It may have been a few years since James Blundell was crowned the Star Maker winner during the Tamworth Country Music Festival but that doesn’t mean his star his dimmed. A perennial festival favourite, he’s back in 2016 to play at Wests on 20 January (full details below). Just before the end of last year I talked to him about what’s in store for the show and 2016, and about his Star Maker past.
What is your first Tamworth memory?
Great question. It wasn’t winning the Star Maker award, although that was obviously there. It was going the next morning to host the Bush Poets session at Kentucky Fried Chicken, thinking, This is a weird industry. It was in the car park. KFC was where it’s always been and it was full. I thought, There’s going to be no one here – no one eats Kentucky Fried Chicken at nine o’clock in the morning, but yes, they do.
Did you go to do that because you’d won Star Maker?
Yes, that was my first media appointment. Although the other similar memory was sitting in the pool at the no-longer-existent Thunderbird Motel on the north side of town, and it was between the start [of Star Maker] and the heats, and I thought, I’ve only got these two country songs – I’ve got to come up with something else. So that’s going to be complicated.
I’m not even going to ask you when that was but obviously Star Maker set you on a path that proves that Star Maker is a valuable thing to win.
Yes, and I flippantly say it was late last century but it wasn’t even that late, it was closer towards the middle: 1987. And the event itself [was great] but it was the associated media attention, it was the point of interest for most of the mainstream media in Sydney and Melbourne. They wanted to see who the bright young thing was that year and, consequently, every other year since. Two things I wouldn’t be able to do [without it]: I wouldn’t be able to do the first fifteen years of my career again, I simply wouldn’t have the energy, and I wouldn’t have had the courage to do it on my own. It wasn’t a gentle progression – it was ‘go’.
I also venture to say that you look more like your Star Maker winning photo that Keith Urban looks like his.
[laughs] At least I had a hat on and I’m bald now, so you’re probably right.
Well, his teeth are different, for one thing, and that was quite a mullet he was sporting in his photo.
The clothes and the haircut are something I’ll never forget about Keith. He’s always been a man apart.
I was going to say that Tamworth has probably changed for you over the years, except, as you said, from that Star Maker point it was full tilt and I would imagine your Tamworths are always full tilt.
Yes. I’m determined to go as a patron one year. I’ve never done that. The time I fell back in love with the festival – I went through a period of time of just being away from it – I took my oldest boys, who are now mid-to-late teenagers, when they were twelve and nine, and they just adored it. I saw it through their eyes and I thought, This is a good festival. And the other thing I remember when it was going off flat out is that there was that there was a very good Caltex roadhouse on the north side of town that was the only place you could get a decent meal at two o’clock in the morning. I remember sitting there having a trucker’s dinner, thinking, I thought I was supposed to be eating in really nice restaurants and being driven around be a chauffeur and stuff here. But, oh no, this is the real music industry … [laughs]
As you were saying you wanted to go as a punter one year I was thinking perhaps it would be when you retire – except country music people don’t really retire because it’s acceptable to be eighty and still playing.
How true that is. I’ve actually thought about that. I remember when I started I had this plan that I didn’t still want to be doing it at fifty years of age, and I turned fifty last year and I’m still hard at it [laughs].
Yep – country music doesn’t let you go.
That’s right. I think you’ve just given me another song title.
The audience is unique, as far as I can tell – at least, in Australian music. The audience doesn’t decide that there’s a cut-off point. It doesn’t say that it’s only interested in the eighteen-year-olds now. There’s an appreciation that your stories mature as you do.
You’ve just said all the things I would have said after your initial part. The audience are there for the songs and I think that does set it apart. And I think the older you get the more you’ve got to talk about. So, yes, exactly – I agree with you. I call it the red wine principle.
Getting better with age?
And, also, you should have a little bed of red wine every day.
Absolutely. That’s a given. Don’t start if you’re not going to do that.
So given that we’re talking about audiences and songs, you have a show at Wests which is, of course, an iconic venue during the festival. So what can your audience expect from your show.
I’m actually really excited to be back there. I haven’t played Wests for years and years and years. The band is another incarnation – it’s the first permanent band I’ve had for years and we’re all local. We all live around the Stanthorpe region, which means we get a chance to rehearse, which makes us look a bit more dangerous. I’m blessed in as much as they’re all really interested in my back catalogue as well as my new album, so songs from ‘Kimberley Moon’ to ‘Hills of Brisbane’ to ‘When the Lights Go Out’. We’re pretty flexible. I always try to encourage people at the start of the show: ‘Don’t wait until the end to yell songs out, otherwise we’ll just play our set list. If you’ve got songs you want to hear, give us a hoy and we’ll try.’
Has anyone ever yelled out something that you really did not want to play?
Never not that I don’t want to but there’s a song on the first album written by Ana Christensen, called ‘Dancers’ – I’m consistently asked for that and I never learnt to play it and I only ever sang it. So I say, ‘You know what? I can’t play it’, and people say, ‘Yes, you can’, and I have to say, ‘No, I can’t.’ So you’ve just reminded me: I’d better go and learn it because I’m sure someone will ask me for it again.
The nature of Tamworth is that people often drop in to other people’s shows. I suspect there might be a bit of that for you?
It’s always open door, and particularly when I only do one show. I’ve let anything up to a dozen people who I’d love to play know it’s on. Usually we clash – they’re doing their own thing while I’m doing mine – but there is often one who’ll turn up. It’s never rehearsed and it’s always fun.
Will you be dropping in to other people’s shows?
I hope so [laughs].
Just putting it out there to the universe.
Now, I was a bit surprised that you were nominated for the Alternative Country Record of the Year award [at the 2016 Golden Guitars]. Have you ever thought of yourself as alternative?
I’m delighted. Is it an inaugural category?
I don’t think so – I believe Lachlan Bryan won it last year.
Good, then we can get rid of him as a contender. No one wins these things twice in a row, do they? [laughs] Or seventeen times in a row, as the case may be?
And I suppose ‘alt country’ is a loose definition anyway.
That’s exactly right. I’m actually delighted to be in this category. The producer Karen Waters, who owns Red Rebel Records, and I went down to the nomination announcements and we had a ball, because we were up for five categories and saying, ‘Ah, didn’t get that one, didn’t get that one’, and then they read out the nominees for Alternative Album and I thought, I like all the music of those people in this category, and then we got a nomination, so it felt like a really good fit.
Will you perform at the Golden Guitars?
I don’t even know whether we know yet. There’s a chance but I’m not sure. As a nominee there’s a chance – that’s all you can ever say.
Looking ahead: do you have any new songs brewing and what are the plans for 2016?
Ready to go. When I started the process with Karen it was going to be a solo singer-songwriter album – me sitting in front of the mic recording things – and it grew into the album Come On In. And at the same time there were another thirty songs in abeyance. I heard word via an alternate route that we’re looking at an August release for the follow-up album. The songs are there, we just have to figure out when to record them.
Well, yes, because August we’ll come around quickly.
It seems the minute you pass the half-century time seems to contract.
That’s just because you have a greater quantity of interesting things to do.
There you go. Someone said the other day – and I thought, That’s probably scarily right – that [at this age] you’ve lived more of your life than you’ve got left. You start to rush [laughs].
Wednesday 20th January 2016 | 1.30pm
West Tamworth League Club, TAMWORTH NSW
58 Phillip Street, Tamworth NSW
James Blundell’s latest album is Come On In (Red Rebel Music).