TAKE 10 with
John Williamson celebrated 40 years in music last year. Born and raised in country Victoria, Williamson had a life cut out on the farm before launching his music career in 1970 when he performed his song Old Man Emu on the Red Faces segment of Hey Hey It’s Saturday – and won. Williamson has established himself as one of Australia’s most distinct voices, singing tales of life in the bush and his love of the country on classics such as Cootamundra Wattle, Raining On The Rock and True Blue. Williamson’s latest album is John Williamson in Symphony, recorded with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He performs at Nelson Bay Diggers tonight.
When did you pick up guitar?
My dad taught me to play ukulele when I was about seven. I didn’t really discover the guitar until I was 12, which was pretty easy after the ukulele.
Old Man Emu, but that wasn’t until I was 23. I had never attempted to write a song before that. Up until that point I was just a farmer who sang for fun, playing Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan songs.
What inspired you to write songs?
Probably because we moved from the north of Victoria. We lived in north-west NSW at Croppa Creek. I was so taken by the new trees and birds I came across. That’s probably where I started to understand how varied the bush is in the country. I was quite romantic about it. I decided to write an answer to Rolf Harris’s Tie Me Kangaroo Down. I thought, ‘I’ll write one about the emus’.
Well the first time I sang Old Man Emu was at a gig at the Imperial Hotel [Moree] in 1969 and I had to sing it twice more, it went off that well. I thought ‘That’s the proof there must be something about that song’.
Does it feel like 40 years in the business?
It’s actually the 41st year now. It was June last year that Old Man Emu became 40. Does it feel like 40 years? Oh, sometimes it does [laughs]. I certainly got to know Australia over those years. I’ve been very fortunate I’ve made a quid out of what I love doing. I not only love performing but I love getting around Australia. I’ve seen more of it than most, but even then you still only see a hairline.
What song are you most proud of?
Raining on the Rock. I’m not necessarily the most proud of it but it’s a song that probably means a lot to me because it’s about the heart of the country and I think the rock represents that. The ancient nature of the country that was here before any of us is the one thing that can draw us all together, putting religion, politics and race aside.
Favourite part of Australia?
As far as picturesque places, Alice Springs. We go there all the time. I was on The Ghan the other day and I realised I’ve got more friends on The Ghan than I have along the Pacific Highway!
Best piece of advice?
I don’t know that I was ever given that much good advice [laughs] – I’ve given plenty myself. A fellow who used to be a musical director of a TV show I had once said I was trying to be too clever with my songwriting. In other words, just let it flow and don’t try to be too clever.
How many guitars do you own?
About 30. I’ve got a couple for sale but probably because I haven’t written songs on them. If I write a song on a guitar, I can’t get rid of it.
What’s it like playing with an orchestra?
It was scary initially because I’m used to working on my own or with one musician. You can’t make a mistake when you’ve got 30 players behind you who play very strictly. At the performance at the Opera House, I had two attempts at a song because I got a little bit too relaxed all of a sudden and I finished before they did. It was very funny, actually. No one had any idea how much panic was going on inside my body.