In a corner of Gore’s museum stands a little white plywood guitar, a painted cowboy on a rearing steed swinging his lariat across its soundboard. The guitar was one of dozens produced for mail order in the 1940s by the entrepreneurial Tex Morton, New Zealand’s first and greatest country music star. Despite being cheaply made and unforgiving to play, these guitars have become collector’s items, emblems of New Zealand’s long association with country music.
So what exactly is country music? Big hats and blue jeans? Banjos and fiddles? Songs about drinking, cheating and heartache? The stereotypes may hold, but modern country music spreads itself along a vast spectrum and often bears little resemblance to its earliest forms.
My own efforts to understand country music in New Zealand start in an unlikely spot—a hotel in an Otago harbour town, with a group of musicians who don’t easily fit into the box of modern country, and yet in many ways are genuinely representative of where the music began.
Port Chalmers’ rugged old sailors’ haunt Chick’s Hotel is a regular stop on The Eastern’s well-worn path around New Zealand. On this cold autumn night, the town’s streets are deserted, but inside Chick’s a party is in full swing as the band rip through their set in front of an energetic crowd.
Armed with banjo, fiddle and double bass, The Eastern make raucous folk music designed for drinking and dancing, channelling the string bands that packed halls in the American south in the early 20th century, back when country music as we now know it was first being imagined. Lead singer Adam McGrath punctuates his songs with the sharp storytelling of the best folk singers, while banjo player Jess Shanks’ quiet poise and clear voice provide a sweet counterpoint to McGrath’s foot-stomping, guitar-thumping lead role. “This is our last song,” McGrath tells the crowd. “And by last, I mean about fifth to last.” By the end of the night, he has broken strings on three guitars and is left to finish with just a harmonica, walking off with the audience still cheering for more.
McGrath was a New Brighton kid whose mother would take him along to the country music clubs of eastern Christchurch dressed in a cowboy shirt. At the age of 12, he heard American artist Steve Earle’s hit ‘Copperhead Road’ and decided on a direction in life. After spending time busking for a living in America, McGrath returned to New Zealand, where he and Shanks bonded over a Hank Williams record and formed the nucleus of The Eastern. The band now tour constantly and are one of the few in New Zealand to make a living solely from playing.
“I like it when people call us a country band,” McGrath tells me. “It’s people’s music, it’s about connections, it’s about stories and hopefully something that resonates a little bit truer. It doesn’t take mastery but it takes a lot of heart, so that’s what we try and reach.”
Country music grew up in the working-class American south, borrowing bits from travelling minstrel shows, the blues and the folk songs of British and Irish immigrants. With the growing affordability of record players, the music industry began to package and promote various forms of rural folk music into a new genre, ‘hillbilly’. In 1927, producer Ralph Peer trundled his recording equipment down to Bristol, Tennessee, where he famously recorded both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in the same day. They went on to become country music’s first superstars and set the template for what the genre was all about. Their impact was felt as far away as New Zealand.
Among those swept up in hillbilly, or country and western as it would soon become known, was a schoolboy at Nelson College, the same institution that had produced the great scientist Ernest Rutherford. Fourteen-year-old Robert William Lane had a very different career in mind. “I didn’t want to split atoms or anything. I wanted to run away from home and be a hobo like Jimmie Rodgers. Which I bloody well did.”
Lane adopted the stage name Tex Morton, moved to Australia and became one of the biggest-performing stars New Zealand has ever produced (see sidebar, page 75). But fame and fortune aside, perhaps Morton’s greatest legacy was to develop an original voice in Australian and New Zealand country music that resonates to this day.
War held up the development of a recording industry in New Zealand and country music would not really take root here until the late 1940s. By then, it was Hollywood cowboy films starring Gene Autry and Roy Rogers that provided the visual aesthetic.
One of the most popular New Zealand bands of this era was Dunedin’s Cole Wilson and the Tumbleweeds, who faced the challenges of “looking the part” with typical southern resourcefulness.
