Each time I interview Lee Kernaghan it is both a pleasure and very interesting. Kernaghan has been at the apex of Australian country music for so long that his popularity could be taken for granted, but each conversation reminds me that he’s there because he is passionate about his music, the stories he’s telling and about connecting with his audience, and he’s really, really good at all of those. His new album, Backroad Nation, will be released on 10 May and Kernaghan will be playing so many places that instead of listing them here I’ll send you to his website. It was wonderful to speak to him once more and find out about his album and his forthcoming tour.
With so many hit songs and albums and tours behind you, it seems as though you keep looking to up the ante. I was reading that you’re going to have different design, a few different elements in this show. How do you keep that momentum going through your career?
I love making music, touring and performing and singing about my country and my people and it’s what drives me.
It seems to me in observing your career, listening to your music, that you keep your audience in mind. You’re really aware of that connection with them. Does it feel to you like you have a relationship with them?
I hate the word ‘fans’ because I then think of them as fans – they’re my mates – and I want to give them music that will be a soundtrack for the parties, for barbecues, for road trips, all kinds of different occasions. And a lot of time goes into it creating those songs. A couple of years of songwriting. I travelled Australia a couple of times over collecting ideas for the album. And then I travelled halfway around the world to Nashville. Some of the greatest writers on the planet are over there and I just wanted to make sure that no stone was left unturned. I wanted to make this record a real good one.
You travel so much for tours, but I’m thinking that because of the touring schedule and the way those days would work, you don’t necessarily have time to think about writing. So is that a separate process when you’re gathering stories?
It sort of happens out of the blue, usually, and often when I’m travelling and meeting people. There’s a song on the new album called ‘Watching Lightning’ – it was born, I guess you could say, out at Marble Bar, at the Ironclad Hotel. The Wolfe Brothersand I did a big show out there a few years back. Up there in the Pilbara it’s really remote country and people would come in from all the stations out of town. After the show the boys and I just hung out with everybody in the car park and it was great to find out more about their lives and what they were doing. And I talking to a young bloke who was the station manager at Hillside Station, which was about a hundred miles east of Marble Bar in the Pilbara, in the middle of nowhere. And I said, ‘Mate, what do you do for entertainment out that way? Because there’s no shops or anything for miles around. And he said, ‘Oh mate, we’re just out there mustering cattle 24/7. But when the wet season comes along,’ he said, ‘the rain comes down, the river goes up, me and my missus turn off all the generators in the homestead, we sit out on the front verandah with a cold beer, watching lightning.’ As soon as he said ‘watching lightning’ I thought, Bang – I’m going to write that song. Then it was probably six months later, I got his number and I called him up and said, ‘Tell us the whole story about you and your missus and how you got to meet her. Tell us about the station and all of that.’ So his story has been lovingly re-created in the form of this new song. So that’s where a lot of it starts for me – often it’s rolling into town or meeting someone, experiencing something that I haven’t experienced before and then turning it into a song.
Well, I can’t wait to hear that song now – that sounds amazing. But that ability to listen to other people is, is not necessarily instinctual for human beings. You’ve obviously been doing it for a long time. Do you think it’s something you developed over the years or something that you actually did come as quite a young man and that’s really informed your songwriting?
I’m just interested to hear about people, and over the years there have been scores of songs that have been inspired by people’s stories and lives. For me it’s all about keeping it authentic and keeping it real.
The new album is called Backroad Nation. Do you have any favorite back roads around Australia?
I love western Queensland, getting out into that country. Put me in a four-wheel drive on a dirt road, heading west, and it’s as if the weight of the world comes off the shoulders. You find a camp down by a river somewhere and roll out of swag, light a fire, camp oven in the ground, cold beer in your hand. It doesn’t get much better that. ‘Backroad Nation’ is a song that just puts the goosebumps up my arm – I’m not entirely sure why, but it just does. It was one that I wrote with Lindsay Rimes and Phil Barton when I was in Nashville. I think just by being a long, long way from home it gives you a bit of perspective and it was really poignant to write that song with two fine Australian songwriters who are based in Nashville. Your heart is always going to be where home’s at and home is in Australia, even for those boys.
