Acclaimed as one of Australian country music’s most highly anticipated events, the music festival on the high seas Cruisin’ Country returns in 2018, celebrating a massive eight consecutive years. Departing from Sydney in October, Cruisin’ Country 8 brings together more than 40 of Australia’s most respected country musicians for a seven-night cruise aboard the luxury liner Radiance Of The Seas to idyllic holiday ports Noumea and the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia. Embracing the theme of Looking Forward, Looking Back, Cruisin’ Country 8 presents a journey through song of Australian country music’s past, present and future.
The 2018 line-up includes John Williamson, Troy Cassar-Daley, Graeme Connors, Gina Jeffreys, Sara Storer, Tania Kernaghan, Anne Kirkpatrick, James Blundell and Amber Lawrence – and it was my privilege to talk to country music legend John Williamson about the cruise, and his illustrious career.
This will be your fourth time on Cruisin’ Country – do you remember your first time?
The first time I didn’t do the whole cruise – I flew to Vanuatu and jumped on board there. I was a bit worried about being on a cruise full of punters, but after that I realised that everyone’s pretty cool and you make a lot of friends. From then on I’ve done the whole thing. What I like about it now – the last cruise I think we had the best of country musicians that exist, all on a boat, and all the jam sessions that went on after all the shows were probably as much fun as doing the shows themselves.
Performance takes a lot of energy, and you have to gear up for a performance and wind down afterwards. So you do need to preserve yourself.
Oh yes. Any day I have a show I have a sleep in the afternoon. You do need a lot of energy. It’s not just about physical energy – it’s about having your head very clear. My show normally I do thirty songs.
And just back to your point about the jam sessions – that’s a feature of Tamworth as well. There are so many great musicians in one place, and these wonderful spontaneous collaborations happen, so I can imagine in a closed environment like a ship that’s heightened to the nth degree.
It’s quite a big family. Obviously there’s disappointments at awards because people think they should have got something they didn’t, but in the long run the country music fraternity is quite a big family, and t’s a lot of fun really, working together. I think generally the whole standard of musicians in the last twenty, thirty years has grown. It’s incredible. We have world-class players now.
I completely agree. Tamworth has a bit to do with it – everyone in the same place.
Tamworth’s done a lot to promote it, because that’s where a lot of young ones have been encouraged to start. I had nothing like that when I started. I went down to Melbourne and New Faces. If I hadn’t done well there I probably would have given the whole game away [laughs]. But at Tamworth you can go every year as a youngster and you can get [exposure] and eventually there will be room for you if you’re good enough. And you’ve got to have that dexterity and believe in yourself.
And the level of competition is so high.
And that’s good.
You mentioned you play thirty songs in each show – how many shows do you play on each cruise?
That’s a good question … I do two, I think. Two or three. I’m happy to do as many as they like, but there are that many artists now. We have our major night on stage and there’s a big finale. But I’ll jump up at the jam sessions.
Do you take a band on the cruise or is it you and a guitar?
I’m very lucky – my two favourite players who I work with constantly now, Claire O’Mara on fiddle and Jeff McCormack on bass, they are actually in the house band. So I don’t have to rehearse with anybody [laughs]. I think also by then I’ll have used Brendan Radford – he’s the musical director. I’m actually using him a bit this year to do the bigger shows. He’ll also be in the band, of course.
You have such an extensive catalogue of songs that I can’t imagine what it’s like for you to choose a set list, but if you’re doing more than one show do you have different set lists?
Yes. If I do more than one I’ll try to vary it a bit. But there’s different people each concert, audience wise, and my shows are really made up of the songs that I know are the most popular, so you have to really stick to that. I throw the odd curler in there [laughs] or a new song. I’ve got my new album called Butcher Bird coming out in September, so that will be well and truly exposed around that time.
Does anyone ever come up to you during the cruise and make a request?
All the time. People yell out requests but unless it’s already in the show I don’t do it because I like to think about songs before I do them [laughs], not just bring them out of the hat. You have to think of the audience as a whole and do the set that I know from experience is going to work the best for that night. If I’m on the road, of course, if I’m in Queensland I’ll do more Queensland songs, if I’m in Western Australia I’ll do more Western Australia songs. You vary it a bit.
That is one of the most significant things about Australian country music, that relationship between artist and audience. The way you construct your set list is so thoughtful and that idea that you’re not out there to play just what you feel like playing – you’re thinking of the audience.
When I fill in my passport, I put ‘entertainer’, I don’t put ‘singer-songwriter’. Entertainment is what it’s about and I think anyone in this business who doesn’t realise that is heading in the wrong direction. You can be a little self-indulgent. I think I learnt from being in the cabaret industry – I started in the seventies and it was mainly clubs and the dancing girls and the comedians, and it is about variety. In the show you have humour, you have sad songs, you have up songs, you have singalongs, you have songs to make them proud – you try to mix and match it up. You want to keep them on the edge of their seat and not knowing what’s coming next.
