It’s doubtful that there’s a country music fan alive in this country who doesn’t know who Lee Kernaghan is. So it was my great pleasure to interview this living legend – and former Australian of the Year – ahead of his new tour, which kicks off on 16 March and is in support of his album Beautiful Noise.
The interview looked like it wasn’t going to happen at one point when Lee’s phone line was down due to road works near his home. But he hastily rescheduled and it was able to happen – which means I got to find out first hand just how his passion for music – and life – and his dedication to his work has taken him to the heights of success.
**For tour dates, please visit Lee’s website: www.leekernaghan.com**
After so many shows and tours, are you just as keen to get on the road now, as you ever were?
Absolutely. It’s great to be able to go out – [there have been] 31 number ones over the last 20 years of recording. So being able to play songs that people know and love, it’s not hard work. It’s a lot of fun. And to make it even better, we’ve got this new album, Beautiful Noise, and new songs like ‘Ute Me’ and ‘It’s Only Country’ and ‘Flying with the King’, new material to play and that always keeps it new and exciting as well.
You wouldn’t be able to fit 31 number one songs in an evening set though would you?
So I rely on Facebook before I head out on tour. [I ask] What are the songs that you really want to hear? And my band, the Wolfe Brothers, have learnt everything; they can play any song I’ve ever recorded. So we can work off the cuff as well.
So are the Wolfe Brothers actually going to be playing as your band as well as your support?
Yeah, they are the support and then we play together. I saw them on Australia’s Got Talent; they blew me away with their awesome talent and songs. We ended up catching up in Sydney. The first time I met them was at a recording studio in Sydney and we just got together and jammed and played songs. Everything just felt so great that we thought let’s hit the road together as a team in 2013.
And given that you have a lot of songs that people will know and you’re relying on Facebook to help you choose a set list, it must then be quite hard to decide which songs off the new album get put in the set.
That’s right. And you actually have to go out on the road and tour it to find out what’s resonating; you know, what people really want to hear. So we’ll be trying a whole lot of different things and some will work and some will fail. You know, we’ll find out first hand pretty soon what the reaction is to this record.
You’re starting the tour at the Dowerin Rodeo in WA. So I was wondering what it’s like playing at an event like that as compared to, say, Penrith Panthers in Sydney?
Probably more alcohol. [Laughs]. More cowboys, more Driza-bones, but I love the big outdoor shows so they’re always great. It’s also good to get into that kind of intimate concert setting as well. I don’t do the same show everywhere I go. In a more of a concert – say, Twin Towns – it’s much more of a concert setting. So as opposed to the Eatons Hill Hotel, which is the biggest pub in the Southern Hemisphere, and that would be just a party town tour that one – a party town show.
You’ve done so many shows now that I’m pretty confident that you’re aware of all of the technicalities of it, so from a technical standpoint it must be challenging for those big outdoor shows for you to make sure your sounds right, that it’s getting out to the people who are right at the back of the paddock.
Yeah, well, you’ve got to have pretty good production specs so that you can guarantee people are going to get good sound. And the show is never just about me, it’s about the people that you have around you. You know, that great band, the crew, the sound, the lighting, there’s so many people involved in it; there’s about 35 people on the road and they all work really hard to sort of bring it together on the night and make sure people get something that sounds great and will be a memorable experience.
And this would be quite a contrast to how you first toured, which was with a horse float full of your gear, so I was wondering, first of all, if you still have the horse float and second, because I think you were touring like that on your own for quite a while, what kept you going during those years?
The need to make the next payment on my car, [laughs].
[Laughs] That’s a good motive.
Yeah. Just trying to survive and by about 1991, I’d pretty well given up on music.
I’d been doing it for 15 years and I was broke. I was dejected and I was, yeah, a broken unit. The only thing that saved me was a song called ‘Boys from the Bush’ and an album called Outback Club, which I started recording in 1991, and that really was the rebirth of me as a recording artist.
It would be tempting to say, oh well, the one song and that’s where the success came from, but those years on the road and connecting with people and smaller gigs, I tend to think that sort of work does pay off. Even though you’re not aware of your audience building, it reaches a tipping point ,if you will, so if you put out that song, put out that album, the people are out there; it’s just that suddenly they all make themselves known.
Yeah, yeah. Well, winning three Golden Guitars on the Outback Club and an Aria helped kick it along out there in Australia. And Three Chain Road triple platinum, Aria, and things were just exploding. I spent 10 years just playing nearly every night; we just toured so hard to the point that I reckon by the time I finished touring the 1959 album, I was a burnt-out unit. I remember playing Gatton and somebody wrote in and said, “Lee Kernaghan, it looks like he’s on drugs or he’s drunk.” But I was just jet lagged.
Coming back from America, I was just completely burnt out from the road and I think it was around that time that I thought I’ve got to be a bit smarter how I tour or I’m not going to make it. That was the end of the ‘90s. And I took a bit of time off – I think I took a year off at the beginning of the next decade and I made Electric Radio. But all the way along, the priority for me has been to make the best record I possibly could and if it took time, I prefer to take time – I blew so many deadlines but you’ve got to be able to stand by the work. You can’t disown your songs once you’ve released them; they’re yours; they’re part of the family, [laughs].
And you also can’t create on demand. It’s a real challenge for artists like you, and even artists who aren’t as successful or you or as well known as you, once you start touring, you’ve got an album out and you’ve got to write new songs; you’ve got to keep touring and they’re different parts of your brain in a way that you have to use and you can’t exactly sit down and just summon up songs when you need them.
