Interview: Adam Harvey (Australia) on Nashville, the 1970s and how political correctness has no place in country music

Fulfilling a dream of recording in the US, Adam Harvey’s tenth studio album The Nashville Tapes is inspired by country music of the 1970s and its icons. Off the back of last year’s tour of The Great Country Songbook Volume II alongside Beccy Cole, the eight-time Golden Guitar winner is again on the road, this time with support from The Voice Australia 2017 winner Judah Kelly.

Last time we spoke you were about to begin The Great Country Songbook Volume II tour alongside Beccy Cole, how did that tour go?

[It went] pretty good. We all survived … just. My mental health has recovered [but] my liver probably hasn’t yet! One thing about Bec is she loves a party. She’s a wild girl. We love her. She’s always great onstage. We tend to go on tour for a while, then we stay apart for a few years and forget one another’s bad habits, and then we get back together again.

What would Beccy say is your worst habit?

The problem we have is that I’m always early and she is always late. We always fight about that. I’m forever waiting for her because I’m driving and I’m in a mad rush to get everywhere. You’re got to take the ups and the downs. One of the great things about touring with a car full of musicians, you soon learn everyone’s got their own quirks. You learn to get a bit more patience. It might have helped keep me married for 18 years.

And you’re currently on the road again, this time on your own for your Nashville Tapes tour. Were you sick of sharing the spotlight with Beccy?

She was sick of me! Beccy rang my wife, Kathy and said, “Righto, it’s your turn. I’m bloody sick of putting up with him. I’m sending him home. That’s it!” I hung around home for six months and then my wife said, “Are you going to go on tour or what?” because otherwise we’re going to get a divorce [Laughs].

Let’s talk about your latest release of The Nashville Tapes. You’ve mentioned how the sound was heavily 70s influenced. I don’t claim to be a 1970s country music expert, but that sound is very evident but I hear it done in a modern way. Was that the intention of the recording?

That was the whole idea. I did write the songs and made sure always in the back of my mind, I had that theme. A lot of people over the years have said to me, “You’ve got to get more modern, put out a country rock album or get into this pop country stuff!” I thought everyone else is doing that so maybe I need to be true to myself, take a step back in the opposite direction and do what I love. I think you’ve got to try and be different from everyone else.

I’ve always loved that 70s era of country music. Those legends like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson were all at their peak. I loved that they were larger than life, so unique and all bad arses! They were real outlaws and what they sang about was actually what was going on in their lives. It was all very genuine. That’s why I love that classic era of country music.

When I look at some of the new country singers that are coming out, especially out of America today, they look like catwalk models. These smooth, polished, good-looking, young boys with a cowboy hat on; a bad night out for them might be going in, getting a cheeseburger at McDonalds after the gig.

The thing about music from the 1970s is that a lot of the lyrics were about things that you just aren’t allowed to sing about anymore.  

My kid’s discover music from the 80s back and they can’t believe some of the things that people were allowed to sing about. Imagine if a new artist brought out [the 1979 single from Mental As Anything, which Harvey covered on his Harvey‘s Bar … The Backyard Sessions album] ‘The Nips Are Getting Bigger’? Everyone would be like you’re promoting alcohol and drinking and you can’t do it. I always copped a lot of flak when I recorded a song called ‘God Made Beer’. That upset a whole bunch of people but who cares – it’s about the music.

I think political correctness and music don’t belong together. I think if you get an artist who’s more worried about being politically correct than following their heart then it’s going to be very bland and boring. I’ve had a longstanding sponsorship with Volkswagen Utes and I put a song on this album called ‘The Holden Days’ about the last Holden being made in Australia. Everyone said to me, “You’re gonna lose your Holden deal. You’re mad! You can’t put that song on there!” I did and it cost me a car deal. At the end of the day, what should come first the songs or the sponsorship deals? I thought do I want to be a music artist, a singer/songwriter or do I want to be a bloody mascot for a brand of whether it’s clothing or cars or guitars?

