The line-up of this year’s Cruisin’ Country 8 could hardly be more illustrious, bringing together brings together over 40 artists, including John Williamson, Troy Cassar-Daley, Graeme Connors, Sara Storer, Tania Kernaghan, Anne Kirkpatrick, James Blundell and Amber Lawrence. Joining them will be Gina Jeffreys, who is, without a doubt, one of Australia’s favourite country music artists. She’s also a delightful person to talk to, as I found out recently.
How many Cruisin’ Countries have you done?
This will be my third. We haven’t been in a couple of years. I did one on my own and I did one with the Songbirds [a trio consisting of Gina, Beccy Cole and Sara Storer]. But this is my third. Lots of the artists go nearly every year. It’s kind of a family holiday for them. I’m super excited to be heading back. It’s the funnest thing ever. It really is a blast. Awesome food, drinks, go to a show every night, lie by the pool. It’s just a dream come true.
Part of me wonders whether it’s a bit like the Tamworth Country Music Festival on the water?
That is exactly what it’s like. That’s the best way to explain it. For the people that come that love country music, everything is paid for. When you go to a different vessel you’re paying all the time for different shows, whereas this is a floating country music festival. There’s no doubt about it. But you get to really mingle more, I think, with the artists. We see all the fans at breakfast and lunch and dinner, and you’re having a holiday with country music lovers. It’s really unique. And it’s really fun actually. I really enjoy it.
The first time you went – because I’m just thinking of you seeing your audience at breakfast and whatever – did it feel like you’re not going to have any down time? It sounds like you enjoy getting to know people.
Yes, absolutely. And you don’t really get any down time but, look, it’s a week and it’s what I do for a living, and I’m always super grateful to people who love the music and who come and support it. And I find it really fascinating to talk to them and see where they’re from. I think it might be overwhelming for some people, I guess, but, I’m a talker. So I’m looking forward to it. I think because I probably don’t do it all the time as well. For me – we’re not constantly on tour. We have a 15-year-old son and when he was born we stopped touring because he used to get travel sickness. He wasn’t a touring baby. And I’ve told this story 100 times, but, Beccy Coles’s baby would sleep in a guitar case backstage. And mine would only sleep in my arms and then he couldn’t even sleep in the car because he would be sick. So Beccy and Kasey’s [Chambers] babies were built to tour and mine just wasn’t. And then when he got older we decided that we wanted to not miss a cricket game and not miss a football game and all that sort of stuff. We just decided we wanted to be parents who stayed home with him. And we stopped touring, and we took ourselves off the road to parent him. And now he’s 15 and he’s a musician. He’s a guitarist and a drummer and now he’s saying to me, ‘Mum, when are you going on the road, and can I come, and how much do you pay?’
For a boy with two musical parents, how dare he not be a touring baby. But it sounds like he has corrected himself.
He’s corrected himself completely, yes. He’s a definite musician and he’s studying sound and he loves all that stuff. So now it’s okay for me to go back out. And I’m recording a new album. We are actually going to take a pre-release of the brand new album onto the ship, and I’ll be showcasing some of those new songs. Because I’d stopped recording and everything because I just really wanted to be a mum and focus on raising him. And now I feel like I’ve got the freedom to be recording again and be going back out and doing gigs. And this one, of course, is an absolute highlight, really, of all touring. It’s insanely fun for us. It’s insanely fun for the people on board as well, but we have a whole lot of fun. It’s kind of like coming home again. It’s like coming back to what I actually do. I’m really looking forward to playing some new songs and just playing again.
Taking a break from country music – I think it is the one genre where you can do that, really, because the audience doesn’t necessarily demand that you put out an album every year, they don’t demand that you’re 21 eternally, as some genres of music do.
That’s right. Honestly, it’s lovely. And they’re ever faithful. I think that a country music fan – they just love you. And they’re more like friends probably than, maybe, any other industry. Not that I’ve ever been in a different genre. But they stand by you and are excited for new releases and understood, I think, while I stopped to be a mum. And I’m hoping that they like the new album. But the country music circle feels like a big family less than, you know, you’re the artist and they’re the fan. All the artists are friends as well, so it is like a big family. And I think they don’t mind that I’m 50 now hopefully, not 21.
