The Tamworth Country Music Festival almost always includes Australia Day, 26 January, and it’s arguable that there’s no one more appropriate to headline an Australia Day show than Lee Kernaghan. No one can doubt that Lee loves his homeland and he finds ways to show it, whether it’s raising money to support farmers doing it tough or encouraging young Australian country music artists. At this year’s festival Lee is putting on a special Boys from the Bush 25th Anniversay Show at 8.15 p.m on the 26th, at the TRECC. I chatted to Lee towards the end of 2016 to find out what he has planned.
What does Tamworth mean to you, both the town and the festival?
It’s an amazing town because it gave birth to my music career. I first turned up in Tamworth in 1978, at the CCMA Talent Quest. I won best new artist under 14 years of age. And through the years I was lucky enough to win the Star Maker and pick up my very first Golden Guitar at the Country Music Awards in January 1993. So I really owe that town a whole heap.
When you were in that under-14 competition, was that something you’d always wanted to do – you were a really little kid working up to it – or did you just decide to do it at the time?
I think country music has been in my blood, part of my DNA. I was born with it. It had always been my dream to go to Tamworth and these days I get there and get to play some of the great venues in town, and it really has given birth to careers of people like Keith Urban, James Blundell, Kasey Chambers, Troy Cassar-Daley, and we’re all really, truly grateful for what the town has done for us.
Given that you play in so many different places – and you play so much, full stop – do you have a special feeling about playing in Tamworth or is the same sort of show as elsewhere?
It’s always extra special and it’s because of those people who travel from all around Australia to be there, to share in the music. Or they might be there to try to break into the music industry – it might be busking down there on Peel Street or entering one of the talent quests, like Star Maker. There’s just so much excitement around the town. You get down there on Peel Street during the country music festival and the atmosphere is electric.
Mind you, I’d think it’s hard for you to walk down Peel Street without it taking about five hours to get from one end to the next.
Well, I don’t mind because I made my very first film clip in Peel Street, for ‘Boys from the Bush’, and I’m going back there in January and I’m going to make another film clip because it’s the 25th anniversary of The Outback Club [album]. We’ve also got a big concert on at the TRECC on Australia Day to launch the 25th anniversary tour.
The Australia Day slot is a pretty special one to have at the festival and this year you have it. Given that it’s 25th anniversary, and it’s that special day, what’s going to be different about this show?
It’s going to be different because a meeting has been called of the Outback Club and they are coming in from all over the place for this one. We’re going to be playing a lot of hits, of course, but I’m also going to be playing a lot of brand new songs that I’ve been working on in the studio with some of my heroes and mates and legends in Australian music, and we’re going to start unleashing some material on that crowd on Australia Day.
Are the Wolfe Brothers going to be with you?
I can’t confirm or deny [laughs]. I’m under strict instructions, I’ve got to keep the lid on all of that.
Except I did see on your Twitter feed that Nick Wolfe was in the studio with you …
That’s right. There’s leaks everywhere [laughs]. I love those boys and I love working with them and playing live is an awesome experience.
You’re very good complementary acts because you have incredible work ethics and you really understand audience and communicating with audience.
I remember seeing the Wolfe Brothers for the first time on Australia’s Got Talent and they just blew me away. A couple of months after seeing them on TV I ended up in a rehearsal studio with the boys, having a bit of a jam session. At that time they all had day jobs and I said, ‘Fellas, how would you feel about giving up those day jobs and coming out on tour with me?’ They jumped at the opportunity and we hit the road.
And, of course, they haven’t looked back and you roll on and get bigger and bigger as the years go on. It’s been a long time – you were there as a teenager, it’s been 25 years since ‘Boys from the Bush’, and this is a job that’s quite demanding. It’s physically demanding; it can be quite emotionally and creatively demanding. What motivates you to continue every day and every year?
The after-show parties [laughs]. I was reminiscing about the early days, back in 1992. I was on tour with James Blundell, in his band and I was his opening artist. Out there on that tour, every day would be a new town and another motel room and another big party. And we partied like there was no tomorrow – and the reason why we did that was that we thought, This is too good to be true – this can’t last [laughs]. But it did and it’s been 25 years now.
I don’t for a second believe that you indulge in too much partying because you’d have to be fit to keep up your pace.
