“If I’d entered the Voice I’d have come last” John Willamson says with a laugh, but the 1969 X Factor- equivalent ‘New Faces,’ unearthed and crowned a Roger Miller, Rolf Harris inspired puffing, panting storyteller who performed the novelty classic ‘Old Man Emu’ – kick starting a young man from the Mallee into one hell of a career.
‘A Hell Of A Career’ is a 2CD collection of 44 classic John Williamson songs that have, over the last forty years, helped define us as a unique race of people on a big, ancient beautiful land. And like the complete works of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson, it should be federal law that every Australian household owns a copy – full stop.
All the pressers and media blurbs surrounding the new album herald the same thing John Williamson – ‘Australian icon, as Aussie as the Southern Cross’, ARIA Hall of Fame Inductee, 24 Golden Guitars. ARIA, APRA & MO Awards …However be it the harsh blunt title – ‘A ‘Hell’ of a Career’ or the pensive cover shot of a downcast looking Willo standing on yet another set of lonely train tracks, I was struck with the feeling that 48 albums into it – maybe John is getting tired?
“I really would’ve thought I’d be doing next to nothing at this stage of my life.” Willo says when asked if he was, “but I’m still enjoying writing songs that people want to hear that still stand up against anything else being released now – however in saying that, there’s not much room for more.” When quizzed as to what he means by that John replies, “Well the live show is already packed and if I leave out or don’t sing certain songs I disappoint too many people.”
When I (tongue in cheek) challenge him to reinvent himself at age 68 he laughs and says, “I think it would be a mistake to fix something that ain’t broke, so now instead of ‘changing things’ I ‘hone’ what it is I’m good at.”
Long seen as a patriarch of Australian Country Music it isn’t as though John didn’t explore other musical genres and styles. Within the 16 years of meandering between ‘Old Man Emu’ and when John believes he truly broke through with ‘Mallee Boy,’ Williamson played in a club/pub rock band called ‘Crow’ fusing Calypso, Reggae, Rock and Jazz and was even known to don the make-up and face paint exploring diverse characters such as Merv Currawong, Ludwig Leichhardt and even channelling the spirit -and teeth of Chad Morgan. “The only constant through those years was the Okka accent.” says John, “In some regards due to my past funnier songs I still may not be regarded as a serious songwriter like Paul Kelly or James Taylor… but, like I tell all young aspiring artists who ask how to survive in this industry – you must be more than just a singer or a songwriter you have to be an ‘entertainer’ and I was an entertainer first and I’ll be an entertainer last!”
From years of relentless touring John learnt the fine art and craft of the ‘live’ show and he reflects humorously, “In the early days I went out on that road with an old comedian where I’d only sing two original songs and he said even that was two too many!”
A bit of a change from today’s two and a half hour marathons. “And I’d be keen to keep going” John says, “but I find any longer than that wears my audience out!”
Two and a half hours of performing original music is easy enough to say but I recently studied John’s show at this year’s Urban Country Music Festival. Sitting comfortably upon his throne in front of a few thousand people, with no band to hide behind, he made it looks as easy as eating a Sunday roast – however in knowing first hand the physical exertion it takes to sing with gusto, combined with the brain splitting co-ordination of playing guitar, harmonica and using both feet on two separate foot-stomps – all at the same time – lets just say it’s the equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy as you run, skip, hop and jump five times around a footy oval.
“The only reason I got booked in those early days was ‘Old Man Emu’” John says, “and it certainly got me the work.” One of the first to take his own sound system and money from the door, John learnt to how to bypass booking agents and middle men and thus he went round and round Australia for many years. As John’s daughter Ami said, “When Dad was away – he was really away.” The personal toll of all that time on the road cannot be truly measured, but as John says “I come from the era of men where the career was the most important thing. The man provided for the family and I did it the best I knew how, so there can be no regrets there.” John continues, “But in saying that, the stress of touring probably did lead to the break up of my marriage.” And these were the days before cheap airline flights, mobile phones, Facebook and Skype took a little of the sting out of months upon months away from loved ones.
Never shirking responsibility or to ‘sing’ out about causes he believes in, I questioned John about how ingrained this attitude was from his country upbringing “Being the eldest of five boys I thought had a lot of advantages.” John humorously reflects, “I ruled the roost like an elder statesman and I had no problem with leading the way.” And lead the way he did! In 1992 John was made a Member of the Australian Order (AM) for ‘Services to Australian Country Music and in Stimulating Awareness of Environmental Issues’. Apart from penning a number of unofficial national anthems like ‘True Blue’ and ‘Raining on the Rock’ In 1991 John, together with Slim Dusty, Joy McKean, Max Ellis and Phil Matthews set about establishing the CMAA (Country Music Association of Australia) and he has been President for the past decade plus. Over the years Willo has been openly supportive of young artists who have a distinct Australian sound, but has also been known to have a crack at our major artists when they discard their accent or national identity. John’s philosophy is backed by record sales in excess of 4,000,000 in Australia alone, and this surely shouts out to all that AUSTRALIANS WANT TO HEAR AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SUNG LIKE AN AUSTRALIAN!!!
Never one to back down from what he believes to be right even if it means dividing his audiences in two by either subtly flying his Australian Republic Flag at each gig and thankfully reminding all –“We’re not Yankee sidekicks or second class Poms!” or by withstanding the tirades of abuse and corporate threats with the release and performance of ‘Rip Rip Wood Chip’. John declares “I think we’ve farmed all the country in Australia that should be cleared and the ongoing clearing largely stems from us not having enough romantic attachment to the land” But John optimistically concludes “I don’t think I’ve lost too many friends off the land for they are starting to wake up to it now.”
Regardless of where you sit regarding flags and farming – Australians love the battler and people willing to fight for what they believe in. That is the reason why when John Williamson sings the National Anthem – official or otherwise – at a football Grand Finals, Olympic Ceremonies or heart breaking Memorials, we all for a moment tap into that passion and believe it.
Track 1 CD 1 –‘Old Man Emu’ – who’d have thought such a classic ‘silly’ song could have been the catalyst to the incredible body of work that follows it. “If not for the leg up from New Faces I suppose I would have still found my way to Tamworth and made my way up through the ranks from Peel Street.” John says, “…but who knows?”
I am sure there were a hundred other photos they could have used for the cover with John looking like he’d just won Bingo – but if anyone has the right to look a little tired it’s you John. Thanks for being such an inspirational Australian -You fight a good fight and you are not alone! So head up mate! It’s been ‘a hell of a career’ – but there’s a long way to go yet!