Unable to find real cowboy boots, band member Myra Hewitt added high heels to a pair of gumboots, cut the uppers to shape, painted them white and embossed them with black leather stitching.
Among other early stars of New Zealand country music were Jack Riggir (father to Patsy), who reputedly turned down a Nashville recording opportunity to stay and work the family’s Te Kuiti farm, and Johnny Cooper, the ‘Maori Cowboy’, a country boy from Wairoa who recorded New Zealand’s first rock’n’roll song (a cover of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock around the Clock’) in 1955.
There was Johnny Granger, whose life as a dairy farmer lent authenticity to his hit ‘You Don’t Know what Lonesome Is’, (‘till you get to herdin’ cows’), and the ‘Canterbury Kid’, Garner Wayne, a prolific writer of Kiwi country songs, including the classic ‘Love in a Fowlhouse’.
By the 1960s, the Tennessee city of Nashville had emerged as the centre of the American country music business. By replacing the hard-edged sounds of 1950s honky tonk with lush string sections and highly polished vocals, producers created the much-maligned but hugely successful ‘Nashville Sound’, building the foundation for the huge market share that mainstream country enjoys in America today. Here in New Zealand, country music clubs were popping up everywhere. Big names of the era included John Hore (now known as John Grenell) and Patsy Riggir, both of whom performed in Nashville’s legendary Grand Ole Opry stage show.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, That’s Country, a television show filmed in Christchurch and fronted by former rock’n’roller Ray Columbus, became the first New Zealand television show to be syndicated by an American broadcaster and helped to launch the careers of Jodi Vaughan, Brendan Dugan, the Topp Twins and more. It also attracted international artists of the calibre of Emmylou Harris, further raising the profile of the genre here in New Zealand. With country music firmly established, one town in the Deep South decided to take ownership.
On the banks of the Mataura River, Gore sits in the heart of rich farmland, the kind of town with more tractor dealerships than clothes shops. During the long, dry years when the Mataura district was in the grip of the Temperance Society and the sale of alcohol there was prohibited, illicit whisky stills burbled away in the Hokonui Hills, giving rise to the legendary ‘Hokonui Moonshine’. Such stories key nicely with Gore’s cherished reputation as New Zealand’s home of country music.
It’s the Friday of Queen’s Birthday Weekend, the start of winter, and the beginning of the 41st New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards. The willows along the Mataura are grey and lifeless in the chill air, but the town is busy. Trucks full of dairy cows rumble down the main street, where family bands in costume, children with guitars bigger than they are, and dozens of other performers are participating in the ‘Freeze Ya Bits Off’ busking competition. This year, the Topp Twins are in town to have their palm prints set into the ‘Hands of Fame’ memorial, and the iconic characters of the much-loved comedy country duo provide the theme for shop-front displays up and down the main street.
The Gold Guitar Awards date back to 1974, when a group of local enthusiasts got together with the idea of starting New Zealand’s biggest country music event. Among them was local yodelling star Max McCauley. “We had a farm and all of the ones that were on the committee, most of them had farms,” he tells me. “Winter time was the time when things were a bit slacker and we could do things.”
A push in recent years to have the festival shifted to more clement months has apparently faltered in the face of stern opposition from the organising committee.
The inaugural Gold Guitars had just 38 competitors. Judges now preside over 450 entries during the long weekend. Planning leading up to the awards fills months, and during the event, organisers, bands and sound crews work from the break of day into the early hours of the next morning.
Auditions proceed with mechanical efficiency in three venues. There are no rehearsals—the band are handed chord charts as each performer takes the stage and the entrants have just four minutes to prove their worth.
Fifteen-year-old local girl Jenny Mitchell flies through auditions to be a finalist in six categories in the intermediate section. Mitchell has been performing in the Gore Country Music Club since the age of four and is the local favourite to claim the intermediate title.
“There’s so much pressure because if you just make one mistake, that’s it,” she tells me. “One little word that’s wrong can knock you out of the whole thing.”
I ask Mitchell how the Gold Guitars’ emphasis on competition affects her. “You watch people and it just crushes them when they don’t get through or they don’t do as well as they wanted. But I think I’ve done it so many years and not gotten anywhere that I’m just happy to get whatever.”
