John Williamson in his work with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.
John Williamson in his work with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

Williamson looks to Gympie Muster

JOHN Williamson was munching on a slice of pineapple, remarking that the wet year seemed to have made it sweeter.

At 65 and a significant part of Australia’s cultural furniture, the big-selling Australian singer-songwriter says he feels more like 40.

And, after what amounts to a lifetime apprenticeship in an uncertain and unforgiving business, he thinks his performances are now better than ever.

“I’m much more relaxed these days. I’m getting to the point where I know I can do it,” he says.

After being on the road since 1970 in one way or another, the creation of a performance comfort zone is probably one of the luxuries that come with experience.

“Most of your career is spent finding out what you can do and can’t do.

“Now, I know what my limits are and what I do best,” he says.

And what he does best, aside from inventing songs that help all of us, especially Australians, understand and take pride in ourselves, is what he will be doing at next month’s Gympie Optus Music Muster – performing with guitarist Col Watson (whose first professional job was with Slim Dusty).

“He really got thrown in the deep end.”

Recording those songs is also a big part of Williamson’s life.

He recognises that Australians are probably more likely to hear a CD while driving in the car than sitting in their lounge room.

“And that doesn’t count the truckies,” he said.

In a way, he hopes his music is good enough to make us go that extra mile, in more ways than one.

He identifies with those who might take a slightly longer way home, so they can hear the rest of their favourite song.

“It’s a big country,” he jokes. “You get to hear a whole CD here.”

Recording and performing tend to go together and with millions of album sales to his credit, the demand for his live performances seems to have become perennial.

Taking his songs to Australia’s furthest reaches is a path pioneered by Slim Dusty, but Williamson says he doesn’t quite go as far out as Slim’s show circuit tours used to reach.

But he says there are big opportunities emerging for live performers in what were once far off and isolated areas, like the Kimberleys.

“I think I’m in the right time for what I do,” he said. “Areas like the Kimberleys are starting to open up. There are so many places now which are big enough to have a town hall or a theatre.”

One new development he is less happy about is the downturn in Australia’s once major pub rock industry, something he links to the emergence of the poker machine as the income mainstay of many hotels.

“So many rock bands got their start in pubs in Sydney and Newcastle – and in clubs.

“That’s the best way, learning to please an audience and paying dues, rather than becoming famous on a TV show.”

Not that he has anything against TV shows, having been at least partly discovered by his appearance on New Faces.

“Old Man Emu (the song that won him first place on New Faces in 1970) made me famous first, but then it was 13 years before I started to realise my abilities.

“But in those days, every club had a show every weekend at least. Even bad jugglers got work then,” he said.

But even in these serious times, Williamson clings to the enthusiasm for Australia and Australians that got him there in the first place.

“I’ve got a bit of a market overseas, but I don’t bother pursuing overseas success.

“My challenge is to do Australian songs that encourage Australians to be proud of what they are and proud of their country, like American country singers have done for their country.”

A sort of cross-over folk and country artist, he says.

“Yeah, I can be folk or country, but really I just sing for Australians.

“You could pigeon-hole me straight off as rural or bush. I’m even president of the Country Music Association.

“Our brand of country follows on from people like Slim Dusty, who I think carried on the work of Banjo (Patterson) and Henry (Lawson).

“I love American country music too – I really love Willie Nelson, but I believe we’ve got our own music and performers.”

Commenting on a diverse musical history that even includes work in a reggae-influenced rock band called Sydney Radio, he says: “Well, sort of reggae, more calypso really. I’ve always liked calypso rhythms.”

He promises his collection of calypso songs will make an album of their own one day.

He has just been working with symphony orchestras in Sydney and had a big night in Brisbane performing with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.

“Last weekend I worked with the Army Band in Perth.”

But he says he is looking forward to the friendly and very musical atmosphere of the Muster.

“I’ve got some new songs that I’m enjoying playing, including ‘Look Out Cunnamulla’ which is about the floods that forced me to cancel a show there last year. The Muster is probably the greatest outdoor music event in Australia,” he says.

“And it brings a whole lot of real Aussie music fans.

“Tamworth is mostly involved with indoor venues,” he said.

He still fondly remembers performing there with Chad Morgan, the sort of impromptu event that does not happen just anywhere.

Gympie Times

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