“Throughout my career I’ve tried to write songs that give voice to the bush,” Lee Kernaghan tells Country Update.
It’s not as though we weren’t aware of this –Kernaghan’s position in Australian country music spans three different decades of contemporary bushlore.
But hearing Lee say it, making clear that, however organic, this was an artistic decision, makes one thing plain. Lee Kernaghan is not cynical. Writing to and for rural Australia is a responsibility, and one he has cherished.
The point is timely. With the release of his memoir, Boy From the Bush: The Songs and the Stories (the title hasn’t been in doubt since 1992), the fifty-year old is looking back over his extraordinary career in country music just as he’s about to stop giving voice to the bush, momentarily, to give voice to ghosts of the battalions.
Lee Kernaghan spoke to Country Update about the book Boy From The Bush and the album Spirit Of The ANZACS just after he and his father, Ray Kernaghan, were inducted into the Tamworth Country Music Roll of Renown. The decision to honour both father and son was a delightful surprise to both Ray and his wife, Pam, who weren’t told until it was happening.
Lee has won 33 Golden Guitars and 3 ARIA awards, been to the top of the country charts 32 times, and sold over two million albums. His place on the roll was a given, but I asked him if country music’s crowning glory meant more because his father joined him.
“Absolutely, all my life I’ve been following in my Dad’s footsteps. Starting off with playing in his band, being his Musical Director, his Sound Man, his lighting guy, and his roadie,” he chortles.
“I really learned the ropes from him. So the induction was the greatest honour of my life, but even more significant as I followed my father onto the Roll.”
The conversation turned to how Lee had approached the written memoir, Boy From The Bush, and what readers could expect.
“It traces my career from the early days of touring with Dad right through to the making of the Spirit Of The ANZACS album. How we did it is like this: it’s the lyrics of some of the key songs, the most important songs of my career, and the stories behind them. And as I tell that story behind the song I tell the story of my career. The story of my life.”
“I wrote the book with the great Colin Buchanan. And I’ve been fortunate that we’ve been ‘writing shotgun’ together almost the entire length and breadth of my career – since the Outback Club came out. He’s been there and he’s seen it, and so together we’ve woven the book. It was interesting to be able to have that extra dimension and perspective on the writing.”
I asked him if he and Colin had different memories of how it was written, or how things happened.
“No, no. I mean he was obviously more sober than what I was through most of it,” he joked, “Maybe he was a little sharper at times.”
We transitioned, and began speaking about Spirit of the ANZACS. Inspired by war letters written by ANZACS, the concept album timed to mark the 2015 100 year anniversary of the ANZACS’ Gallipoli landing. I asked Lee if he had intended to write an album and so went looking for the letters, or whether the inspiration came as a surprise.
“It took me by complete surprise. I was on tour with The Wolfe Brothers in Canberra and we got an invitation to visit the Australian War Memorial. My friend Brendan Nelson (the director of the Memorial), who I met through the Slim Dusty Foundation, offered to give me a personal tour. I kept pestering him for information and as part of that he gave me copies of documents known as ‘ANZAC day readings’.”
“They consist of letters, diary entries, and personal recollections of Australian service men and women dating from Gallipoli to Afghanistan – they’re read aloud each ANZAC day by military personnel, dignitaries, and family. And as I was reading through them I started to hear the music. I started to see the songs. And I spoke to my manager Steve White about it, saying, ‘I think we need to get together with Garth Porter, and see if we can create an album based on these letters’.”
The album flows chronologically through Australia’s military history, from Gallipoli to Afghanistan. The songs inhabit the point of view of individuals fighting on the front, and their family at home, and as a result the album proves a very subjective interpretation of war.
Lyrically, it takes the horror and senselessness of war as a truism; musically it makes you want to enlist.
For example Private Roy Denning, who served at Gallipoli, is the muse for the first two tracks, ‘For King and Country’ and ‘To the Top Of The Hill’. The latter song theatrically conveys, with booming drums, and arena-rock guitar riffs, the bloody Gallipoli landing from the eyes of a soldier on the ground.
This dramatic approach is typical for Spirit Of The ANZACS. Whether fading out the sound of a chopper before switching to the words of a soldier and the account of a nurse in a field hospital in Vietnam, like he does with ‘The Unbearable Price Of War’, or recounting, with a pulsing interplay of flute and strings, an act of self-sacrificing heroism like ‘Teddy Sheean – Forever Eighteen’, Lee has packed over half the album with songs that put you in the middle of a military situation.
When it came to the covers Lee sought the permission, and collaboration, of the original artists. Canberra songwriter Fred Smith wrote and released ‘The Dust of Uruzgan’ in 2011 and, accompanied by a tanbor twanging melody, he duets on the track with Lee. Ditto for Ted Egan’s ‘Song For Grace.’
“I explained that all the songs on the album were true stories. And I said your ‘Song For Grace’, tells the story of a young girl saying goodbye to her three brothers as they leave to serve in WWI. I asked, ‘Ted, is that a true story?’ And he said it was so I asked, ‘Who was Grace?’
Ted said, ‘Lee, Grace was my mother and her three brothers were my uncles.”
Most important to the project was receiving the blessing of the families of the soldiers whose stories feature on the album. Of special concern was the infantryman whose final letter was used to write ‘I Will Always Be With You’, Private Benjamin Chuck. Ben was a young country boy from Yungaburra, and Lee travelled to his hometown to meet his parents and see the war memorial they and the Townsville community had erected – Australia’s only such monument to the war in Afghanistan.
“It was a very moving moment to travel up there and walk the Avenue Of Honour, beside the flame trees that we mentioned in the song. It brings home the stark reality of the loss. And when I was recording the song, I was sure hoping that I was doing him justice, and somehow felt maybe, just maybe, he was hearing it too.”
The final, and title track of Spirit of the ANZACS, is a star-studded pop-rock anthem in the vein of USA For Africa’s ‘We Are The World’. Featuring vocals from Guy Sebastian, Shannon Noll, Jessica Mauboy and Megan Washington, it’s a guaranteed hit and all the proceeds go to military charities.
“It’s a hundred per cent fundraiser for Soldier On and Legacy who support wounded soldiers – those both psychologically and physically wounded – and families of service men and women who did not return.”
The penultimate song is the sombre ‘Lest We Forget’; a hymn of vocal harmonies, drums, and bagpipes that takes its title, quotes, and features a reading from two official remembrance poems, ‘In Flanders Fields’ and ‘For the Fallen’.
But the consistent tone of the album is not sadness, nor mourning, though these feelings are sometimes evoked. The music, the backing singers, and the voice of Kernaghan are swelling with militaristic patriotism; a pride for our fighting history, and the individuals who made that history.
Lee Kernaghan said as much himself. “I’ve worked for the last 18 months on my vocals just to ensure that these stories are told with an authentic Australian voice. And I hope that the album does these great men and women all the honour they deserve.