My interest in music, in general, stems from my childhood, surrounded by family who had been involved in the music and entertainment industry for several generations. Scottish folk and country dance music was played by both sides of our family and my mother’s parents were top billing performers in the golden days of the Music Halls (early 1900’s). They toured extensively overseas and my mother’s training stems from them and her grandfather’s influence. This has been passed down to me and my sister and our children. We, of course, were influenced by popular and classic music including Jazz and subsequently Rock and Roll in the 50‘s.
My family emigrated to Australia in March 1958. I was 15 years old and started learning guitar from a young Dutch cleric who was a neighbour. My first guitar was a Pacific complete with palm tree and hula girl on the front. It cost me 5 pounds and a lot of sore fingers. I learned enough chords to start performing some of my ‘Lonnie Donnegan’ repertoire. So, started my first band. I played guitar and sang. I supplied a snare drum, dustbin lid, plus things to hit with and built a Tea chest bass. Then had to teach the two ‘unfortunates’ what to do with them. Before long I’d conned a spot during the supper break at the local country dance. It was a start.
When the folk music revival began sweeping the world in the early ’60’s I became involved in Folk, Jazz and Country music and started hearing some familiar traditional tunes from USA based groups like the New Lost City Ramblers who toured here and via record collectors that I knew who had collections of 78’s going back: Jimmy Rogers, A.P. Carter, Delmore Bros, Louvin Bros, Monroe Bros. Then early records of Flatt & Scruggs, Stanley’s, Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe etc. This was fairly exciting stuff and my banjo playing friends were ‘knocked out’ by the sound and so began the conversion to 3 finger style from frailing of many banjo players here. The interest in Bluegrass in Australia during the mid 60’s almost parallelled what was happening in North America.
Bands like the Country Gentleman, Lilley Brothers, Don Reno and Red Smiley and the Osborne Bros were appearing on compilation albums recorded at festivals by John Cohen and Mike Seeger and released on Folkways records. I picked up on Doc Watson from a couple of Mike Seeger produced festival albums and sought out his first solo LP which I devoured. That started me on the road to solo flat-picking. Until then, I’d mainly played back-up rhythm. There were few tracks that featured guitar breaks on earlier Bluegrass albums. Charlie Waller (Country Gentlemen), George Shuffler (Stanley Bros), John Herald (Greenbriar Boys) were some of the few who got the odd solo. Earl Scruggs, of course, was well known for his great finger-style guitar solo’s on Gospel tunes. Then came Clarence White and The Kentucky Colonels. Another learning curve for me as a flat-picker.
Doc Watson started me off with his clinically clean and fairly rigid style but Clarence White had something else. His rhythmic syncopated Country, Rock, Jazz, Blues influenced style, I could easily relate to. And the combination of these two players influences became the basis of my acoustic guitar style. It’s been influenced in later years by many other picker, of course, including the Rice Bros, Russ Barenberg, David Grier and Charles Sawtell, to name but a few. I also developed an interest in finger-style playing via Merle Travis, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs. The combination of both styles, I find, brings more variety to performances, both instrumental and vocal.
I was drawn into the recording studios in Melbourne via my association with folk performer and broadcaster, Dennis Gibbons who introduced me to Alan and Russ Hawking. So began another era. Alan used to hold Sunday afternoon sessions at his home and here’s where I met so many great players from all genres of music, who gathered to pick acoustic string band music including Bluegrass and Old Time Country. My association and friendship with Trevor Warner began at that time and as my sister lived in Adelaide I often visited and got to pick with Trev, Rick and Dennis. I appeared with them on Roger Cardwell’s Country Hour on TV on more than one occasion. Trev and I still see each other and pick at festivals.
In the late Sixties I was asked to join the Hayes Bros band. They were one of the top working Bluegrass bands in Australia at that time and had one LP record released on W&G. By that time, I knew Mike Hayes quite well and found we shared similar humour having worked on several recording projects and live shows together backing other artists. The Hayes Bros band was great fun. The full band line-up comprised Mike Hayes, (Mandolin and lead vocal), Peter Hayes (five string banjo and high harmony), Roy Taylor (fiddle and bass harmony), Doug Wallace (guitar and baritone harmony) and Alan Pope (bass). This line-up performed regularly at folk concerts, Frank Traynor’s Folk and Jazz Club in Melbourne and television variety shows like IMT on GTV 9 Melbourne.
We recorded the second album ‘Hello City Limits’ on W&G in 1968 and from that a 45 rpm e.p. record was issued. It was the first stereo e.p. released in Australia. Most performances though, were done in trio form with Mike, Pete and myself. The gigs were diverse. We even did one most terrifying gig at the Saturday night Rock Dance ‘Q Club’ at St Kilda Town Hall, Melb. supporting John Farrer’s legendary band ‘The Strangers’. The core group was very busy. I reckon the reason for this was our ability to play our instruments fairly competently on any given task. We were multi-instrumentalists. This seems to be common among Bluegrass musicians. Nearly everyone plays more than one instrument. We covered the lot between us. Banjo, Mandolin, Fiddle, Dobro, Guitar and Bass, plus we all sang harmony. (Both Hayes brothers sadly, are now deceased).
Around ’68, ’69 Mike Seeger came over to do a couple of solo tours. We got to meet him several times and supported him on one of his shows. He was a great guy and is sadly missed. Tut Taylor also made a short visit and we got to pick with him too.
Disappointingly, around 1970 -71 Mike Hayes was transferred by his employer, the ABC, interstate and so began the next phase. Peter Hayes and I maintained contact and like so many young musicians world wide in the early 70’s, started playing electric instruments, working for some time in different bands as freelance sidemen.