Mitchell tells me she sings for at least an hour every day. She receives intensive music and vocal training and says that for the previous six weeks, “nothing has been more important than practising for this”.
Her performance that evening is confident, studied and strikingly professional. But in the solo section, Auckland schoolgirl Khona Va’aga-Gray wins over the crowd with an assured performance, leaving Zoe Scott from Geraldine the unenviable task of following. The three girls relentlessly trade songs as the competition builds to a close. In the New Zealand composition section, songs, a rare original in a night filled mostly with covers of traditional and modern country favourites.
In the finish, Mitchell collects five awards, more than anyone else, but it’s Va’aga-Gray’s impressive solo performance that gives the Aucklander the overall title. Mitchell is the first to congratulate Va’aga-Gray, but as the crowd disperses, her discouragement is visible.
“You always are disappointed,” she tells me. “I always get real emotional and cry about it, but it wasn’t because I was angry about the result, because I think the winner really did deserve to win.”
Mitchell says that in the coming weeks, she will begin choosing her songs for the next Gold Guitars. When she leaves school, she plans to fly straight to Nashville for a shot at a country music career.
Late that I night, I drive home along darkened highways, flicking across radio stations before landing on American Carrie Underwood’s mega-hit ‘Before He Cheats’, with its hook line, “Right now he’s probably buying her some fruity little drink ’cause she can’t shoot whiskey.” I’ve heard this song at least twice in auditions today. This is mainstream country music in the 21st century—slick, sexy and more closely aligned with pop and rock than country music tradition. This is the music that fuels the Nashville industry to which many young New Zealand country performers aspire.
Waimate’s Kaylee Bell, a Gold Guitar senior award winner from 2007, this year picked up the New Zealand recording industry’s Country Music Album of the Year for Heart First, a polished country-pop record filled with radio-friendly songs such as ‘Little Bit Small Town’ and ‘Just a Little Crazy’. Like many aspiring New Zealand country artists, Bell has relocated to Australia, where, she says, the opportunities are better. She travels periodically to Nashville to perform and write, hoping one day to successfully pitch songs to major recording artists. (“You have to know people,” she tells me.)
New Zealand’s 2014 Country Song of the Year was awarded to ‘Whiskey and Kisses’, an old-fashioned weeper co-written by Auckland-based Tami Neilson. Neilson grew up in a family of Canadian musicians who toured the States, sharing stages with the likes of Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn. Neilson emigrated to New Zealand eight years ago, where she found the country music scene at something of standstill. “It seemed like country had stopped a generation ago,” she says. “There was such a huge stigma attached to it. When people asked what kind of music you played, it was almost as if you had to justify the genre.”
Neilson is part of a wave of local performers bringing a new cool to country music, along with the likes of Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams, two roving songwriters who revive country traditions around a dark and compelling aesthetic, Davidson the weathered troubadour, Williams the fresh-faced cowboy with the angelic voice.
Neilson points to her own success and that of performers such as Davidson and Williams as evidence of a new groundswell of interest in country music. “People are starting to yearn for something that rings true,” she says.
Neilson’s fellow Aucklander Donna Dean is another artist who has forged a path outside of the traditional country music club circuit. Dean’s latest album, Tyre Tracks and Broken Hearts, has attracted striking reviews in the American country music press, while one of her songs has been recorded by Grammy-nominated American bluegrass star Rhonda Vincent.
Dean’s success points to another trend in New Zealand country music—the primacy of original songwriting, as opposed to the covering of American artists, which has often characterised the scene here.
Tex Morton got the country music train rolling in this part of the world when he started writing about local characters and events and putting them in the context of the music he loved. It’s a philosophy that still breathes life into the music today. As The Eastern’s Adam McGrath observes, “I love Hank Williams, I love the Carter Family, I love Steve Earle. They gave us the tools. An acoustic guitar and three chords, you can do so much with that. But for my work, I want to tell my story, our story. That’s what I’m interested in.”