Back to the cruise – of course your brother-in-law, Jeff McCormack, is going to be a part of the house band. So I’m wondering if that means it’s hard for you to have a few shandies and dance on table tops when he’s around?
Not at all. I’ve played with Jeff a lot. And my husband – Jeff’s brother, obviously – will be playing in my band. Rod used to be the MD [music director] of the band on the ship when we were doing it all the time [Rod’s band, The Wheel, are reuniting for the cruise too]. But, no, that’s fine. I don’t mind at all. I’ve stood on stage next to my brother-in-law many, many times over many years. So it will be fine. It’s an amazing band. We’re just so lucky to jump up with such incredible musicians, and it’s world class. It’s just such high quality. It’s like a really, really high-quality country music festival. You know, just everything is very high level. And he’s a fun musician, so he doesn’t mind watching me have a couple of drinks. I’m sure he’ll have a few himself.
To the point of the quality of the music, I find the standard to be incredibly high. I do think Tamworth as a festival has had a lot to do with that, because someone like Jeff, I know, plays with so many artists. And so he has to be on his game the whole time and play multiple shows throughout the festival. And I just think that level of competition that’s at Tamworth, not in terms of bad rivalry, but just everyone having to be at a certain standard, has meant that Australian country music has become excellent.
That’s right. The musos are amazing. They really are. They’re world class. You wouldn’t find it better anywhere. Any my husband is an amazing musician as well. He plays every instrument and he’ll be, obviously, on stage with me. And we have a lot of fun on stage together. We’ve been doing a few tours together, Rod and I, because Rod’s a bluegrass musician and he plays a lot of instruments. And he and I have been doing some acoustic shows together where he opens and then I come out and we banter a lot. It’s a lot of fun. We talk about our life and all the things we’ve done over the years, like touring with Johnny Cash and those moments that we’ve got to share together, that come up in our music together, which is really lovely.
Well, your son would have been crazy if he didn’t go into music given what’s going on at home.
And look, if he hadn’t have been musical we wouldn’t have minded either, but he is very good. He’s a really, really fine musician, a fine guitarist and a great drummer. And he’s recording like Rod. Rod’s teaching him how to do sound and all those kinds of things. So we’re pretty sure he’ll end up in the industry somehow. But at the moment I wouldn’t say that he would be in country.
When you’re both country artists – both country music – your kid listens to everything but, pretty much. But who knows? Who knows where he’ll end up? He loves all kinds of music. He especially loves hard rock and old Rolling Stones stuff and Beatles, and anything but what we’re playing.
You won Star Maker around the start of your career – when when you won that, did you have a sense of what your career might be? Like, were you looking ahead thinking this is the start of X, Y, Z? Or did you just think, wow, it’s an opportunity and off I go and see what happens?
Honestly, I had no idea. Because when I won Star Maker everybody else who was in the industry at the time – and the industry was a lot smaller – all, kind of, had full pedigree upbringings. Kasey Chambers – her whole family were her band. Beccy Coles’s mum, Carole Sturtzel, was a singer. Lee Kernaghan – his family – he toured with his dad and Tania, his sister. Anne Kirkpatrick was around then and, you know, her dad is Slim Dusty. And then I came along and my mum was a hairdresser, and my dad was a builder, and I had no idea what to expect. But I knew that I had won something that Keith Urban won the year before, and James Blundell won the year before that, and Lee Kernaghan won the year before that. So that was, kind of, the place that, at the time, the industry was looking to for the next artist. That was how they were finding the next stars, I guess. So I was hoping that it would be successful, and I always had a really positive outlook and just always believed that if you try hard enough and you work really hard you can make something happen. And I was very committed to it and very focused on a career. And I told boys that I wouldn’t go out with them because I was going to move to Sydney and be a famous singer, and all this sort of stuff, when I was young. I was just completely focused on it, and in my head it was going to happen, I just didn’t really know how.
And you were correct: it did happen. So given, as you mentioned, those other artists did have that family background in country music, what was your first encounter with country music?
