Country music legend John Williamson on inspiration, ‘Crossover Country’ & more

Mallory interviews Victorian country music legend John Williamson during the Deni Ute Muster in NSW to talk about song inspiration, longevity and utes.

How’s your Deni Ute Muster experience been so far?

Wet. (Laughs) [But] this is the first time I haven’t brought a Ute. I’ve brought my SS Holden Ute when I had one of those. Then I brought my ’51 Holden Ute; it broke down in a little village just outside here before I got here but they found a part for me. Then I brought my Variety Bash Ute last time – so this is the first time I haven’t bought a Ute. The first one I didn’t, so I think this is my fourth one, might even be fifth one now that I think of it – but that’s not many of 18 years. No one on my crew’s allowed to drink until the show’s over. Then we’ll have a drink.

There’s been a lot of talk, especially with Keith Urban appearing on stage, about a new wave, crossover-country, call it what you will. What is your take on the new sounds coming through in country music?

Ever since, I’ve been in the game people have been talking about the new wave of country music. There’s been that many new waves of country music it sounds like a tsunami. Crossover Country has been happening ever since the Tamworth Country Music Festival started. There’s always been crossover.

To me, I know with country music if you lose touch with the traditional stuff you don’t have an industry anymore. I think there’s always argument that some people see country as the instruments that are played. But to me, a country song in Australia is one that has lyrics about our country.

You recently released your four CD set album, His Favourite Songs. How did you pick the 50 songs for the album?

I wanted to do a compilation of love songs because I had one of those years ago but there’s been a lot more love songs and better ones, so I’ve got that. I’ve always wanted to do a tropical one, so there’s another CD called Willo Goes Troppo – which is all my songs about Northern Australia, which tend to have a bit of a calypso feel to it, like “Cape York Peninsula” and those songs, “Papa Whisky November”. The other one is country music ballads and the other one’s a sing-along. It’s done very well so far.

You’ve written over 500 songs – where do you find inspiration?

Just by getting around; you certainly can’t find inspiration sitting on your bum! You’ve got to get out there and meet people. Recently, I went to the Simpson Desert with a few mates. We camped. No caravans, just camped. I was so that excited about getting up there, I wrote a song. I’d finished it by the time I got there, added a bit to it, and sang it to the people at Ethabuka Station. It’s definitely a song in the show now, called “Heading into the Simpson Desert” – couldn’t think of a better title – anything clever, I should say. (Laughs) It was just really writing about what happened.

If you write truthful stuff, it usually works or the campers will relate to it. A line like, ‘You’ve got to keep the girls happy because happy wife is a happy life.’ What else? ‘Sitting under the Coolabah,’ grabbing a Milky Way and eating it – all the little stupid things you think of. I’m more influenced by just how I feel living in Australia, didgeridoos and the way we talk. I’ll listen to bird calls, like “Rip Rip Woodchip”, I wrote from the melody of a Butcherbird.

You are always to be off traveling somewhere – do you get time to explore when you’re on tour?

The only time I get to do it [is] when we’re not doing shows. You don’t get time otherwise. I mean, you have a look around but as you’re going, you’re flat out – drive, sleep, work, eat, work, get up in the morning, have breakfast on the road, sleep, have an early dinner, sound check, and on it goes. When on the road, I don’t get inspired to write many songs when I’m working.

Was there a moment in your career where you thought I’ve made it?

Yeah, when Mallee Boy went platinum – that was only 16 years after I started … didn’t take me long, but that’s it. (Laughs) The thing about country music, is it can take a long time and as long as you stick to your guns, the following will build. I tell anyone who wants to know that, in country music or in folk music – I’m sort of in both really – is that every person you entertain, look in the eye and shake hands. You meet them and they want photos and you sign their CD, that’s like a brick in your foundation, so [if] you do that for 46 years, you’re standing on a wall or a monument almost.

You’re been an integral part of the music industry for so many years now – which is almost unheard of. What do you accredit your reasons for longevity?

I expected myself to fade off by now, but I think I’m performing better than ever. (Laughs) My memory drifts a bit more on stage than I’d like it to, but performance-wise, I’m getting more relaxed. The more relaxed you are on stage the more the audiences’ relax. Matt on bass and ukulele, and Claire on fiddle and accordion, with me on foot box, harmonica and guitar – we’ve got a really good combination now. Now I’m probably enjoying it more than ever.

If you want to know why I’ve been popular more than anything, it’s been because I sing with an honest voice about who we are. There’s a great market in Australia for stuff just about us.

How does it feel to have fans that have been supporting you since the very beginning?

Most of them died! No, I’m only kidding! (laughs) … Well, the early ones. I do see some. Probably the real development days were around Sydney in the pubs developing my own crowd and putting money at the door – that’s when I started writing material that really had to work and if you didn’t come, you didn’t get paid.

Using a title of one of your songs – how would you describe the Deni Ute Muster?

I think “Mallee Boy” is probably be one of my most popular songs at the Deni Ute Muster because it’s a song that says I’m proud to be a country boy. I might say I’m a Mallee Boy, but that’s the same as saying I’m proud to be born and bred in the country –  I guess, the Deni Ute Muster’s full of them … and if they’re not from the country, well they’re fakers. (Laughs)

His Favourite Collection is out now.




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