Central New South Wales, circa 1987
It took me three bites to consume what would eventually become my Bachelor of Arts degree. First attempt spluttered to a halt when I was 21, with too many good times, too many broken hearts and a bewildering lack of direction to blame for my inability to graduate. A few years later I returned to academia, enrolling in a poorly conceived music degree. The year was not without its rewards, however.
I arrived on campus in the first week and being lonely and bored decided that I’d enter an orientation competition in an effort to get to know the university. There were a stack of prizes, and, (unbeknownst to me), only three entrants. So, I scored a trip to Queensland as first prize.
I waved my winning tickets in front of a girl I fancied in tape lab class and scored again when she said that she was up for an adventure with me. It was a no expenses paid, economy bus trip for two through the inlands of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. Roadhouses, truck stops, remote bus shelters, empty railway sidings, over-dried, deep-fried fast food and icy Big Ms. The scent of endless acres of grazing land, the breezeless conservatism of time-locked country towns and miles and miles and miles of beautiful Australian rural scenery. It was, as the Leyland Brothers had told us, a big, big country, and I was experiencing the vastness of this continent for the first time.
Our soundtrack for much of the trip was the relentless bass rumble of the underfloor diesel bus engine. At some point the driver fired up the cabin tape player with some Dean Martin. Dino tried to remind us that everybody loves somebody sometime, but all I could think of were martinis, grand pianos and dinner suits, images incongruent with the passing panorama. After a hundred odd kilometres of this the driver said “Time for a change of pace”. I groaned and rolled my eyes as the sound of Slim Dusty made its way through the tiny speakers in the bus ceiling.
Country music? Dad ’n’ Dave, Ma ‘n’ Pa Kettle, and the Beverley Hillbillies. The genre is a joke. As a teenager I’d poke fun at the sounds of country; plonky tonk piano, whiny pedal steel guitar, cat-torture fiddle and cotton-pickin’, chicken-cluckin’ banjo. Yeee-haaa-ha-ha-ha. And the lyrics and the nasal twang and the get ups and the hairdos. Wall-to-wall cornball for y’all. Yes, I listened to The Eagles, but they weren’t really country and Linda Ronstadt had given all that crap away before Simple Dreams.
And now I was being forced to listen to Mr Pub-With-No-Beer, the bloke with the bent hat who had tortured we poor Top 40 aficionados with the hit single about drinking with Duncan for weeks on end just a few years before. It was going to be a very long trip.
My travelling companion and I exchanged grimaces and I stared out the window. Slim’s unaffected Aussie drawl filled the bus. The sounds were simple and unadorned. I fell into one of his musical tales and wondered how the narrative would end. In spite of myself, (and my considerable music prejudice), I listened closely as one song story moved into the next. At some imperceptible point in this stream of song, country music ceased to be silly.
By the time the bus hit the Queensland border, I was a changed man, hearing things in a new way.
Some songs of change stay with me, others do their work and move on. I don’t listen to Slim Dusty much anymore, and rarely play him when I’m living in the city, although cover versions (particularly Ed Kuepper’s majestic Camooweal), and pitches (like Don Walker’s evocative Get Along) have kept Slim in my orbit.
Meaning has to be experienced. Meaning has to be created and can only grow in a context. As a fundamental essence of this country opened itself up to me as I moved through it on the bus, I simultaneously heard the sounds of another man’s experience of this country. Slim Dusty’s music works because he’s subjectively in it. He wasn’t so much singing to me about the topics of his songs, he was singing from them. Slim is in his music – I am in his, (and my), country – and suddenly everything becomes clear.
It was a conversion of sorts, or perhaps, a mini musical epiphany. From that day on, country music made sense to me. My old Eagles records sounded different. I bought a guitar built for bluegrass and started to play some country songs in a café with a mate. Discs by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and latter day Jerry Lee Lewis joined my collection. Years later, I heard something of this spirit in sounds of the Alt-Country movement. I discovered the Flying Burrito Brothers, early Wilco, Gram Parsons’ Byrds and then went back to find The Louvin Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and many others.
I didn’t finish the music degree and dropped out of university. But that year I began a course in country music…via distance education.