Country In The Convict Capital

I just came here to let you know I saw the Snowies all covered in snow,’ sings John Williamson on ‘Please Don’t Forget Me’ – the 6th track of the iconic songsmith’s typically magnificent new album Butcherbird.

The NSW Snowy Mountains are familiar territory for Williamson, serving as the setting of songs including Snowy River anthem ‘A Mighty Big River’ and the rustic ‘Around Jindabyne’, both of which featured on 2002 album Gunyah. Looking further back, of course, the immortal Man from Snowy River has long been one of Banjo Patterson’s – and Australia’s – best-known and best-loved literary creations.

The timing of Williamson’s evocative reference to the region in which I grew up feels, at this time of year, particularly prescient. When winter nights are unusually cold at Sydney – at least, as cold as Sydney can properly be said to get, in the scheme of things – it often occurs to me that it must be snowing back home. True to their name, the Snowies are properly, perishingly, pleuritically cold in winter, whereas the cold of Sydney in July is simply – Sydney cold. Which is uncomfortable enough, since this is a city unprepared for winter: its houses barely insulated, and such chimneys as remain all long since barred and bricked up. A Sydney winter is, nonetheless, nothing like the winters of my earliest recollection, passed under steel roofs in Jindabyne and, later, Berridale. I must have been born with a beard, since I don’t recall ever having a cold chin. In those days, my baby-soft whiskers were presumably besmeared with puréed pumpkin or applesauce rather than today’s more familiar chunks of chicken wing.

That I still think of Berridale – mantled with the smoke of 400 potbelly stoves, sheltered by the lowslung hills of a bare speargrass plain halfway between Cooma and Jindabyne – as home is surprising even to me. In a few years’ time, I will have been a resident of Sydney for as long as I ever lived in the Snowies. Yet, much like John Williamson, I still feel the irresistible pull of the region’s austere beauty, peculiar geology, ecology and weather. At times like this, it sometimes strikes me as somewhat inexplicable that there aren’t more songs about the Snowy Mountains in circulation. It’s an incomparable landscape, dotted with alpine huts whose timbers and hearths play host to the ghosts of frost-hardy graziers; granite ridgelines fringed with the tortured forms of snowgums, and littered with west-wind-winnowed boulders coated in green-and-golding lichen doilies. The Mountains are also home to the internationally celebrated engineering wonder that is the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme – arguably the birthplace of the multicultural face of contemporary Australia.

Hearing John Williamson evoke the snowcapped peaks of home earlier this month prompted me to dust off an old LP I’ve neglected for far too long: The Settlers Sing Songs of the Snowy Mountains (1966). A veritable chronicle of the people who flooded the Mountains between 1959 and 1974 to construct the Snowy Scheme’s 16 dams, 225 kilometres of tunnel and 7 power stations, at an official cost of 121 lives and untold damage to the alpine ecosystem, it’s a recording of profound significance, both personally and nationally. To the accompaniment of timeless acoustic country-folk strumming, picking and thumbed notes, The Settlers – severally Ulick O’Boyle, Anne Rutherford, and Peter Barry – chronicle a watershed moment in Australian history, recalling Pete Seeger’s seminal American Industrial Ballads (1957). ‘The Ballad of Big Pedro’ evokes the timeless Legend of John Henry’s Hammer, while classic country touchstones are many: from drinking song ‘The Cooma Cavaliers’ to workingman’s anthem ‘The Dozer Driver Man’. For those interested, I highly recommend checking it out.

Also highly recommended are the many fine shows slated for Sydney in the coming months.

Dan Parsons launches his exceptional new album Sunday Morning Cinema at Newtown’s Leadbelly on 26 August, before Brad Cox launches his debut LP at the venue on 31 August. Also at Leadbelly are Imogen Clark, with her Late Night Girl Tour show on 8 September, Ben Ransom on 23 September with special guest Sharon O’Neill (launching their new single ‘Young Years’) and support from Aly Cook and Jonny Taylor, and Mike McClellan on 8 November.

The Bunker at Coogee Diggers continues to host its excellent fortnightly Songwriters Sessions, established by the late great Karl Broadie – keep an eye on the venue’s website for details of upcoming dates.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band is at the Enmore Theatre on 4 October, before the venue hosts the John Denver Celebration Concert on 14 December.

Out west, Rooty Hill RSL hosts Travis Collins’ Brave and the Broken official album launch party on 17 August, before Catherine Britt and the Cold, Cold Hearts call into the venue on 31 August. Also at Rooty Hill is Desperado – The Eagles Show on 29 September, and Adam Harvey’s The Nashville Tapes tour on 12 October with special guest Judah Kelly.

Michelle Little is at Camelot Lounge in Marrickville on 6 September, celebrating the incomparable Patsy Cline’s birthday with her Michelle Little Sings the Songs of Patsy Cline show, before The Audreys take to the venue on 12 October, and the Songs and Tales of Angry Old Men on 24 November, featuring tunes by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty and more. Anne McCue is at sister venue Django Bar on 27 October, as is the Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood Experience on 9 November.

In an action-packed few months up north, Catherine Britt and the Cold, Cold Hearts pay Lizotte’s a visit on 1 September, as do the hard-rocking Wolfe Brothers on 9 September, the incomparable Bennett, Bowtell and Urquart on 15 September, Gord Bamford (CAN) on 29 September, Graeme Connors on 7 October, The Audreys on 11 October, Stiff Gins on 13 October, Russell Morris on 18 October, STARS on 4 November, Mike McClellan on 11 November, Adam Harvey on 17 November, and Beccy Cole on 6 December.

Cronulla’s Brass Monkey hosts very special alt. country showcase and album launch event Take Me To Town on 14 October, featuring Nick Barker and the Heartache State, Dan Brodie, Jen Mize, Peta Caswell, and Dave Favours and the Roadside Ashes, while the always excellent Spin Drifters are at Marrickville’s LazyBones Lounge on 18 October.

As always, be sure to check out the Golden Barley, Bearded Tit, the Malt Room at Staves Brewery, Gasoline Pony in Marrickville, Shady Pines Saloon, and Waterloo’s George Hotel on Facebook and online for upcoming gigs to take us into springtime. Until then, stay warm – wherever you are.

As ever, if you have a gig to plug or an axe to grind, please feel free to get in touch with the writer at gdhipwell@gmail.com.