Now, how do you know all this? What’s your involvement in the music business because you know too much about it? … You nailed it, because you have to transform into – well, I find you have to transform into just being a songwriter sometimes and you just live, eat and breathe songs. And you live it; you breathe it; you dream it. You go to bed at night with a song in your head and it’s not uncommon the next morning, you know, 7 a.m. and that song’s still floating around. So you go from that phase into the let’s make a great record phase where you spend weeks, months in the studio and then you go into the phase of getting your picture taken and doing all the publicity and all the interviews. And then you move into another phase of actually hitting the road. That’s where it all comes together. You know, the touring and the concerts. That’s what makes it all worthwhile I reckon.
I think also for someone who’s had your success, I wouldn’t mind betting that you’re a bit of a perfectionist and I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. It means that you want things just right for your audience, which means taking that time, but also possibly means that you could drive yourself a little bit crazy trying to get it that way. I think it’s a really delicate balance and to do it for so many years and so consistently is a huge achievement.
Yeah. You’re right. You’re very intuitive; I’ve driven myself crazy and a whole lot of other people [laughs]. Yeah.
As your audience has grown, is there anything you do miss about those early years when you were playing pubs to a smaller audience in a more intimate room?
[Laughs] You like a big stage?
Yeah. I’ve loaded in and loaded out of hundreds of venues and been the singer, the sound man, the roadie, the booking agent and everything. I’m much happier doing what I do now.
Well, you kept at it for a very long time when other people would have given up, but you obviously believed it was your calling.
I think it was probably in my blood, in the DNA to do it, but it’s still been a blessing to be able to have the opportunity to do it, you know. I never take a moment of it for granted.
I think audiences pick up on that too. I think country music audiences, they’re really aware of what performers and singer-songwriters are like and I think if they smelled a phony, you wouldn’t get to be around for very long.
Yep. I really respect my audience. I don’t like using the word “fan” because when I get out on stage, it’s more like I’m playing to just mates.
Now, I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions about Beautiful Noise because you will be playing songs off the album. I read that before releasing an album, you road test songs in a Land Cruiser, so I was wondering if that means you take them for a drive and see if they’re right for singing along to on the road.
[Laughs] It’s something about the sound system in the Land Cruiser that if it sounds good in there, it’s fully certified and I know it’s going to sound great wherever it’s played. There’s nothing like getting out on the road and listening to an album and I often do that when I’m figuring the song order. So it’s got that natural flow. Look, I reckon, my records have been made for the road – for travelling. And I hope when I make each one that someone somewhere will slip the CD in and do a couple a hundred Ks and enjoy the ride without really noticing that they’ve driven so far.
You mentioned the audience and thinking of them as friends more than fans, and so I was wondering when you were writing songs for a new album, particularly now that you have a lot of those friends, are you conscious of writing to that audience or to their expectations?
Well, Kelly Dixon, who wrote ‘Leave Him in the Long Yard’ for Slim Dusty, he said, “Son, when you do your songwriting, if you tell the truth and you keep it real, you won’t go too far wrong.” And that’s kind of always been my true north as far as how we’d go about writing a song. Much of its practical, like ‘Flying with the King’; you know, I got on that Ansett flight out of Sydney to Perth. I sat next to the king of country music and we flew across Australia together. You know, those memories they stay with you for life. If you can just write about it as simply as you can, I think it can resonate. Those sorts of stories can resonate.
For me, the song that really resonated on Beautiful Noise was ‘Keeping On’ and I thought that was a really lovely tribute to the country, given that you would have travelled over so many parts of it. In terms to bring it back to the tour, instead of asking you which places you like the most to play in, I was going to ask if any journeys have been difficult?
In touring. Either physically difficult, or you just thought, oh, I can’t go to this place again?
Yeah. I remember the first time I played Toowoomba with Troy Cassar Daley. I was touring with Troy and the Blue Heeler band back in the early ’90s and we played a pub in Toowoomba and we got about 15 people for the gig. That was a bit of a disaster and the rooms in the hotel had broken windows [laughs], and you lay on the bed and it sort of collapses underneath you. We headed out west on that tour and the truck broke down [laughs], we had to make do with some borrowed guitars, amplifiers and some locals in town, but I think some of those harder times out on the road, the memories become a lot richer as time goes by.
And you and Troy should probably never tour together again.
Well, we didn’t after that. [Laughs] We just did the one tour.
Well, I wouldn’t mind betting those 15 people who were in that pub are still telling the story of how they were there that night Lee Kernaghan and Troy Cassar Daley played to 15 people.
Well, the thing is, they probably didn’t know who we were anyway when we were there. So they’ve probably forgotten.
I think they were a very privileged audience. And I also really liked the song ‘Peace Love and Country’ and I was wondering if what country music has brought you is the other two words in that song, or the other two aspects in that song, peace and love?
It’s a little bit like a hymn, that song, for me. I just love it so much and it reminds me of a little place; it’s a little shack up on the New South Wales-Queensland border up in the mountains. It just takes me back to that place where I’ve written a lot of songs over the years and there is a sense of peace and freedom when you’re up there in the bush. It’s not just about the landscape, it’s about it all makes sense when you’re with the right person. I was lucky enough to marry my soul mate. And Robbie’s been just the best wife, girlfriend, and mother that a bloke could ask for. That song I had her very much in mind when I was writing that one and I had the place up there in the hills. She was very much front and centre when it was being written.
I think that’s a very good note to end on, a lovely note to end on.
Lee Kernaghan’s tour runs from 16 March throughout most of the year across most states and territories. Visit www.leekernaghan.com for the full schedule.