John Williamson

In a career spanning close to 50 years, the legendary John Williamson has recorded and performed with some of the biggest names in Australian song: from Jimmy Little to Sara Storer, Chad Morgan to Warren H Williams, and even the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. But with landmark 20th studio album Butcherbird, the veteran songsmith pays tribute to one of the most unusual collaborators of his storied career – as he explains.

“I stole a butcherbird’s melody for ‘Rip Rip Woodchip’, so I’ve had a relationship with butcherbirds up in the mountains for a long time. They’ve just got such a beautiful song, and they vary it all the time. Their tunes are as modern as anything can be. It’s fascinating when you think that you can actually write down the melody they sing on a Western scale, on our scale, and they’ve been around even longer than Aborigines – so they’re very Aussie!”

Much like the butcherbird’s habit of conserving prey animals for later consumption, Williamson has long drawn on a vast stockpile of impressions of Australia’s unique people, places, flora and fauna in crafting songs that have defined a generation of Australian songwriting. As for the butcherbirds themselves, Williamson has had ample opportunity to observe the totemic songbirds in close quarters while working in the veggie patch of his idyllic hinterland home in Queensland’s Numinbah Valley, near Springbrook.

“If I move a log and want to cut a bit of deadwood or something, they’re all around me, looking for wood grubs and worms,” Williamson relates. “Every now and then I’ll give them a bit of rolled-up sausage, make it look like a grub, and then they’ve got to kill it. They still put it through their beak to make sure it’s dead.”

This special, symbiotic relationship animates Butcherbird’s autobiographical opening track ‘Valley of His Dreams / It Doesn’t Get Better Than This’, with its trademark delicate finger-picking and stirring fiddle:

‘At three-score years and 10, he has earned the time to potter in the garden. Time to plant potatoes, time to plant some beans. The butcherbird is waiting, she knows what this means. Old boy takes a break, spreads honey on some bread. The butcherbird is busy, making sure her worm is dead.’

“I’m really thinking about – hopefully – where I’m going to be in three years’ time,” Williamson explains of the track. “I’ll definitely go until 2020, because that’s my 50th year in the business. After that I might actually have a chookyard and a dog again, like I used to have when I was a farmer. So I guess I’m dreaming about those days. I really am looking forward to retirement. But it’s not as though I’m going to retire physically. And you can probably tell by the album that I’m still enjoying writing songs.”

True to that, the inexorable forward march of time colours one of Butcherbird’s frank and wryly introspective moments in ‘Time is Slippin’ Away’:

‘It comes as a shock and I don’t know, where the hell did my life go? I planted a tree and look at it now: it’s big and half dead…sometimes I feel half my age, and then I look in the mirror.’

For the time being, Williamson is happy to share the crowning glory of his picturesque bushland home with fans from all over the world via the capacious “Willoshed”. The expansive, purpose-built steel structure houses a veritable museum of memorabilia, and boasts seating capacity for 200 guests to enjoy a ‘Willo’ intimate home-ground concert.

“It was a dream come true: I imagined the shed,” Williamson says. “I imagined open air concerts at one stage but, up there in the mountains, with a 90-inch rainfall, it’s very risky. So we started with Plan B. I get so many emails from people after shows there – even though they’ve paid good money, they go away telling me it’s been really good value, because they just get so much out of it. I suppose it’s putting my money where my mouth is, because all of my ideas that I’ve written about are so nicely covered with that backdrop. I bought [the property] to be a caretaker of it, really. In fact, it won’t be long before I’m going to start re-planting a lot of the featured, main trees in that forest out in the open, so it’ll be a kind of an arboretum. So that the trees get a chance to be seen in their glory, rather than being in a thick forest where they just grow tall and you can’t even see what’s on the top! That’s my idea, and I’ve approached the Council – they have funds and people who can help you with that. The neighbour’s cattle are going off it soon and I’m looking forward to doing that. We’ve certainly farmed a lot of the country, and I’ve been a part of that, but the time has come that we’ve got to start appreciating the original stuff.”

For concertgoers lucky enough to secure a ticket to a Willoshed concert, a treasure trove of Australiana awaits – as Williamson elaborates.

…read the rest of the story in Issue 90