Then Pete asked me to join a band he’d formed called ‘The Promised Band’. I was available at that time and said ok. An interesting combination. Two Bluegrass players and two Rock players. It turned out to be a very successful band commercially. Peter was on Bass Guitar, Lead Vocal and Banjo. I was on Rhythm Guitar, Dobro and Fiddle. We had Bernie O’Brien (ex Rondells) Lead Guitar. He was one of the best Telecaster exponents I’ve worked with. Harold Frith (ex Thunderbirds) was the Drummer. We did very well on the Pub circuit and concerts and were regulars on top-rating TV shows and toured with U.S. Country Rock legend Dobie Gray. An amazing experience.
Peter and I worked with John Chester for a short time touring all over the country. Meantime Peter and I were doing quite well as a studio team. The Ad Agency boys had just discovered the Bluegrass sound but didn’t know how to achieve it. We went in, read their charts and just played what we play and they said ‘that’s what we want’. We did ads for everything from beer and soft drink to cheese plus tracks for films including ‘The Man from Snowy River’ with Bruce Rowlands. We even appeared live in several film commercials. In winter we used to work as a three piece electric band with a drummer in the snowfields and at some stage there was always a power black-out. So, out would come the fiddle, banjo and acoustic guitar. That was always a winner.
We then joined a band called ‘Homestead’, a busy working Country Rock Band headed by drummer Jazzer Smith (now deceased). We did an enormous amount of work with that band, mostly pubs, private functions and country music festivals including Tamworth. After a short stint of recording and some memorable live shows with Bob Bright in the mid ’80’s, Peter and I went our separate ways, he heading to northern NSW. I continued to do sessions and some duo work with songwriter and artist Ian McCausland with Gary Newton (ex Hawking Bros) Bass player. I also did some solo work playing acoustic guitar and singing the old songs. Terrifying! In the early ’90’s I met Peter Sweatman who seemed to know my Bluegrass history and encouraged me to attend the monthly ‘Picking at the Piggery’ session in Melbourne. I had just finished a stint with a full-on Chicago-style electric blues band and was ready for a change. Back to acoustic music. So out came the trusty D28 Martin I’d played since 1967. It was great to be able to play some of the old tunes and songs I’d learned back then, with like-minded folk. So, I re-joined the Bluegrass family guys I hadn’t seen for years, such as John Boothroyd and Rob Lewis.
I met Jim Golding at that time and we started picking together, playing as a duo for some time, using any bass player we could find at festivals etc. Then in 1994 we formed ‘Coolgrass’ with Peter Hisco on bass and vocals. I was already working with Peter who was frontman for the fabulous ‘Blue Grass Souls’, formed at the Yarra Junction Fiddler’s Convention a year or two earlier. I hooked up with them after seeing them play at Harrietville around ’92. I just had to pick with those lunatics. They were right up my alley and I’m still playing with them. We’ve played everywhere. Some extraordinary gigs from Tasmania to South Australia, the Nationals, Melbourne Cup Corporate tents, Toorak parties, Riverboat parties on the Yarra and the Murray Rivers, Wineries, Grand Final gigs at Crown Casino and Tamworth. The list is endless.
Back to ‘Coolgrass’. The development of ‘Coolgrass’ has taken quite a few years with the assistance of a few people including our friend and compatriot, Kevin Parsell, Peter Hisco who is still a great support to us and Michael Oakley (now deceased) who played bass with us for a couple of years and with whom I played for some years in a small Jazz group called the Marketeers which did more for my rhythm playing and time-keeping than I realised at the time. We needed a bass player who not only could sit in the groove of this Bluegrass based music we were trying to create. We also needed a really good singer and he was right there, Jim’s son Angus. Angus had filled in for Mike Oakley a few times and the feel and the groove was there and he’s a great singer. I get on really well with Angus, we have a similar sense of humour and he gradually became enthused about what we were doing so that he now plays a major role in the whole of our presentation. We have a heap of fun together both on and off stage.I have found this band to be really challenging in that we are always learning something new. Our repertoire is extremely varied, from almost traditional to down-right outrageous. We are, however, fortunate to have well-known and highly respected Mandolin, Bass player and vocalist, Bruce Packard. He is a major driving force for the band. He creates lyrics for most of the parodies that we have in our repertoire. He also does a huge job organising all our tours and major gigs here and in New Zealand. ‘Coolgrass’ now have a well booked schedule both in Australia and New Zealand, appearing at most major Folk and Bluegrass festivals and clubs.
I am also privileged to be a member of a group known as ‘The Four Jimmy’s’ which convene annually at the Harrietville Convention. It first performed about 10 years ago at the same event known as ‘The Three Jimmy’s’, Nigel Lever, Jimmy Rush and myself. Then our Bass player Quentin Fraser, himself an amazing Guitar and Dobro player decided he wanted to be the fourth ‘Jimmy’. I love this combo, it’s so much fun and we usually perform on one of the mainstage shows at Harrietville whenever we are all available.
My love for the music and the people involved and those who support it, keep my enthusiasm bubbling. I’m always looking forward to the next gig however large or small it may be.
Now before heading to the practice room I’d like to give thanks not only to my family and all the friends that I have made throughout Australia and New Zealand including overseas artists that have visited over the years. I’d also like to thank the people who built and maintain my guitar collection namely Merv and Jim Cargill for setting up instruments and repairing the damage over the last 40 years. Guitar builders, Bryan De Gruchy, Joe Gallacher, C. F. Martin and Dobro for the amazing instruments that I am still learning to play.
Finally, to all Bluegrass enthusiasts. Those interested in the full story of the development of Bluegrass music, you must read the book from Internationally acclaimed music historian, Neil V. Rosenberg, ‘BLUEGRASS a History’ From http://www.press.uillinois.edu. ISBN 0-252-06304-X.