Ian McFarlane talks to the album compilers Clinton Walker & Dave Laing.
Firstly, well done with the compilation, it’s an excellent release! So what to your mind defines Australian country-rock?
Clinton Walker: “This album! But not really. I mean, we had to leave so much good stuff off it, even within our timeframe, not to mention going on in time into could I call it ‘80s pre-alt-country, you know, that’s a whole other story, but I think we could do another strong 2-CD set and then you might start to approach the full breadth of what happened here in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. But, to try and define its character? Obviously it shares a lot with American country-rock, or what I might call all the roots of today’s Americana, and that’s a pretty broad brief. It’s acoustic-y and songwriterly. There are distinct Australian differences though I think. To start with, just the way Australian bands play, obviously this sounds not as slick as a lot of the American stuff, and I like that about it, but it also has just this sort of greater looseness that Australian bands seemed to play with, but still with a hard sting, you know. I call it like an Australian accent. That’s the best analogy I think. And that’s not just in the singing voices, which is one obvious thing – least of all the lyrics themselves, the words, the stories the songs tell – but it’s just in the tone, the angle of attack the musicians bring to it.
“I’ve always had this theory that Australian country music, like Slim and Buddy and all that, never really got past Jimmy Rodgers. Which is why as Greg Quill is quoted in the notes, they weren’t into it. I mean, all country music comes from Jimmy Rodgers, fine, but the thing is, when Hank Williams reinvented country music in that pre-rockabilly honky tonk way, that sort of put some more modern sexiness in the beat at the bottom of it, but that was a leap I don’t think Australian country music, in the bush ballad style, made. And so when this generation of rock’n’roll people started moving in this direction, it was a lot of catching up they were doing. And as far as Australian country music went, it was radical, but it was also quite inevitable – overdue! – and that’s why to an extent it fed back into Australian country music.”
David Laing: “Don’t know if it really is defined, like with most genre names, it’s something that someone has come up with to describe what they see as a coherent style, but these things are rarely so clear. In the context for the compilation, for me, ‘country-rock’ really comes down to rock that is strongly country influenced (which is most of it), or country that has a rock influence (Johnny Chester, Lee Conway etc). It’s the different places where country and rock were introduced (country having of course been a big part of early rock’n’roll and rockabilly) in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. As for the Australian part of it, that’s literally just where it comes from. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically Australian about most of it, although it’s nice to hear the occasional local lyrical references, and Greg Quill provides a good case for something intrinsically local in Clinton’s liner notes.”
How did it come about that you combined country-rock and singer-songwriters?
CW: “Because I think it was all part of a bigger thing that was very much about the song, and songwriting. Country and folk are songwriters’ mediums, and there was just this total explosion of Australian songwriting in this folk/country/rock/pop vein. It was the other side of the coin to the blues-rock thing that the first Boogie! compilation was about, it was happening at the same time and it was just as important but I’d always thought hadn’t quite got the credit it deserved. You know, I worked on the ABC’s famous or infamous Long Way to the Top series and I still think we did a pretty good job in telling that particular side of the story, which was Thorpie at Sunbury screaming ‘C.C. Rider’, you know. But even then I could see that if you wanted to try and tell a balanced story of Australian pop music, you need to cover this side of it, it’s just one of the many things you’d do.”
DL: “That quote from Greg kind of answers that in a way – he says the Australian country-rock scene, or the part of it that he was central too, was not really influenced by country music at all, but by folk, and singer-songwriters. There is obviously a strong song writing tradition in country music, country originally has its roots in British folk music anyway, and folk is a strong influence on the kind of singer-songwriters we look at with the compilation. It’s all interconnected. There are extremes represented on the compilation – perhaps the likes of Saltbush on the country-side, and Doug Ashdown on the songwriting side, but a lot of the other music we’ve included fills those stylistic gaps.”
Forty-six tracks over two CDs makes for an action-packed collection. So what was the process of track selection? Did you start with a basic wish-list and build from there?