Oh yeah, you gotta be in training, mate [laughs]. Don’t want to come into this undertrained. You’ve got to turn up, shut up and get into it.
Have you found that the shape of your audience has changed? Are they growing up with you, or older with you, as the case may be? Or do you see a lot of younger people coming into your shows?
It’s really been amazing me throughout the last two and a half decades how the audience keeps regenerating. There’s a lot of kids who get into it and I think that’s probably why ‘Boys from the Bush’ and The Outback Club impacted the way it did, because it was about a younger generation of Australians living and working on the land. And they’re still out there today and still coming along to the shows but so are their mums and dads and their grandparents. It’s a great privilege to play to all these people and I absolutely don’t think of them as fans at all, they seem to me to be more like my extended family.
I really believe that they feel that in return for you. The country music audience is accepting of a whole lot of different and new artists but I think their requirement is authenticity and connection, and for people to turn up for you year after year they really feel that connection strongly.
That’s so true, Sophie. It comes down to being real and I think that [in] the country music fraternity there’s a great level of camaraderie between the artists and, of course, their fans. It’s a great relationship. Country music, the way I see it, it’s the music of our people, our country, our way of life. It’s all about the things that make us tick, and that’s what makes it real for me.
I’m sure there are people who talk to you who might have a song idea or something they’d like you to write about, do you feel that the stories or, perhaps, concerns of your audience are changing?
With songs, you just never know where the next one’s going to come from. Often it’s in a chance meeting, a turn of phrase, rolling into a country town for the first time. It’s hard to really pin it down, where they come from. But I know that a song is only ever as strong as the idea behind it. And I think great songs are things you don’t actually manufacture in a songwriting workshop – it’s more about getting out there and living life, experiencing it first hand and talking to people, and I know that’s where most of my material comes from.
It’s probably impossible for you to pick a favourite song – but do you have one, or do you have a handful of favourites?
Songs, when you record them and you put them out on a record it’s like giving birth to a child and it’s hard to pick favourites amongst your own kids [laughs]. But ‘Boys from the Bush’ was the one that kicked down the doors and paved the way for me, so it’s a song I’ve sung thousands of times and never ever once got sick of performing it.
As an audience member I’ve often wondered how artists play the same songs over and over again, but I guess the crowd is new each time and the venue’s new, and you just never know who you’re singing that song for on that particular night.
That’s true. You share the song with the country, with the people – it’s ours. They all mean different things to different people. I know that there are certain songs that I was listening to when I was falling in love for the first time or breaking up with a girl, rolling on a mission on the Newell Highway in a 1978 Ford Cortina with a broken windscreen and I know I was listening to Hank Williams, Jr on my Craig stereo system. I had a broken heart and a broken windscreen. I think Trisha Yearwood did it best when she recorded that beautiful track ‘The Song Remembers When’.
Is there a venue or a town you haven’t played in yet that you would really like to?
Yes – Birdsville. I’ve played up in Birdsville [laughs] but I haven’t physically done a gig there. In July I’m going to be the Big Red Bash and it’s the most remote music festival in Australia and I’m going to joined by James Blundell, Troy Cassar-Daley, the McClymonts and a bunch of legends for this incredible event.
Finally: you’re well known for your charity work and supporting a lot of different causes. Is there anything you’re working with at the moment that you’d like to mention?
I’m a bit supporter of the McGrath Foundation, inspired by the Burrumbuttock Hay Runners – they did a terrific job getting feed to stock in drought-stricken Queensland. I’ve just returned from Western Queensland where it’s green, really green out there – it’s unusual to see it. There’s a lot more optimism there now than what there was a year ago. Probably the highlight of my career has been the Toyota Pass the Hat Around Australia concerts because every dollar that was raised in the town stayed in the town. No costs came out of it – it was all for the towns, and that’s how a couple of million dollars was raised for community causes around Australia and that’s something that’s still very close to my heart, and I think most people in Australia – whether you’re in the music industry or not – the Australian way is to look out for a mate who’s doing it tough. Whether it’s a drought, flood or a bushfire or an important community cause, when things are tough in Australia, Australians pass the hat around and they do look after their mates.
Lee Kernaghan plays the TRECC on 26 January as part of the 2017 Tamworth Country Music Festival. Tickets here.
Lee’s 25th anniversary album will be released in March, with a tour to follow. Details at www.leekernaghan.com