Published in The Music Network
John Williamson was born and bred in the bush. He’s truly at home outdoors. But he’s not out of place in the city either, or for that matter on the stage of a stadium. Williamson fits in. He’s always found his place. Now 40 years into his career, the lad from Quambatook in Victoria’s Mallee country has rightfully earned a place among this country’s legends.
The balladeer has constructed a huge catalog of iconic songs, the likes of Cootamundra Wattle, Raining on the Rock and True Blue among them. And his devoted following comes from all walks. Fans of Williamson’s stirring songs hail from the outback to Hollywood, they’ve led the Australian cricket and rugby teams and taken the most powerful of seats in Canberra. If there were a poet laureate for Australia, Williamson would be a shoe-in. The revered folk-singer met with The Music Network at an inner-city Sydney brasserie, a world away from Williamson’s typical stories of the country, and all its peculiarities. Naturally, he fits in. He’s quite at home.
For all the accolades and famous friends, the Mallee Boy remains true to his roots. Unearthing stirring songs about Australia is what he does, and he loves his job. These days, he’s a contented musician who, admittedly, has achieved prettywell everything he ever dreamed of. But he’s still digging around for tales to tell of his homeland. “Over the years, I’ve tried to do what Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson have done in a modern way with music, by writing about who we really are,” he says. “And it’s worked for me.” Music and the bush were always in Williamson’s blood. The eldest of five boys, Williamson was born on November 1st, 1945, to a farming family. His parents were fine vocalists who had trained their operatic abilities. “They were really good singers,” he boasts. “They probably could have made a living from it, but not as good as mine I think.” Instruments were always close at hand. At the age of just six, Williamson turned his attentions to the harmonica, then two years later the ukulele and banjo. And at age 12, the guitar. The youngster’s ears tuned in to American music. But it was the folk artists – Joan Baez, Kingsford Trio, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan – who provided the early inspiration.
As a 19-year-old, Williamson’s family headed north in the search of new opportunities in wheat farming. They settled in Croppa Creek, near Moree in north-western New South Wales. The young Williamson fit in. He swapped Aussie Rules for rugby, and plied his talents as a folk singer, earning $10 at a local restaurant performing songs after big matches. Then in 1969, Williamson penned his first hit, Old Man Emu. “When I sang it, I had to do it three times. That’s when I realised I had something,” he recalls. The infectious, cheery song would give Williamson his first big break when he showcased it the following year on the New Faces TV talent show. Old Man Emu has since been performed thousands of times since that June 4, 1970 broadcast, and it has touched millions more.
The spoils of victory brought with it a recording contract with Fable Records, and a leg up in the music industry. “I’m proud of Old Man Emu, because it’s almost stated what my career is about. But when I wrote it, the only Aussie songs around were novelty songs. We really hadn’t come to terms who we were. We were swamped with American music, but I didn’t hear anything about my country. Without being one-eyed, or nationalistic, I just always wanted to sing about who I am. We need songs that tell stories about us.” Williamson admits it “took me ages to become a good songwriter,” and a decade would pass before such heights would be reached again.
The stimulus for his next phase came from Bruce Beresford’s 1980 feature film Breaker Morant. With the encouragement of his now-retired manager Phil Matthews, Williamson wrote and released The Breaker in 1981. The songwriter had graduated from writing about a race between an emu and a kangaroo, to the complexities of war. “That was the best thing I had done. With The Breaker, I really got started writing Aussie songs. It still took me until 1986 before I really had an album full of good stuff.” That album was the classic, multi-platinum Mallee Boy, which yielded some of his most recognizable hits, including True Blue, Galleries of Pink Galahs and the title track. “I’d waited a decade and a half for a gold record, and with Mallee Boy I ended up with a platinum. That was a huge highpoint and a pinnacle of my career,” he says. “And money came pouring in from records for a change.”
In the 40 years that have passed, Williamson’s songs have taken his career to some spectacular, lofty peaks. A global audience caught his performance at the 2000 Sydney Olympics opening ceremony, and sports fans around the world have seen him raising the nation’s spirits with song during the Rugby World Cup and Bledisloe Cup sporting showpieces, and during the memorial services for Steve Irwin, the victims of the Bali bombings, and Sir Donald Bradman – a “nervewracking” experience, the singer notes. Throughout the journey, Williamson has resisted the urge of many Australian performers to resettle in the US or Europe with a view to “cracking” one of the big five markets. “I’ve spent three or four seasons in England doing theatres, and I’ve played in France and America, but I don’t enjoy it as much as Australia. If you think there’s something wrong with Australia, and you really believe in the place, you should stay there and help it through. If you really love your country, you should be here.” Actions, as they say, speak louder than words. When it comes to issues affecting Australia, Williamson isn’t short of either.