CW: “As I’m sure you well know, yeah of course we all have our wishlists, you start there, it’s like mixtapes or ipod playlists. But when you want to actually legitimately release these tracks, there are many other considerations that come into play. Getting rights, getting masters. So the tracklisting evolves. You always just want a balance. I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that the best final tracklist is the one that’s closest to a wishlist, because that precludes the possibility of changes that are very often for the good. You think about different things. You have to make certain decisions and those have a domino effect on other aspects. It’s great fun to listen to a lot of music and weigh up what you might be able to do. You know, I’m a DJ too, a bit, I understand playing to the crowd, and I’m a writer who’s addicted to elegant story arcs, so you’re always trying for the best structure.
DL: “Clinton came up with a tracklisting that originally spanned other decades. Because I’d just done Boogie! and had kind of immersed myself in that era, it made more sense to me to just focus on that era, which was at the core of Clinton’s list really anyway. Clinton added more tracks, and I did my own research and added a bunch of other stuff. Stuff that I had previously been aware of and stuff that I just stumbled across. Glenn A Baker also had strong opinions about it – turns out he’d tried to get something similar off the ground 10-15 years ago, and we used some of his suggestions – and a guy who I came across on-line, Mick Robbins from Geelong, who is a massive fan of the stuff and of Australian music in general, provided other suggestions, and, importantly, quite a bit of music that neither Clinton nor I had heard.”
As is often the way, there can be licensing difficulties. Were there any key tracks left off because you were unable to secure licensing clearance?
CW: Yeah, a few. ‘Kings of the World’, for one. What a killer cut. Digger Revell’s ‘Mary Jane’, not a lot of people know that one but it’s one of my faves. So, there’s lots of stuff we could work even harder on for Volume 2!”
DL: “Mississippi ‘Kings of the World’, which was on Clinton’s original list. Both likely candidates denied that it was theirs – I found out just yesterday that Graeham Gobles himself owns it, but too late. Also a fantastic track that Keith Glass turned us on to, ‘Smack, Smoke & Whiskey’ by mid-70s Melbourne band Hit & Run, fronted by Danny Robinson of the Wild Cherries. Danny wouldn’t get back to me about it so we had to let it go. It’s a pretty outrageous song as the title suggest – he might want to disown it. Hopefully I can change his mind in time for Volume 2.”
Clinton, your liner notes are very subjective with mention of your personal experiences. People can read the liner notes themselves to get the drift, but what is it about this music that still resonates with you?
CW: “I guess it evokes that time and place out of which it arose. Bottom line there’s just some great songs here and some great tracks, and that means it should travel. But even as much as I was sort of personally there, I wasn’t really there for much at all, but it strikes me in a way that just makes sense, you know it’s natural. I’m absolutely not going to say authentic, I hate that word, all is hybrid isn’t it, but the thing is it doesn’t seemed forced, it flows, I guess that’s just that groove I was talking about. I think even if you want to take the pure nostalgia tack, it doesn’t seem at all naff, it sounds fresh, and urgent. But it’s definitely something of an Australia that’s gone.
“It’s just that feel and tone and attitude I’m talking about I guess. But then I have to admit, I loved hearing Johnny Chester sing about Brisbane’s Storey Bridge when I first heard it when it came out in the early ‘70s, and I still love hearing him sing it. What a killer.”
David, how did you come to embrace the Aussie country-rock and singer-songwriter sound? I know you’ve always been a fan of Americana for example, but what is it about the Aussie sound that you can relate to?
