly into character. From the toes of their
pointy Texas-style Dan Post boots to the tips of their oversize Resistol stetsons they live the
First, there is the Silver Wings Band, long-time
battlers in a tremendous business where success is gauged by years survived, not dollars earned.
Their only hit record, written by drummer and frontman , was A Lot Of
People Like Slim Dusty Songs. You certainly never heard it on big city radio but it went top
10 on the lesser known country chart back in 1980.
Then comes Ian B MacLeod, the
rockabilly cowboy. A former teen idol on Johnny O'Keefe's Six O'Clock Rock
television show, he doubles these days as a independent record producer and has survived against
the odds for three decades. After some quick counting, MacLeod reckons he has at least 2000
tracks of Australian country music on his files; some good, others not so good, most of them
never heard by the public at large.
Finally, the reason for being here: an album launch
for Jack Pledge - a perfect country singer name. The album, also the perfectly titled
Songs About Cowboys and Drugstores, is being released by MacLeod's label, Pinewood. It
won't receive a mention in the daily newspapers, nor on the video clip television shows and
there won't be any major label distribution or publicity. Instead Pledge, who single-handedly
wrote, performed, produced and engineered most of the record in a backyard studio, will sell it
when and wherever he plays; the halls the pubs, the working man's clubs and sports nights where
his sort of songs ring true.
If country music is becoming chic, as opposed to hick, those who gather regularly at the
Hollywood are its true believers, the keepers of the flame through a lot of long, cold winters.
While the new-sounding country is suddenly being taken up in the inner city nightclubs where
young patrons dance and bop along, it is the Hollywood and its regulars who have weathered years
of indifference. Long have they suffered the sneers of the trendies who, until now, haven't known
Garth Brooks from Garth Evans. (for the record, Brooks is a musical phenomenon, a country singer
who is at present the biggest selling recording artist in the world - forget Madonna and Michael
Jackson. In three years, he has sold 30 million records and all five albums are in the Americam
The feeling at the Hollywood, which has proudly survived for a decade and is the only venue of it's
type in Australia's biggest city, is that country, for so long the poor relation of popular music,
is entering a new, even golden, era. But there have been false dawns before, such as the urban
cowboy craze that
accompanied the much-hyped but critically savaged John Trivolta movie of the same
name in 1980. This time, say the true believers, it will be different. This time the masses will
realise the error of their ways. The next six months should tell.
Gina Jeffreys and Colin Buchanan are the new
faces of Australian country music; fresh and clean-cut, the girl-next-door meets the boy-next-door.
They will be in the vanguard if it is to succeed in the big cities. "Crossover" is the buzz word;
it means taking one form of music, in this case country, and making it rate on the mainstream,
that is pop, charts.
A highly successful example of this was last year's Way Out West, a remake of the 1974
song by long since disbanded Australian group The Dingoes. Re-recorded by James Reyne
and current local darling of country, James Blundell, it reached number two on the national
pop charts and provided a new audience for Blundell's music. Since then, he's really arrived,
even starring in a Big Mac television ad and signing a US recording deal with Capitol.
Jeffreys, 24, from Toowoomba, Queensland, won the 1991 Star Maker quest, a talent contest that is
part of the Tamworth country music awards festival, the premiere event on the Australian country
music calender. A prolific songwriter and seasoned stage performer, Jeffreys' ambition goes
beyond warbling the traditional stand-by-your-man choruses. She now has a local deal with BMG
records, a publishing deal with Warner Chappell and will go to the US next month to sign an
international contract with a BMG affiliate as well as to record and write with some of the pros
in Nashville, the home of country. She understands the need to make her material accessible to a
wider audience, as the Nashville new wave has done. Like anyone you talk to from her side of the
musical fence, she says Australian big city radio programmers have been prejudiced against country.
But that, she believes, is changing: "For a long time Australian country has been very traditional,
and there's nothing wrong with that, but there was no way people who love rock music were
going to listen to it, let alone grow to like it.
The differences were too extreme. But now it's
really crossing over; rock and blues, bits of all sorts of music coming together.
Jeffreys has spent a decade building a strong, emotive voice that crosses the boundaries. She
sang with a Toowoomba band, doing country and rock by night, and working as a hairdresser by day.
Her entry in Star Maker, as she says, was a calculated move "to get noticed". She did, and now
she's hard at work on her songwriting. Jeffreys prefers love songs, themes that have universal
appeal. "Its a lot easier to write a love ballad than, I don't know, a song about the price of
beer going up," she says.
Colin Buchanan, 28, is more traditional. Married with
two children, he has recorded two albums, Galahs In The Gidgee and Hard Times, for
ABC Country, an off-shoot of the national broadcaster and a growing force in this sort of music.
