John, Shane and the Red Rockin’ Dirt Band are back on the road after the success of their last tour together and they’re headed to Newcastle. They’ll play Wests New Lambton on Sunday, 9 December. We caught up for a chat.
NL: You’ve both been able to celebrate Australia without denying its history.
JOHN: Unless I was away from school the day they did grammar, this appears to be a statement rather than a question!
SHANE: The most important quality of songwriting and performance is authenticity. The listener can spot a fake emotion in a moment. It’s the same with our history. There has to be intellectual rigour. The first premise is that this is an Aboriginal country. You don’t lose anything from acceptance of that truth. Solid Rock threw me headfirst into an Aboriginal view of the world and it’s enriched and deepened my appreciation of Australia and my expression as a songwriter.
NL: What have been some of your favourite tracks to play from your collaboration.
SHANE: ‘Times Like These’ was our first collaboration as writers. These sorts of projects can often go wrong and not work out. Not so for us. We flew into it. I’ll never die wondering what John thinks. He’s frank and fearless and I’m not backward in taking a forward step either. It was a ripping contest of ideas and ultimately rewarding. John casts a critical eye on political affairs and I delight in his equally eloquent and acerbic turn of phrase in songs like ‘19’, ‘The Long Run’, ‘Bali’, ‘Borrowed Ground’. I also love the collaboration on ‘Faces In The Street’ that we recorded on John’s ‘Lawson’ album, some years ago. A song like ‘If I Close My Eyes’ reveals John’s abiding concern for our country’s harsh fragility.
JOHN: I like playing all of my songs because I wrote them and they are sensational. (Tongue firmly in cheek) With regard to Shane’s catalogue, I enjoy playing and singing all of them. Over and above “Solid Rock” of course, I particularly like “Let the Franklin Flow”, “Razor’s Edge”, “Heart of My Country” and “Talk of the Town”. I’m also hoping we get to play “St Kilda Again” and “Clancy, Dooley and Don Mcleod”.
NL: You both have signature songs that everyone wants to hear when you play live. What’s your relationship with those songs and their imprint on everything you’ve done since?
SHANE: For me, ‘Solid Rock’ has become such a towering presence that it almost overshadows the other 300 songs I’ve written. It has defined peoples understanding of me and it has changed my life as well, for the better. I’m immensely proud of a song I feel came ‘through’ me, not necessarily ‘from’ me. It threw me headfirst into Aboriginal Australia 36 years ago and it’s been a continuing journey that has enriched my life and deepened my understanding of this remarkable country we live in. I still love to sing it and every time I do, I’m never quite sure where it’s going to take me. You can’t half sing it. You have to ‘give your spirit’ and honour it fully.
JOHN: I am immensely grateful for having been able to get this far through life as a songwriter. “19”, particularly but not solely changed my life in any number of ways – mostly good. I’ve always had a commitment to writing and performing songs that contribute to improving us as a country – improving the way we behave towards each other and the way we behave on the international stage. I’m not too interested in songs about love and mindless introspection. Plenty of people do that. I feel no burning need to contribute to what is a storehouse bursting that sort of song.
NL: What do you think is the “Australian Sound”?
JOHN: For me, the Australian Sound is all about indigenous instrumentation – the didge, the bull-roarer (a very special noisemaker not to be trifled with) and sticks. These instruments speak of the desert, the wind, the rain and “the river on its bars”. On the whitefella side of the equation, I think the ‘Australian Sound’ leans heavily on wooden instruments – guitars, mandolins, fiddles. We are a multicultural society and the fact is that any ‘Australian Sound’ will always – and should – resonate with our multiculturalism.
SHANE: I agree with John. The Aboriginal songlines in Australia are some of the oldest archetypal stories and songs of humanity. To be present at traditional song and dance is to hear the true sound of the country, dating back tens of thousands of years. Depending on the region, they are enhanced by clap sticks and didjeridu or yidaki. In a contemporary sense, Australian music bolder and rawer than the music of America or Europe. We might share a lot of the same influences but we also have our own distinct musical lineage. Bands like Daddy Cool, The Dingoes, Richard Clapton’s Goodbye Tiger album, provide early touchstones. Now there’s a new generation like Yirrmal and Baker Boy who are incorporating Aboriginal language into contemporary grooves. That’s exciting.
NL: Tell us something about one another that we wouldn’t know.
SHANE: John’s known as a fearless and astute political commentator and campaigner and he’s well known for his bravado. What people don’t often see is the other side of him that cares deeply for our country, it’s people and the landscape. He stood shoulder to shoulder with me onstage at the Myer Music Bowl in 1983 when we performed and recorded ‘Let The Franklin Flow’, the song I wrote to help the campaign to save the Franklin River from destruction. If you’re ever going to take on the high and mighty, you’d do well to have John at your side. His political smarts have helped our community in our fight to protect our pristine beaches and coastal dunes from industrial-scale commercial horse training in South West Victoria. His colourful Australian vernacular is enhanced by a hysterical sense of humour.
JOHN: Shane and I come from similar backgrounds: we were both young Australian Catholic kids brought up in the 50s and the 60s in largish families marked by a lot of love but not necessarily a lot of money. Shane might disagree with this but I think our early Catholicism informs our sense of justice and our pretty clear idea of what ought to happen. We have long, rambling yarns – punctuated by gales of laughter. Shane basks in my eternal admiration for having built a very large and aesthetically pleasing room on his house at Killarney. If ever I need to know something about tools – how to use them, how to sharpen them and/or what to buy when I’m in the hardware shop, I’m onto Shane in a heartbeat. I’m very proud of having helped him install a big slab of Redgum in the kitchen his house a.k.a. Goanna Manor.
Tickets for the show are now on sale via the West’s Website.