DL: “Yeah, the older I get and the more I hear, the more I realise everything’s interconnected, and the qualities I like in music can be found in most styles of it. I dug some country before I really knew it was country – Elvis and Jerry Lee on Sun, in my teens. And The Byrds obviously had a country thing – I loved them because I loved ‘60s stuff. Then Hank Williams, who was incredibly rock’n’roll anyway, then Gram Parsons etc… Liking the Australian stuff came later – I’ve never had a particular bias to Australian music so it took a while. I remembered ‘Gypsy Queen’ from when I was a little kid, and ‘Arkansas Grass’. I’ve loved the Autodrifters and that Melbourne inner city pub thing of the ‘70s since I discovered 3RRR in ’79, so it was important that that was represented I thought. I have to admit it was Clinton’s initial list, and hearing things like Johnny Chester’s amazing single ‘Glory Glory’ for the first time, that really got me excited and made me realise there was a load of real quality stuff.”
There are a significant number of obvious singles included (‘Gypsy Queen’, ‘Boy on the Run’, ‘Winter in America’, ‘Girls in our Town’, ‘It’s a Long Way There’ etc) which is great but for me the depth of the project is reflected in tracks such as the Dingoes ‘Starting Today’, Stars ‘Land of Fortune’, Axiom ‘Ford’s Bridge’, Ray Brown/Moonstone ‘Call Me a Drifter’, Tymepiece ‘Sweet Release’, Russell Morris ‘Lay in the Graveyard’ – I mean these are deep album cuts. How important was it to include such tracks?
CW: “Again, it’s aiming for that balance. I think the listener wants to hear a few classics, and so do I, but you also want some surprises, and some curiosities, just a bit of everything. I mean, really, aren’t records like this just meant to be like stepping stones, or gateways? If you like this, go out and get the whole album, you know. I was one of those people who got Nuggets when it first came out in the early ‘70s too, and it kind of changed my life – I mean, here I am doing variations on that same idea to this day! But I love it. I love finding new things. Maybe even more than that I like finding old things I used to think one way about and changing the way I think about it.”
DL: “For me it’s about quality of the track and it or the artist’s place in the overall picture, rather than how big a hit something was. Obviously there are commercial considerations but there was always going to be a few iconic tracks on there. I think it’s also important on these projects, especially when it’s a double set with 40+ tracks, that the key artists are represented by more than one track. So that’s Dingoes, Greg Quill, Axiom, Flying Circus, and Russell Morris. Also Johnny Chester, but that was partly because I wanted to include his great version of ‘Midnight Bus’, which as a song is very important to the overall story I think because of Betty McQuade’s early ‘60s version, and then I didn’t want to just have him represented by a cover, especially because ‘Glory Glory’ is so great. (Glenn A. said I was obviously from Melbourne if I was including two Johnny Chester tracks, but Johnny represents the country end of the spectrum very well I think). Next time, and there hopefully will be a next time, I’d be hoping we could give Richard Clapton and Stars a couple of tracks each too, and perhaps some others.”
The inclusion of tracks such as Chain’s ‘Show Me Home’ and Fraternity’s ‘Sommerville’ is significant because they bear the heavy influence of The Band. A number of Aussie musicians – Greg Quill, Phil Manning, Mal Logan, Warren Morgan, Brian Cadd, Lobby Loyde – have all told me over the years that The Band was probably the single most influential group back in the day. So who would you nominate as Australia’s own version of The Band?
CW: “Well, umm, the Bad Seeds? I would honestly say in terms of the sort of textures and dynamics like The Band had, the Bad Seeds really are a phenomenal outfit and I think get closer to it than anyone. Some might say Cold Chisel. But funny both of those have a sort of singer problem, Jimmy just screams and Nick warbles and neither do that soulful or country-soul vocalsese the way The Band did so incredibly well. I should say though I don’t think anybody ever cloned The Band quite as well as Elton John did on those few albums of his from the early ‘70s. And then there was Leon Russell, but that’s another thing like Leon’s own thing.”
DL: “I don’t think you can really. Axiom, Country Radio and others were also clearly in The Band’s debt, but other influences were clearly in play at all times as well.”
The late Greg Quill seems to be the patron saint of this project; it was so sad that he passed away before it came out. He was such an underappreciated talent in Australia; do you think this compilation might go some way to redressing that situation?