Like many of the new country performers, Buchanan grew up in a city -Sydney- and his formative
years were spent listening to the top 40. The station of the day was 2SM, number one with its
"good guys" line-up, which, ironically, has recently switched to an all country format in an
effort to stop its slide into ratings oblivion. A school teacher, Buchanan moved to Bourke,
in far western NSW, three years ago and was swept away by his new environment: "Because it was
fresh, I noticed things. It was such a change and I started writing songs about it. I had the
city stereotype of what country people were like but that soon changed."
It is the detail in Buchanan's songs - Silver Bullet, the strongest track from his new
album, tells of a drought-ravaged grazier having to shoot his dying sheep - that draws the
listener: "I've got a following out in the bush and it's ironic because I'm not a country person.
A lot of my city friends like what I do but they would never have bought a country album as such.
If they didn't know me, they probably wouldn't have heard my music unless they happened to listen
dismisses as "semantics" any
attempts to define his songs: "You start sounding like a wanker if you call it contemporary
rural influenced rock or something." He enjoys what he calls "the purity" of finding a theme,
writing about it and then performing the finished product: "The best songs are when I see
something that's interesting and write about it because it's somehow in my head and it's a
natural thing to do. There's something about a lot of country music that's not contrived. It's
not highly instrumental and the emphasis is on the lyrics and that's not necessarily crying-in-
He believes country music is relevant to the ninties when many communities, urban and rural, are
doing it tough and that this is one reason for the new interest: "Urban Australians have a strong
rural identity. I had it even though I grew up in Sydney. Songs about the bush evoke something in
us; maybe it's a bit of the larrikan or that we're still like a big country town, even in the
The country push into the cities is being championed by two AM radio stations, Sydney's 2SM and
Brisbane's 4BC. Both have gone total formats, SM labelling itself "Sydney's hottest country"
and BC "Brisbane Country". There is industry speculation that one of several ailing Melbourne
stations will follow. Of course, SM and BC have changed for economic purposes; both were languishing
and needed something radical.
In the last ratings survey, 4BC, which is part of the Albert family's Australian Radio Network,
was up to seven percentage points. This was from its low of three when the change took place last
July. 2SM was up to 3.4 points from a disastrous low of two before it switched last October. The
stations' change is part of Australian radio's shift towards niche marketing; both are now highly
computerised, run lean and mean, and a five or six percentage share of their city's market turns
them into profitable concerns.
Managers of both stations are quick to point to the US experience where country is now the
dominant format. There more than 2500 stations, a quarter of the total market, are country,
easily out-stripping the previously high-flying adult contemporary and hit-rock formats. Ten
million more Americans - 63 million - listen to country than the adult contemporary; 18 million
more listen to country than hit-rock.
Of course, the American trend will not necessarily happen here at all - country formats have been
tried before in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, but were dropped when audiences could not be
sustained. But the radio men, unlike the true believers, are betting with more than faith this
time. Their research indicates a growing audience who like the down-home theme of country -
importantly, it's an audience that will stay loyal. 2SM's general manager, Mark Spurway, says
the new style country has broadened the music's appeal dramatically:
"In the old days of country and western, if you like, it was very much truck drivers and blue
heelers in utes. But it's changed in the last 10 years to go right across the socio-economics
"It's family based; there are a lot of younger people listening because it's pretty hip now.
It's traditionally been male driven but thats also changing with a lot of new sex symbols coming
through; people like Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill, Clint Black, Randy Travis, James Blundell,
Billy Ray Cyrus, and so the girls are tending to get into it."
Spurway points to a gap in the popular market that country is filling: "A lot of popular music
has become bland. You've got dance music and rap, which kids go for but adults can't stand, but
then you've got a big void. Adults have been searching for a different style and they're starting
to feel good about country because it's contemporary enough these days. Because there's a
recession, people tend to go back to their roots. They look to the comfort zone and country music
is very much about that; it's down - to - earth."
The general manager of 4BC, John Musgrave, agrees: "The 25- to 39-year-olds, who now don't want
heavy metal, buy the Elton John, or Billy Joel. But country is now filling that
niche too; there's not much difference between Garth Brooks or Elton John,
particularly for women who like the ballads."
One local artist is Graeme Connors, an impressive but largely unheralded singer-songwriter.
Also on ABC Country, his albums of contemporary themes have received little airplay beyond the
national broadcaster that released them, but the big city country stations are now showing
interest. Connors, who lives in MacKay, the North Queensland sugar city, is unsure if his
music is really country but he's "eternally grateful" for the exposure after a lot of years
touring and playing. His first ABC album, North featuring songs about the
peculiarities of his part of the world, has finally won a gold record - 35,000 copies
sold - more that four years after it's release.