Which is, no doubt, one of the reasons you’ve had such a long career. With the amount of songs you sing in each show, do you do anything in particular to look after your voice?
My daughter, Amy, who’s well established now in the folk scene, she went to the Con [Conservatorium of Music] and she taught me quite a lot of voice exercises. I must admit, in the old days, I used to get hoarse quite often during a show and it doesn’t happen now because I do know how to prepare the voice before I go onstage. It is important.
It is important also for your fans – no one wants you to be running out of puff.
[Laughs] If I don’t work for a couple of weeks, four or five days before the shows I’ll start getting the fingers going too. The fingers can get soft on the guitar. It’s all about preparation, for sure.
It is about that lifetime of commitment – what you’re talking about basically is keeping yourself in training and keeping yourself match fit throughout your life.
Yes – and the breath is another thing. I’ll never forget someone telling me that Frank Sinatra used to sing under water in his swimming pool to keep his lung capacity up. Singing is very much about breathing – you don’t want to run out of breath – and that is about keeping reasonably fit. I don’t have to go running or anything. When I’m in the apartment in Sydney I have a couple of sets of stairs that a hundred steps each and I walk up them most mornings, and have a bit of a walk around Darling Harbour.
The theme of the cruise this year is ‘Looking Forward, Looking Back’. Looking back over your career, you’ve written so many songs that are beloved – has there been a constant motivation for you throughout your career, or does each album – each song – have its own source of inspiration?
I think I always wrote songs for my show rather than just for a record. And even a record should balance it so that you have a pretty up song to grab them in the beginning – just like a show would. I don’t think people are always sitting back with their headphones with the fire and listening intently. You’ve got to have things that grab people, or even things that cut across the road noise in a car. Entertainment has been my motivation, but I also believe that singing about how I love Australia and the way the characters develop, how I love the bush, that’s my motivation and I like to motivate people to feel the same way about the place so we do protect it and don’t take it for granted.
In your songs there are such great details – in ‘Gallery of Pink Galahs’, for example, that detail about the birds – that seem to spin off into stories. Do you take notes of details as you go around Australia – ideas that become songs?
You never know where an idea’s going to come from, that’s for sure. I don’t look for things any more but I’ve been doing it that long – it’s been 48 years now – that when I hear a song title that rings a bell straightaway I’ll write that title down, because a title can give you so much. When I saw a bloke years ago and said, ‘This bloke’s got wrinkles from smiling’, well, there as a song straightaway. That could be about my grandparents or people who love living in Australia and have had a good life, happy with their marriage and all that sort of stuff. That line itself inspires the song. That’s the hardest thing to come up with – a good idea. I find the chorus and verses and everything else to be quite easy if you’ve got the idea.
And obviously you’re adept at accessing your own imagination, which is something a lot of adults can lose – but it seems you have that spark and then your imagination can take you into the story.
I don’t think it’s as much imagination as it’s observing everything everywhere I go. I probably should be a passenger more than a driver because my head’s swinging around all the time with everything that’s going on. I don’t miss things. I observe the bush everywhere I go. I virtually know every tree of every place I’m driving through – and if I don’t I’ll ask somebody about it. I obviously know all the birds. So I like to think that a bushie, if he listens to my song intently enough, a lot of them will describe where I am, whether it’s talking about brigalows or red gums or mountain country, black cockatoos. All these things, they do live in certain areas, it’s not just one Australia where everything happens at the same time. I get a bit annoyed when I see some outback show and the sound effects have a whip bird. There’s no whip birds in the outback.
I notice you’re doing an African safari this year as well, and it’s sold out.
There’s only twenty people. It’d be very disappointing if they didn’t sell out [laughs]. I get 200 people per show in my private shows in my shed – they don’t sell out quite so quickly, but the 20 do. So I don’t really have to promote that. But it’s become fun, because half the people that are coming on the second one were on the first one.
That must be an interesting relationship to have with such a small group.
It’s good [but] it’s probably one of the hardest things to do, to perform for mates around a fire. It might seem easy but we’re not using speakers or a microphone. Every time I do half an hour and it’s got to be different, because it’s the same 20 people [laughs]. They’re pretty strong fans. If I forget the words they’ll sing with me.
I notice you have other shows this year, playing in a lot of places, but I guess that’s usual for you. Is there anywhere you haven’t played that you would like to?
The steps of the [Sydney] Opera House [laughs]. I saw Paul Kelly do it. I said to [my manager], ‘My fiftieth year’s coming up in 2020 – maybe I’ve earned a concert on the steps of the Opera House.’ I’ve done the Opera House itself, with the Symphony Orchestra, but I just thought that would be nice. I think that people would come from out west if they knew about it. I don’t want to say that I’d draw so much of the city crowd but it is surprising just where my audience comes from. People think it’s just for the bush but it’s not at all. It’s just Aussies generally. And I want to sing ‘True Blue’ for the Wallabies. I’ve done ‘Waltzing Matilda’ but I want to do ‘True Blue’ [at the Bledisloe Cup].