CW: “Oh yeah, look absolutely, if it has no other impact than to shine a bit of a spotlight back on Greg, I’d just be so proud to be associated with that happening. Did he even get an obit in any Australian paper? (Ed note: your writer of this article contributed an obituary to Rhythms magazine.) I mean I know he’d lived in Canada for the last 40 years, but speaking of Saint Nick, he’s been living in Europe for the last 30 years. It was my incredible pleasure and privilege to get to know Greg a bit through the course of putting this album together and in a way I felt doubly devastated when he died because I’d only just got to know him and it felt great like I’d just made this new friend and we were going to do some more work together – and Warners is still planning the GQ anthology – but then he was just snatched away.”
DL: “I really hope so. It is bizarre to me that ‘Gypsy Queen’ is not a hugely iconic song, appearing in movies and on ads like ‘Friday on My Mind’, ‘Eagle Rock’ or ‘Because I Love You’. Maybe the country influence, or the fact that it could be construed as sounding American, has meant it hasn’t been adopted as an Australian anthem. There’ll be a single CD ‘Best Of’ Greg’s ‘70s stuff too, which he and I had been discussing a lot before his very sudden and shocking death. That was meant to be out alongside this collection – hopefully we can still pull it together soon. I’m keen to add to it as a final track a great live version of the old bush song ‘Ryebuck Shearer’ that Greg sent me – it’s him, Kerry Tolhurst and Garth Hudson from The Band on accordion. Having two Australians joined by one of their main musical influences on an old Australia folk song brings the music full circle and including it would be a testament to the worth of Greg’s music I think. Hopefully Garth will agree!
“But really, it’s not just Greg who deserves more recognition – so many of the other artists on here deserve more. Anne Kirkpatrick is one – it blew my mind when I realised she was covering Gram Parsons, Gene Clark and Neil Young on record back in ’74. She was Australia’s Emmylou Harris or Linda Ronstadt, or, in local terms, she was Kasey Chambers 25 years earlier. And she was Slim Dusty’s daughter – I think that has always made people think of her as something she wasn’t. She’s made some great records over the years. Check out her stunning version of Paul Kelly’s ‘Cradle of Love’ from the ‘90s – it’s perfect.”
Another underappreciated name is that of the Flying Circus. It was great to see two tracks from that band included. They recorded two excellent country-rock albums in Canada that got issued here on Warner Bros – David, do you think we will ever see them reissued on CD?
DL: “Warner doesn’t actually own those two albums from what I’ve been told. They were just leased, like a lot of the stuff back then. Hopefully one of the reissue labels will do it!! And the two EMI albums too.”
Among the obvious country-rock names, you also have an important group such as Daddy Cool who most people would never have pegged for such a compilation. Yet they could do it all – vintage rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop, blues-rock, progressive rock, country-rock – so then hypothetically if you had to make a choice between including another Daddy Cool track or another Country Radio track, who do you leave off and why?
CW: “Of course I recently read John Bois’s memoir Dingoes Lament and there was a conversation in it where they were sitting around talking and saying, Daddy Cool were such a great band, but they didn’t make it America, what chance have we got? And it made me laugh, like a lot of that great book, because I thought, yeah right! DC was a phenomenal band, and actually I always perceived them as much a sort of rockabilly type band as anything. But it’s hard to answer those hypotheticals. Dave wouldn’t believe me when I insisted ‘Come Back Again’ was a pure country song. I even tried to get it in the side door via Anne Kirkpatrick’s excellent version. But I will listen to anything by DC any time. Country Radio, well there’s so many other great songs, like ‘Listen to the Children’, ‘Terry’s Tune’, even the John Stewart covers (‘Some Lonesome Picker’ and ‘Never Goin’ Back [To Nashville]’) are, well, better than his versions I reckon.”