Williamson is a clear-thinking conservationist, whose campaigns have sparked debate. His song Rip Rip Woodchip caused friction with the loggers and lumberjack community, while he took the debate on the Australian flag to another level with A Flag Of Our Own. Williamson espouses dumping the Union Jack image from the flag. To further his point, he’s designed the True Blue flag, which replaces the British design with an image combining the Southern Cross with a kangaroo. “With all the patriotism that’s going on, if the patriotism is in line with the land itself, I agree with it. I’ve not got a nationalistic attitude about race or religion. All of that should be put aside. It’s about respect of the land. If we don’t do that, then we’ll lose what it is that we’re proud of. It’s not enough just to be proud of the people.” To celebrate Williamson’s brilliant career, EMI will release a two-CD tribute compilation. The likes of Russell Crowe, Kasey Chambers, James Reyne, Tommy Emmanuel, Wendy Matthews and The Waifs have volunteered versions of the artist’s favourites on The Absolute Best of John Williamson: 40 Years True Blue, which will get a national release on March 13th. Williamson contributes an original song, Island of Oceans, a collaboration with Shannon Noll. Williamson is feeling relaxed, and he’s ready to hit the road.
Nowadays, he’s cut back his touring schedule to about 60-70 dates each year, down from about 120 shows. He downs his light beer – Australian-brewed, of course – and readies for the next stage. After 40 years, he very much has a taste for the creative stuff. “The stories are out there, you have to find them and experience them,” he says. “The songs just keep coming to me, only because I get out there. I’ve still got a hell of a lot of good ideas. And I’m feeling fit. I don’t think I’ll ever stop. I’ll just slow down and get smarter.”
A Forty Year Career
Quentin Bryce, Governor-General of Australia
“More than a popular success, John has found a voice that speaks to us of who we are, and what we stand for. He is a maker of songs, a teller of stories, a poet, and a true believer. He has captured what we most love about our country, although in “singing us the outback,” he knows he will not “find an end to what it means.” John, we hope you never find it. We hope you’ll sing us the outback for many years to come.”
Dick Smith, entrepreneur
“John is like the poets that captured our country before him. Like Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, his words translate the land into lyric and remind us all of what Australia sounds, feels and looks like.”
“John Williamson – 40 years of songs and music. What a gift he has given to our country. A true and unique Australian troubadour and storyteller, his voice has delighted our senses and his words have raised our spirits. It has been a real honour for me to be a small part of this tribute. Thank-you John.”
“I have known JW since the beginning of his career in music and I saw him grow to become a powerful force in music and songs about Australia and its people and culture. Nobody has captured Australian life in song like him. He stands tall as a true blue bloke, one whose clever wit, open-hearted love, and genuine love of country will always inspire me and many generations of young songwriters to reach for excellence in their gift of song. Congratulations mate. I’m proud to call you a friend. Long Live JW. I’m a true fan.”
Mark Poston EMI Music Australasia Chairman
“Everyone at EMI is proud to be associated with John Williamson. EMI is a music company built on an incredible lineage – from The Beatles to The Beach Boys to Coldplay and Slim Dusty – and all that’s in between. John Williamson stands alongside those iconic artists as one of Australia’s finest. Here’s looking forward to a big year ahead for your 40th anniversary year in the business.”
“Dad is a trailblazer. His astonishing body of work has paved the way for young artists like me to have the courage to sing with an Australian voice. Dad has by example shown me the beauty of writing about that which is close, celebrating it and capturing what is unashamedly Australian.”
“John Williamson to me has been someone who has the ability to bring everyday words to life, his pictures and melodies make us feel very passionate about our country. As an Aboriginal Australian, having the chance to sing Raining on the Rock gave this old gem a brand new meaning to me and I am very proud to be on this record. Thanks for your music Willo.”
“You laugh you cry or you stick your chest out like the hen house rooster. That’s the magic of John Williamson.”
John O’Donnell, OdFellows Music
“John Williamson is an Australian music pioneer and a legend. He is a tireless “giver” and a supporter of numerous causes and issues. When a song becomes as huge as True Blue, we sometimes forget the artistry and genius that goes into creating it. But John is a great songwriter who tugs equally at your heart and your funny bone. And he has written one of the most powerful and moving Australian songs of the last 20 years in Salisbury Street. Seek it out. I’m a huge fan.”
Russell Crowe from The Ordinary Fear Of God
“When I heard the lyric of the song that states the story-teller needs the bush to build his strength, that was the song of John Williamson’s that I wanted the band to have a go at. It was a purely visceral reaction, because that is true in my life. There are some voices that just immediately place you in the geography of their origin. When Billy Bragg or Bruce Springsteen sings, you know where they come from. John Williamson is one of those rare artists. He has a connection to Australia that is organic and definitive. It was a privilege for the band to contribute to this record and we thank John for the opportunity.”