Deep Down South

With Michael Waugh.

I’m going to tell you a story about music in Victoria – but I’m not going to pretend that it’s anything more than a personal perspective. I think that the best stories are.

My March began with launching my CD The Ashfalt & The Oval at The Spotted Mallard – a beautiful venue where the stage is in the centre of the room and the audience surrounds the performer. It is a listening room where, despite the clinking of glasses at the bar, every ear is tuned in to words of songs and stories. This is the reason why it is becoming one of the favourite venues for those of us on the folky-edge of country – those singers of story songs that keep us leaning in to listen a little closer. As I write, Jen Mize and Mark Sholtez are preparing to launch their Twilight on the Trail CD at the Mallard.

The Mallard, a beautiful old-fashioned ballroom along Sydney Rd, Brunswick, is just down the road from The Retreat Hotel. The Retreat is the official palace of hipster-cool Country, where the ghost of Townes Van Zandt is pasted onto the walls, as ingrained as the palimpsest of posters in the hallway and the spirit of a million spilled beers scenting the carpets. It’s the venue where you are spoiled for choice with an act in the front bar and a band out the back – and enough passive smoking and man-buns in the beer garden to satisfy the most ardent of inner-city Country fans.

And what makes both of these venues so special is that they have been both so well curated. Until recently, Lachlan Bryan was booking the Retreat, and Peter Lomond curates some events at The Spotted Mallard. Melbourne has this very special hub of music, tempting audiences away from Netflix for some very special moments. May we again be blessed by bookers with integrity and ears of gold who create well-curated spaces.

One of those special moments for me was hearing Scott Cook and Corin Raymond who were a part of my launch show but are also to headline their own show at the Mallard at the end of April. Hailing from Canada, these two singer-storytellers craft words with poignancy and such specificity of place, that the terrain of Alberta starts to feel as familiar in their songs as the Apalachians feel to those of us who love Bluegrass. Two true gentlemen, these troubadours have been traveling Australia in a van called ‘Skippy’ and delighting Victorians in the city and regional venues. These blokes know how to spin a yard. Dare I say that “Canadiana” should be the new big thing in Australian Country music? Please note: I think that I invented the word “Canadiana” to describe an unpretentious, honest, eloquent, evocative style of storytelling music that all of us should aspire to write… If I weren’t so proud to be an Australian, I think that I might want to be a Canadian when I grow up.

Inner-city-country singer-songwriter (and mighty fine skater) Cat Canterri has described Melbourne as a music Mecca. Her new album, Inner North, released 18th May through MGM – and launching at the Northcote Social Club on 20th May – has embraced that narrative style which really kick-flips my heart. And while Cat’s stories are centered on life as it is lived in Coburg, Reservoir, the Fitzroy skating bowl and around the old Pentridge prison, her inspiration partially comes from playing in country Victoria. Though she was born in Northcote, her parents have moved to Newstead. Cat’s favourite music festival (and also one of mine) is Patchewollock Music Festival – a little festival with a big heart in the middle of sheep and wheat country, where the only thing that stops the music is the sheep race, an annual tradition where everyone holds their breath and waits to see which ewe will be crowned the Mallee champion.

And it’s at places like this – and other small regional venues, like the Guilford Family Hotel – where Cat started yearning to share those little story songs that are maybe best told around a bar with a small group of people – songs that work when they are stripped of everything but a guitar and voice. In writing this new album, Cat reflected that “being Australian is a complicated identify because of the history of our nation.” And she is committed to giving voice to this identity, enacting the advice that you should ‘write about what you know’. So, Cat has been asking: “What do I know? What has occurred in my community? What can I draw from for inspiration?”. While she will be playing this new record in the Inner North, she will also be taking it to small regional venues –- and I reckon that you should go and see her.

I was thinking a great deal about music in Victoria and these story songs – when Cat said to me:

“Some people can tell a story and put you in the story and allow you to experience their song from inside the song.”

I was just so blown away by this that I had to put it in my story because I think that the yearning for communion between audience and writer maybe what is causing this special spring to bubble up down in our little State. I think that there’s something of a movement of story songs in Victoria. I’m really honoured that Cat would name me as an inspiration for her narrative record – but she’s also named great story-songsmiths like John Flanagan – who’s new album Honest Man (out 20th April) has already been enjoyed by folks who’ve had a chance to see him in his national tour with his trio. John’s trio features the 2018 Troubadour Foundation Award winner, Liz Frencham (another great writer and performer in her own right, but lending her voice and groove to John’s beautiful songs). And John is not alone, Jed Rowe is another writer who is trying to tell songs in his stories, and another of Cat’s inspirations.

This community of writers makes me think of a verse from a Scott Cook song (‘Pass it Along’) singing about his guitar:

Some day another singer with a pair of hands like mine

Will coax out songs much prettier still hiding in its strings

And sing stronger, braver words than I could ever sing

And folks are gonna love it, of this I’m almost sure

So I’ll take good care of it, cause I’m borrowing it from her

Like I said – I wouldn’t give up the richness and complexity of my Australian identity for the world (though I may secretly want to grow up to sing “Canadiana”).

Another of those great writers coaxing out songs is Mandy Connell. Until recently, Mandy has been living in Wangaratta – though her other home has been The Lomond Hotel in Brunswick East (just across the road from Triple R studios). Whether she’s working behind the bar or performing on the stage there, Mandy is one of those very special performers who creates a community around her. If you’ve been lucky enough to hear music at the Lomond, you know that this little room is like a family hearth, where regular listeners keep coming back – not because they know who might be on the stage, but because they know that no matter what, it will be excellent.

And Mandy has been taking her message out as part of a community arts project called An Otherwise Quiet Room. Here’s the concept: two performers meet in a local business (it could be a bar, a café, a pub – but any business that can be promoted by art and music). Mandy and her musical partner for the day perform three songs: a song from each of the writers in the room and then a cover of a song by another independent (Australian) writer.

These episodes are then shared on youtube and their website: Duets already produced include Mandy working with great performers like Khristian Mizzi (surely one of Australia’s best kept musical secrets – a lovely human being with a glorious voice ) Gallie, and Liz Stringer.

I apologise that my story is so Melbourne-centric but that’s where I work and live however my origins and family is in Gippsland – so I wanted to finish with a little story about visiting home with Rich Davies. If you’ve not seen Rich perform before and you live North of our borders, book a ticket to Melbourne and come and see this man. I’ve dragged my wife along to many shows – but none have impressed her more than first witnessing Rich play. He was born in Scotland with a background in rock and blues and a penchant for (you guessed it) story songs. You might best know him as the man who wrote ‘Dirt Under My Nails’ (recently recorded by The Bushwackers, and nominated for a Golden Guitar at this year’s awards).

So, Rich and I have been playing together quite a bit this year – and he’s heard so many songs about Gippsland, Heyfield, Maffra and Sale that he thought that he was coming home when I took him to Sale, specifically the hometown launch for my record at The Sale Greyhound Club. It might not have had as much hipster cool as The Retreat or the grandiosity of The Spotted Mallard – but it was a very full room of Gippslanders crowded in to hear stories about their farms, their pubs, their rivers, their homes and their lives.

And down the front was my Heyfield Girl and her Dairy Farmer husband; to sing these songs for my mum and dad and their friends and our community was a highlight of my year.

When we write, I think we all do so in the hope that someone will listen. I can’t begin to tell you the joy of telling a story in a song and to have the whole room lean in to listen to the words. I’m proud to be part of a “Victoriana” movement in music in which writers, venues and audiences are creating a culture where story songs about Australian life are encouraging folks to lean in and listen – and see a part of themselves mirrored therein.