Connors, 36, who has also worked in the business side of recording, says country fans wear their
music like a badge of honour: "There's a direct mail order industry in Australia that has been
going for some time and it's very successful. People want to buy country where as pop buyers sit
back, let it wash over them and take bits of it. Country has loyalty."
Of course, the mainstay of Australian country music remains Slim Dusty - real name David Gordon
Kirkpatrick - whose 80 albums over 40 years have sold an untouchable four million copies. Since
1961 he has been with EMI records, where he is now partnered by contemporary country artists
such as Blundell, Keith Urban and the highly successful John Willianson.
EMI's product manager Bill Robertson, 62, with the company 46 years, says Australian country has
a proud history on the label and that as well as the new interest from commercial stations, there
is solid backing from scores of community stations, rural and urban: "The interest has always
been there; the thing is the city stations haven't played it until now."
Blundell's latest album, This Road, has sold 100,000 copies - and is still selling. This
earns it top-ranking platinum status - 70,000 copies sold - and it was one of the major successes
in Australian recording last year. An average top - 10 rock album, which might get all the
publicity, can sell as little as 10,000 copies. The indignation of country fans when their music
does not make it onto the mainstream charts unless considered "crossover" is understandable.
Cowboy Bob Purtell, a survivor of
25 hard years in country music, says the wheel has turned full circle.
| Achy Breaky Heart
, when released, a run away number one "crossover"
for the country hunk Billy Ray Cyrus
, is no more than fifties rock 'n' roll given ninties
production. And, of course, rock is a combination of country and blues. Indeed, country is often
called the white man's blues. "You could imagine someone like Elvis
or Buddy Holly
singing that song," says Cowboy Bob. "I always tipped it would turn full circle and i've been
ith every day of his 55 years etched in his face,
describes country as "the working mans
As he suggests with a grin: "You don't see many penguin suits at a country show.
With his Buffalo Bill
looks and rich Baritone, Cowboy Bob came into the business
late. Originally from West Wyalong, way out in the NSW mallee, Purtell did itinerant work and
cane cutting before coming to the city. He did not sing professionally until he was 30 and that
was only after he was urged to have a go at a talent quest. Since then he has scuffed around the
Sydney scene, cut a couple of albums and won a Golden Guitar award at Tamworth festival in 1974.
It's been an eventful if not overly financially rewarding life and you get the impression he
wouldn't have had it any other way: "I hope the music does well this time round,"
"The potential is there and it could give all of us, including some like me who have been
around awhile, a boost."
nother long-time country survivor is
, 62, the truckin' cowboy. Indeed,
Nicholls, a genial character who is sliding happly into semi-retirement in the Sydney suburbs,
has more than survived. He is something of a legend in country-come-trucking music where he has
recorded 26 albums and sold, at his estimate, more than 1.5 million records. The fact that his
music is never heard on mainstream radio does not faze him: Radio stations have traditionally
had young blokes as program managers and they looked at country music and stuck it to one side,
saying 'we'll play this before anyone bothers to get out of bed'. Then they'd put on whatever
was the trendy pop stuff of the time and drive half the audience crazy."
Nicholls grew up on a farm on the NSW western plains where he listened to Americans like
and Australian pioneers Buddy Williams
and Tex Morton
family gramophone: Buddy Williams was king as far as my dad was concerned; he didn't like
Tex Morton because he sounded too American." As a teenager, Nicholls learned to play guitar and,
like any would-be country star of the day, to yodel: "I used to ride a horse around paddocks
and practice. I don't know how anyone would learn to yodel these days. If you live in the city,
you can't go out in the backyard and let fly, can you?"
fter signing his first contract with EMI in 1954, he
worked the pubs and clubs before joining the travelling country music shows, then the main means
of spreading the music. He toured with Reg Lindsay
and the amazing
picket-toothed Sheik of Scrubby Creek, Chad Morgan:
"No one had ever seen anyone like Chad. He was something out of your wildest dreams. I
remember once in western Queensland we had two night in Mt Isa and a bunch of ringers came in
300 miles to see the show. The next night they came back again; they'd driven home, worked and
come back for another look at Chad.
At one stage, we
toured continually for two years; we never came home. We'd book ahead, do the show then drive a
couple of hundred miles in the middle of the night to the next stop. It was hard work but it was
an adventure; hire the hall for the night, set up the equipment. We'd do comedy sketches as well
- Laurel and Hardy - type stuff."
In 1968, Nicholls, who by this stage had his own band and was playing up - tempo
and Merle Haggard -style American country, signed to play for the US troops on R & R -
rest and recuperation - from the Vietnam war. The venue was the Texas Tavern in Sydney's
Kings Cross and the engagement was for three months - it lasted 10 years: "It was like a
10 year holiday. God, it was good, like going to a party every night.
