A good song can say more in three minutes that many people can express in a lifetime.
Long-time Newcastle music collaborator Su Morley, under the moniker of Steel City Sue, has laid down a CD, Boom Town, with 11 original songs.
Four of those tunes stand as some of the strongest protest songs ever written about the Hunter Valley and the coal industry.
One song, Coal Town, takes only 3 minutes and 13 seconds to drive a stake into the heart of the coal industry. The lyrics include:
I used to love the thriving valley floor, sweet animals in the forest and wine at the cellar door;
I used to love those soft and sing’y mornings when the air is still as cows. It’s just a big hole now;
Our land is already too punished and pillaged. When is enough enough. All power to those who speak up.
The song, Boom Town, is even more pointedly about Newcastle. Although reflecting a decrepid Newcastle that was more obvious five years ago, it still hits home with this opening line:
Our town is a boom town, but you’d never know it cause the main street is empty and the shops are all closed down.
It references two legendary venues (There are squatters in the Empire, that old seedy late night bunker … the old Palais dance hall just got run into the ground), as well as the selling of the port and repair of city hall.
Morley cut the album in the US, at Mike West’s studio, The 9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor, in Lawrence, Kansas. West, one half of the duo Truckstop Honeymoon, which has toured Australia on several occasions, allowed Morley the freedom to create her own sound, and it worked like a charm.
The album’s musical overlay is full of classy fiddle and banjo licks, rising to the fore on breaks, and falling back in line as the original lyrics – and Su’s voice – come calling for your attention.
“Even though I’ve been doing all this gigging for years, this identity is brand new,” Morley says.
She picked up the name, Steel City Sue, from her mates in The Fuelers, a Canberra-based rockabilly band that she plays in.
While there is another song cycle – of love – on the album, the anti-coal songs are the heart of it.
A persistent banjo line kicks off the opening song, From The Valley, and the lyrics kick in, painting a bleak picture of endless coal and negative effects with a twinge of optimism.
It begins with: You can hear the ships at my place, the anthem of another bucket of coal from the valley;
You can feel the trains at my place, shunting another bucket of coal from the valley
She has weaved a life of music, activism and environmental work, making it all hang together somehow.
“I try to write from a true place in myself and not just reiterate something fashionable that's going around,” Morley says.
I try to write from a true place in myself and not just reiterate something fashionable that's going around.Su Morley, aka Steel City Sue
She knows Newcastle, having been part of the environmental activism scene most of her life.
And she knows music, having played with a myriad of talented musicians and bands and various incarnations, like Pucko in 1988 at the Masonic Bowling Club, to The Bleeders doing a Sunday afternoon residency at the Cambridge Hotel in the early ’90s.
The songs are fresh, although they have been gathering in Morley’s head for a long time.
“The whole way through, I’d had this love of roots music and songwriting,” she says. While working with others, she made scribblings and recording notes of her own material.
“I supposed it was ultimately important for me to record them,” she says.
At 49 years of age, it’s never too late for a debut album. In some ways, Morley seems ageless. While the songs show a maturity of instrumentation and a respect for traditional music, they also reverberate with the brashness of youth in their message.
The song Boom Town won Best Song at the 2018 Australian Roots Music Awards. The album was also a finalist at the awards.