My very first encounter with country music, if you go right back to when I was still living in Toowoomba in Queensland, and I was singing in a band, this guitarist asked me to jump up at a country music night at one of the pubs. And I was only about 15, so I snuck into this pub. And as I was singing a song with them – I think the song was ‘Blue Bayou’ – he had to put his guitar down and go down into the audience and break up a fight and then come back on the stage and finish the song. This was a country music club in Toowoomba. I’m sure they’re not like that now. But back then, that was my first night. Then my next real country music experience was the Tamworth Country Music Festival. And it was interesting because I was both welcomed and not welcomed. At that point I was 22, so I was young, and didn’t look like a country artist and didn’t sound traditionally country like everybody else. I was this new country music that people hadn’t seen before and so the old brigade didn’t love me and the new ones were lovely. I had so much support from Lee Kernaghan and Keith Urban, and then I met James Blundell. And the girls weren’t there yet. Beccy and Kasey were yet to come. Then we became friends and all supported each other. I got support from my peers, but the more old-fashioned didn’t exactly welcome me. I was doing an interview for – I think it was A Current Affair– and they were doing a story about old country and new country and they interviewed me and Chad Morgan. And I was all young and didn’t know anything about anything, and then they turned to Chad and said, ‘What do you think of the new, young, country music that’s coming up? And Gina’s music?’ and Chad said, ‘Not much.’ And I’ve never forgot that, because I wasn’t his cup of tea. And, look, I’ve seen him many times since and he’s a lovely man. He’s a really, really lovely man, but at that point the traditionalists weren’t really ready for me. So I can’t say I was completely welcomed. Though years later, John Williamson was beautiful, Slim Dusty was beautiful and I went out into the outback and played in Aboriginal missions with lots of older country artists and they were beautiful. But it took them a little while to wrap their head around that maybe I was going to make it change a little, and I did.
Possibly it’s fear of change. But now I look at Tamworth and think, well, there is a lot of integration between the generations and I think that younger artists, and I’m now thinking of artists who are 20, as well as other ages, are very respectful of those artists who are in their 70s, basically. And people who came before them. So hopefully, now, it’s a little more integrated.
I think so. And I certainly find that. It’s a beautiful industry to be a part of.
As a singer, because given that you were already singing by the time you started performing in country music, what do you like about performing country?
The stories, definitely. Being able to tell a story in a song. Because I’m a songwriter and I just love to tell stories about my life, or, everything I’ve been through. And it’s kind of like therapy. I’ve written hundreds of songs since I’ve released my last original album. Not only for me, but for other artists and stuff. And mainly for other artists of that period of time. And it’s just such a great way to express yourself. And country music in particular, I mentor artists who are getting ready to record and all that sort of stuff as well. And it’s interesting because country lyrics, I think, are harder to write than pop lyrics, and I write a lot of pop stuff as well, and write for TV and all those kinds of things. And country – well, you’re trying to write a book on one page sometimes. And it’s very hard to tell a whole story on one page. It’s a real art, I think. And I love that about it. I love the harmony, I love the instruments, it’s just where my heart is, and it’s what I grew up on. And while I listen to all kinds of music and I can appreciate all kinds of music, I particularly love more bluegrassy acoustic, lots of harmony with stories.
In my research I didn’t actually discover the fact that you were writing for other artists and writing for TV and things like that. So it sounds like you are relentlessly productive.
I really am. I have a really good work ethic and I try to be creative and write as much as I can. And I really believe too, that to pay it forward. And I felt like I had a lot of really great opportunities growing up with my career, though I feel like I had to learn a lot of stuff the hard way, because nobody taught me. No one said don’t do this, and do this, and it will be easier if you this and this and this. And so now I feel like I can help people and go, you know what, if you do it this way, it might be a bit easier. This guy is really nice to work with. Whatever ways I can help artists who want to break into the industry and it just feels lovely to be able to use your experience. And age too, you know, to help young ones find it a little easier. And the real basis of what I would teach when I’m mentoring is just being kind and being a nice person and being true to yourself, but being graceful and nice to work with. Because you meet people who aren’t, and then nobody wants to work with them and they wonder why they didn’t get successful, you know? I just love all that, I love reading people and helping, I guess.
Cruisin’ Country 8 runs from 9 to 16 October 2018 and departs from Sydney.