I think you’re right, there is something in the idea of getting perspective on it –especially when you’re so immersed in Australia is a landscape and Australian locations when you’re touring, to be able to away from it would be necessary. But also your schedule always fascinates me because you do so much –how on earth do you get time to not only go to Nashville and write this album but record it in amongst everything else?
A lot of the recording happened in Australia and was uploaded to Nashville. It’s a global village now when it comes to writing and recording, the world’s not quite as big as what it used to be. I’ve had a great team of writers, obviously Phil Barton and Lindsay Rimes and Garth Porter and Colin Buchanan, who I’ve been writing with for years now. We’ve written so many hits. And they played an integral role in the writing. And bringing Nick Wolfe into the fold as well has been awesome. He’s just a brilliant writer and musician. So it’s got some edge, this album. I feel like it’s something new for me, anyway.
That can be a challenge for a really established artist. The Wolfe Brothers did it, of course with their latest album, they shifted style a little bit, and it can be tricky when you’ve got your audience who like what they like and they’ve known you for so long. But I think it’s also the case that when you are authentic with them as you are, they will go with you if you’re shifting directions a little bit.
As long as it comes from a place of truth, I think it’s always going to resonate. And that reminds me of a meeting that I had with Kelly Dixon when I was about eighteen years old. He’s a bushman from Camooweal in western Queensland and a bush poet and the man who wrote a lot of the big hits for Slim Dusty, including ‘Leave Him in the Long Yard’. Kelly Dixon said, ‘Son, if you write songs about things you know real life experiences you won’t go too far wrong.’ And it was golden advice from one of the greats.
I think you’ve stayed really true to that. Now, you mentioned Nick Wolfe and the Wolfe Brothers are joining you again on this tour –isn’t it time they became honorary Kernaghans? Perhaps a name change is in order.
[Laughs] I think it’s the other way around – I should be an honorary Wolfe brother. We’ve got a brand new song – a new duet that we wrote together and recorded together. It’s called ‘Till It Ends’ and it was inspired by the Deni Ute Muster, actually, in a lot of ways. A city journalist went out there and did a big expose on the Deni Ute Muster, interviewed a whole bunch of punters and some hard-core legends were telling him about the muster and what they loved about the muster, and it was all pretty colourful. And they said, ‘Look, no matter what happens out here, we’ll be here till it ends.’ And when it comes to parties, I don’t know what it is but I’m a bit notorious for being the last one to leave. So I think this will be a party anthem of 2019, 2020, for the Wolfe Brothers and me.
You also have Christie Lambjoining you on the tour. I would imagine many artists would love to join your tour, so what made Christie stand out?
She’s a brilliant artist in her own right and she’s got a brand new album out this year. She’s really getting a lot of fans out there around the country and I love having her on the show, and I love having her join me in the band as well. She plays mandolin, banjo, keys, harmonies. Her fiancé, Jonathan English, joins the band as well. And he’s the son of the great rock legend Jon English. Jonathan is one of the greatest musicians, and blokes to boot, that I know. And so it should be like a family for us out there.
You keep that really well and tightly organised to have Christie and the Wolfe Brothers as support acts and then having them also playing with you. I know from interviewing the Wolfe Brothers over the years that they love being on tour with you. It’s great experience for them, and also, I would think, for you it’s that reassuring thing of knowing everyone’s there because they’ve already been on stage.
It started out with the Wolfe Brothers being in my band, then it became the Wolfe Brothers opening my shows and now it’s a double bill [laughs]. I think the next stage is that I’ll open up for the Wolfe Brothers.
The list of tour events is really, really extensive, and I would imagine you’re taking a few back roads to get to some of those venues as well – but are there any new stops on this tour that you haven’t played already?
I know we’re going to Broken Hill, which will be good. We’re also doing Mt Isa. So there’ll be plenty of back roads for sure on this run.
For all tour dates go to www.leekernaghan.com
Order the album from: