GREG QUILL (18 April 1947 – 5 May 2013)
By Ian McFarlane
A convincing case could be put forward for nominating the late GREG QUILL as the patron saint of Aussie country-rock of the 1970s. His recording presence and abiding spirit permeate the new Warner double CD compilation Silver Roads: Australian Country-Rock and Singer-Songwriters of the ‘70s. Even though he had been resident in Canada from 1975 until his untimely death in May 2013, it was his time as a touring and recording musician in Australia that we should celebrate.
Quill started his career in the late 1960s on the Sydney folk scene. He was president of The Shack, a popular folk venue in Narrabeen on Sydney’s northern beaches which had been started by Charles and Alba Thackrah and Hugh Edwards a few years earlier. It was at The Shack that he came into contact with English harmonica player Chris Blanchflower who was to help shape his subsequent musical path.
In 1970, David Elfick, then NSW editor of Go-Set magazine took Quill on as a features writer and regional editor. Around the same time music publisher and record producer Gus McNeil signed Greg to a publishing deal (with Cellar Music) and produced his debut solo single ‘Fleetwood Plain’ and album Fleetwood Plain. ‘Fleetwood Plain’ was a significant moment for the fledgling song writer because, as he explained to me, “From the moment I finished the last line, I knew that ‘Fleetwood Plain’ was special, way better than anything I had done or heard done by my peers.”
Blanchflower, Orlando Agostino (guitar), John Walsh (bass) and members of Sydney band Pirana backed Quill on the album which was issued as the first local release on EMI’s prestigious Harvest label. Although ostensibly recorded as a solo album, by the time it appeared under the banner of Greg Quill and Country Radio, the singer had launched the original line-up of the band with Blanchflower, Agostino and Walsh.
From acoustic, folksy beginnings the band evolved into an electric country-rock outfit under the influence of The Band, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons and The Byrds. Quill’s other primary influences remained important too, which he nominated as the likes of the Dillards, John Sebastian, Jim Kweskin’s Jug band, Geoff Muldaur, Chip Taylor, Steve Goodman, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Paul Simon, Tom Paxton, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Eric Andersen, Pete Seeger/The Weavers, Phil Ochs, Odetta, John Stewart, John Phillips, J.D. Souther, Gordon Lightfoot and Dave van Ronk. In addition, he put forward English folk and folk-rock names Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Lindisfarne, Rod Stewart, Gallagher & Lyle, Pentangle and Bert Jansch as being just as essential to the equation.
There were a number of different Country Radio line-ups, but a key element in the development of the band’s sound and style fell into place when guitarist / lap steel / mandolin player Kerryn Tolhurst joined in January 1972. Tolhurst came from an R&B background having started with the Adderley Smith Blues Band, and together with Quill’s folk and country influences and Blanchflower’s bluesy harp playing all the pieces fell into place. Quill and Tolhurst became a successful song writing team with their hits ‘Gypsy Queen’ and ‘Wintersong’ still sounding fresh and appealing today. The Country Radio Live album remains a gem of a record featuring a wonderful collection of songs. Country Radio was a popular attraction at a number of outdoor festivals, including Sunbury (’72 and ‘73) and Rock Isle Mulwala (1972).
Quill was one of the first local roots music practitioners who knew that to focus on the ‘song’ could be the key to longevity. I’d been in contact with him recently via email when there were plans in the wind to reissue the Country Radio back catalogue on CD. This was just before his untimely death in May (he’d been living and working in Canada since the mid-70s).
When I asked him how Country Radio had avoided the heavy blues rock sound that many Aussie bands of the day embraced, he confirmed they played what he’d learned by exploring the British and American folk / country universe. “We didn’t sound like anyone else but none of that was planned as such. The blues is a musicians’ art form, a place where you learn guitar licks, tone, timbre and groove. What interested me about the roots music I was listening to back then was the progress of the narrative song… words and melodies, not the mechanics of guitar. I think you can follow only one route or the other, not both.”
With the break-up of Country Radio in late 1973, Quill went on to record the accomplished solo album The Outlaw’s Reply. By the time it was released in late 1975, he was working in Canada. The singer had received a travel grant from the Australian Council for the Arts under the auspices of the Whitlam government. In Canada he toured and recorded with his bands Hot Knives and Southern Cross (one single ‘Been So Long’), which featured a couple of other Aussie ex-pats guitarists Chris Stockley (Dingoes) and Sam See (Fraternity). After that Quill recorded a solo album called Correspondence which never saw release; the only solo record to appear was a remixed and partially re-recorded version of ‘Been So Long’ which came out as a single on WEA in 1980.
Having put his music career on hold in 1982, Quill established himself as a high profile entertainment columnist and staff member of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper. In 1999 Kerryn Tolhurst encouraged him to get his guitar out again and revive his music career which eventually led to their 2003 album So Rudely Interrupted and an Australian tour under the name Quill-Tolhurst.
Having relit his passion for playing music, Quill went on to perform regularly on Canada’s roots music scene, both as a solo artist and with a loose collective dubbed the Usual Suspects. Regular comrades on stage included Tolhurst and The Band’s Garth Hudson. He also compiled and hosted the weekly roots music specialty program River of Song on Sirius Canada satellite radio. He returned to Australia in 2009 and again during 2011 when he was joined on stage by former Country Radio band mates Orlando Agostino and Chris Blanchflower.
In early 2013, Greg was working with a number of interested parties in Australia, planning a reissue programme of the Country Radio back catalogue. Sadly on the 5th of May he passed away suddenly from complications due to pneumonia and a recently diagnosed case of sleep apnoea. The Australian music industry has lost another inspirational musician and dedicated musicologist.