DL: “We didn’t have to make that choice. There’s not a second Country Radio track on there because Greg offered up a great version of ‘Wintersong’ that he recorded with his first Canadian group, Hot Knives (with Sam See) in ’77. It’s never been released and I think a lot of people will be excited to hear it!
“And yep, DC was not an obvious choice, but ‘As Long as We’re Together’ has a strong country feel. As does ‘Come Back Again’ which I think was originally on Clinton’s list. And the Gary Young’s Hot Dog track is a cracker. Cold Chisel is another band that most people are surprised to see on there, but I figure they were a band not unlike The Dingoes in their range of influences, and the song clearly works in the context. Obviously Don Walker went on to write a lot of songs for Slim Dusty too. I was rapt that Clinton had ‘Khe Sanh’ on his original list because it’s always been one of my all time favourite songs, much to the surprise of most people I know. It’s a perfect record.”
The inclusion of the Fotheringay track ‘The Ballad of Ned Kelly’ may at first seem like an odd choice, but it does make perfect sense (Trevor Lucas singing about an Aussie folk hero). How did you even come to pick that track in the first place?
CW: “Yeah I had no compunction in nominating that as a piece of Australian music, I’ve long loved that Fotheringay album, and with Lucas being there and on a bushranger ballad, sounds fantastic, how could we not want it?”
DL: “Clinton’s pick but obviously perfect given Trevor Lucas was an Aussie. I think it sits brilliantly in between Carrl & Janie Myriad and Quinn, both of which, to my ears, sound like they’ve been exposed to Fairport Convention, which Fotheringay obviously came out of.”
In hindsight – aside from licensing issues – are there any tracks that you now consider should have been included?
CW: “Another one I always argued with Dave over – no, not really, we had a lot of fun banter – but I reckon Alison MacCallum singing ‘I Ain’t Got the Time’ with Freshwater, that’s just a swamp rock classic.”
DL: “Jeez, we only just finalised the tracklisting last week! There were a couple of Clinton’s suggestions that we couldn’t find until very late in the piece – Ray Rivamonte being the main one. And a couple of Glenn A. Baker’s suggestions – Paul Pulati and Stephen Foster – will hopefully be on Volume 2. Also Albatross, which Glenn suggested and which Clinton had mentioned on an early list too. And I‘d like to see the Pelaco Brothers, Mangrove Boogie Kings, and ‘Coming Back For More’ by Mark Gillespie, which was one of my initial contributions, but I somehow forgot about it. Melbourne singer-songwriter Paul Wookey’s great song ‘Roll Along’. Greg Champion’s ‘70s band Tidewater nearly made the cut this time… Mike McClennan perhaps should be on there and hopefully will be next time, likewise G. Wayne Thomas and Glenn Cardier (someone else GAB really championed) and the most obvious thing missing is probably Kevin Johnson’s ‘Rock’n’Roll I Gave You the Best Years of My Life’. I think the balance is just right as it is though – I didn’t want to tip it further into singer-songwriter territory. So, plenty of great stuff for Volume 2!”
Lastly, what is your favourite track, and why?
CW: “Probably the Dingoes’ ‘Boy on the Run’, just the way it sort of surges.”
DL: “Too hard to answer. ‘Gypsy Queen’ probably, but like I said ‘Glory Glory’ by Johnny Chester was a huge revelation. That’s an incredible song, and a perfect record. I also like ‘Silvertown Girl’ by The Flying Circus because it nails a great Byrds feel, and Lee Conway’s ‘I Just Didn’t Hear’ because of the spooky production and because it’s just a great country ballad. ‘The Birth of The Ute’ is an absolute anthem – I wish it was a better recording but we had to include it – and I love Axiom’s ‘Ford’s Bridge’ and Cadd & Mudie’s ‘Show Me the Way’ because I’m only just beginning to realise what a great writer and arranger Brian Cadd was back in the day. The quality and originality of the Russell Morris stuff is similarly great. And of course, I never tire of ‘Khe Sanh’!”