The Cross wasn't bad like it is now; it was easy - going and
fun to be there. We played upstairs and the crowd used to jump up and down so much the people in
the jszz bar below thought though the roof would collapse." The band played from 10pm to 4am
seven days a week and Nicholls, who was still holding down a day job with an insurance company,
would drag himself off to the office as the sun came up. As he now admits, it was hardly the
schedule that led to a settled home life: "The hours got to a lot of the guys who went through
the band - and their wives. They were cranky about them being out all night."
In the best
country music tradition, he ended up divorced: "All the money went down the drain."
n the early seventies, he started recording his truck
songs, often with the financial backing of the big automotive companies. It worked, he says,
because he fitted the image: "I was big enough and ugly enough."
His first album, Keep
, sold 120,000 copies without any radio, television or print exposure. Since then,
as well as re-marrying and settling into surburban bliss, he has released 25 more trucking albums
and is thinking of releasing a compilation of his best songs.
Like many country stalwarts, Nicholls
notes the irony
that is accompanying the music's new popularity. The workers' and community clubs that have
traditionally supported it are facing the squeeze as the recession hits their patronage - and
that means entertainers having bookings cut: "I don't think its realised how many people are
out of work; there's enormous numbers. This figure of a million doesn't mean a thing. There are
hundreds of thousands who don't bother to register because they're not entitled to the dole."
Geoff Quinton, 42, whose group, the Silver Wings
Band, has been knocking around the clubs for nealy 20 years, agrees: "People aren't going
out as much; it's to do with the economic climate. A lot of clubs are feeling the pinch and
they're cutting down. Bands and shows are being replaced by solo artists or duos using dreaded
drum machines. The atmosphere is not there; it's not the same as a live band." But Quinton says
country still provided the the songs that ordinary people want: "It's about reality. Those things
do happen; your best friend does run off with your wife, the dog does get run over. Those who
don't like country and want to put it down push the negatives. But there have been some
absolutely beautiful country love songs - Always On My Mind, recorded by Elvis and
Willie Nelson for starters, Sunday Morning Coming Down by Kris Kristofferson.
"Country is limitless. If it feels country to me then
it is country and I accept it as such. I don't think you should categorise it any more than that.
I class them all as country rather than say it is or isn't; bluegrass, traditioanl bush ballads,
hillbilly, country rock, folk rock. There's bands that do country punk, there's a thrash-grass
Ian B McLeod has done it tougher than most. From
Ipswich, England, he came to Australia in 1959 to sing Carl Perkins and Gene Pitney- style
He was given a spot on Johnny O'Keefe's Six O'Clock Rock where, under the stage
name of Adam, he became quite a sensation. After that, he reverted to his real name to work the
Sydney club circuit doing rockabilly in cowboy hat, boots and buckskins - "the whole bit", as he
puts it. In 1975, he formed his own record label, Bunyip, and has since started two others labels,
Rockabilly and Pinewood.
"I've managed to survive and that means out- lasting distributors that have gone to the wall and
been totally obliterated," says MacLeod, who seems caught in culture warp - he
dresses like a cowboy in boots and jeans but speaks with a subtle English accent. "I've staggered
through the wreckage and kept going. It's very hard but I'm still in the business. I'm up to my
neck in it; I'm a songwriter, guitarist, a singer, a recording artist, a record producer "A lot
of people have gravitated towards me over the years because the major labels have shown little
interest in country music; someone has told them to come and see me, and nine times out of 10
I've managed to help. It's a case of juggling the money, paying the bills as I go but I've hung
MacLeod often does co-operative deals with his artists, helping them to record after which they
buy their first batch of albums to sell at their shows. He has managed a few mainstream successes
over the years; one was a novelty number by a forgotten group called Kelly's Heroes. The
title - I Might Be Nearly 40 But I still Like A Naughty - says it all.
He believes country needs sophisticated marketing and promotion - and that costs: "When you've
got the money and the clout, you can move mountains in this business. The American artists are
now being distributed through the major companies so they've never had it so good. The guy who
had the hit with Achy Breaky Heart... well, if that had been put out by a small label
here it would have done nothing. But it had the big distribution, the film clip; he couldn't
MacLeod says country's image needs a make-over to match its new sound: "It's always had a hick
image and that's very hard to break down. When you're playing a show and people react like that,
there's nothing you can do - you're just the hired help It's sad and a lot of country bands go
through it; people who don't know any better looking down their nose at them.
Some go off into rock because they get sick of the ignorant types who keep saying 'you're a
country singer, you must have cow shit on your boots'."