I’m happy with the decision. When I was first starting out, [singer-songwriter] Stan Coster said to me, “Throughout your career, you’re gonna come across people all the time that want to tell you to change this and you shouldn’t do that. You’ve got to only remember one thing – Just be Adam Harvey.” At the time, I didn’t quite understand, but now that I’m a bit older, I think what a really good bit of simple advice: just be yourself.

Stan Coster originally wrote ‘Three Rivers Hotel’ for Slim Dusty, the song you and Lee Kernaghan duet on The Nashville Tapes. How did that come about?

I thought it is a good way to keep that connection between Nashville and the Australian music scene. It was good of Lee Kernaghan to record the song with me. I recorded a duet with him on one of his albums [‘Ned Kelly’ of Kernaghan’s 25th Anniversary Album] and he always said, “Mate, any time, I’m happy to return the favour.”

[Australian] Nash Chambers produced the album. He lives over in America now [but] he’s been a good mate of mine for many years. Jedd Hughes, who is a phenomenal guitar player works for Emmylou Harris and all these amazing artists, it was good to have him [on the album too]. He is a great young fella from South Australia [but] lives in Nashville now.

[In Nashville,] I had a pretty big night with Aussie singer-songwriter, Brian Cadd. We were in the studio later on, having a few drinks, having a listen and I’d played him a song called ‘We’ll Have To Drink Our Way Out Of This’ and he loved it. He said, “Oh man, what a great line for a song! Wouldn’t it be funny if I sing on it?!” A few more scotches later, Brian was primed and ready to go. It all ended up a bit rough and ready, but it suits the song pretty well.

You’ve said previously that recording in Nashville has always been a bucket list item for you. Did recording there actually live up to the dream you always hoped it would?

It did live up to everything I expected. I genuinely loved recording it. To record in the Sound Emporium, one of the famous studios in Nashville, that was amazing! All the musicians were so humble, nice and really excited about getting to play some classic country music again.

To have some of those real musicians in this studio that actually worked with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Willie Nelson and hear the stories in-between takes of what it was like touring with those guys and recording with them – I was glued to every word. I was like a kid in Disneyland. My dad used to play all these old vinyl records. He had a big collection and he’d tell me about the Grand Ole Opry and all these artists that he played their music, so ever since I was a kid, I always thought it’d be great to record an album over there.

What is it about Nashville that is so inspirational to country music artists?

It’s funny when you go there because it’s actually a massive big city. The whole city is just all day and night. There’s music everywhere! Original artists and songwriters [are] at every single bar, cafe or restaurant you walk into. You do get inspired by that!

It’s like [the Tamworth Country Music Festival] on steroids! If you times Tamworth by ten and it goes all year round, not just for 10 days, that’s the vibe. It’s a really great town. I’ve been over there before a couple of times, [but this is] the first time I’ve gone and recorded there.

The biggest problem is that there are so many other Aussies there; it feels like we’re taking over the bloody place! The town never sleeps. Once you get a bunch of Aussies together, especially Aussie musicians, you go from one bar to the next to the next it could all end in tears.

Was your liver more damaged from touring with Beccy or being in Nashville?

[Laughs] Touring with Beccy! She’s a machine. No one does it better than us Aussies! I tell you, none of them can drink like we can!

What were the main differences between recording in Nashville vs. Australia?

Over there you’ve got so many different musicians and so you get different solos, guitar riffs and things like that. There’s amazing musicians here but there’s a limited amount of them that record country music. But the thing that really surprised me over there was the speed at how quickly they can record it. We band tracked the majority of that album in a day – it’s unbelievable. With these guys, it was quite different to what I’m used to. Normally we take at least a week to band track an album in the studio.

I’m a pretty ordinary guitar player but I sing them a bit of an acoustic guitar vocal demo and in the studio, they go bang one take. It’s done; first time, every time. It is quite frightening at how quickly they can record that stuff flawless, because that’s all those guys do all day, every day.

The Nashville Tapes is out now.