COUNTRY MUSIC’S UTILITY MAN
Multi- talented music man Pete Denahy continues to charm audiences around the world with his mix of quirky comedy and consummate musicianship, but he still calls Yackandandah home.
Multi- talented Pete Denahy continues to charm audiences around the world with his mix of quirky comedy and consummate musicianship, but he still calls Yackandandah home.
THE first time I saw Pete Denahy perform live, it was to a packed house at the Moyhu Soldiers Memorial Hall in the small township south of Wangaratta.
The hall was rumbling with friendly conversation as neighbours shook hands over their BYO beers and the plastic wrap was peeled back from plates of supper to share.
But when Pete climbed up on stage, picked up his fiddle and started to play, it went so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.
It was a different story again when he began to sing; songs that had the crowd roaring with laughter - and it was the first time for a long time I laughed until I cried.
That was years before the comedian, bluegrass musician and singer songwriter had become a five time Tamworth Golden Guitar winner.
Today we’re meeting in a coffee shop in Pete’s home town of Yackandandah and our conversation is regularly interrupted by people walking past and stopping to say g’day.
He says that’s just the way it is when you live in a small town like Yack, and it would be the same if he worked in the bank.
Pete tells me he grew up in Harcourt in central Victoria, the oldest of four children who were home schooled by their teacher father.
When he was 15 the family moved to a bigger property in Whitlands in the King Valley where they enjoyed the rural lifestyle and were happy to spend weeks without coming down to Wang.
“We grew up without television so I guess we made our own amusements,” he said.
“It was a really great few years up there – I learnt to plait stock whips as well as write a lot of songs and practise my instruments – and we’d travel to music festivals.”
But his earliest memories are actually of Japan, where his mother was born, and where his parents took him as a baby to live for a couple of years.
He says he remembers the sights, sounds, smells and tastes, and it’s a country he’s remained connected to and visited many times.
What has also stayed with him and perhaps influenced the entire course of his life, is watching “The Man From Snowy River” and “Phar Lap” at the age of nine or ten.
He said those captivating films of the eighties had a big effect on him, driving him to want to get a horse, spurring an interest in camp drafting and introducing him into the world of country music.
Having started learning piano at the age of six and violin when he was nine, Pete said he was “plodding along” with them until discovering the musical genre.
Then he started listening to Slim Dusty, writing his own songs and dreaming about making it a career, not really expecting to one day be doing just that.
It was a gradual progression which started when the family went to Tamworth to perform in family shows, and at the age of 18 he performed his first comedy song to a rousing reception.
“Probably since then, out of everything I do musically, it’s the comedy songs which get the most attention,” he said.
“I don’t think they’re my best writing or anything – but it’s what people always ask for.”
A “stupid and ridiculous” two minute song about a blowfly in a car havs sold him more CDS than anything else, and the laughs began the moment he slipped a goofy, antenna headband onto his head.
“I’ve got all these other songs I’m much happier with as far as the song writing goes, but it’s still my most requested song, even by adults,” he said. >>
Pete’s early musical talent was nurtured by his first music teacher, a nun from Bendigo called “Sister Rose”, who died just a few years ago at the age of 102.
He said looking back she was probably pretty soft on the kids - “spoiling them rotten” - but more than anything she taught them to enjoy music.
“She was a remarkable woman and one of my biggest inspirations,” he said.
Another of his inspirations is 93-year-old musician and songwriter, Geoff Mack, who penned the legendary song “I’ve Been Everywhere” and has been his mentor and friend since 1991.
Pete actually began learning violin by accident, when at the age of eight he found the body of an old violin in a shed and took it to Sister Rose who had it stringed.
He said he doesn’t remember saying he wanted to learn, but violin lessons followed.
“I never really practised it – like a lot of kids that learn an instrument I was playing because I liked the idea of it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, and I wasn’t really listening to violin music at the time,” he said.
“Then when I was 16 we went to see this band play and I saw Mike Kerin (Slim Dusty’s fiddle player for more than 20 years) and I remember thinking, I didn’t know you could do all this sort of stuff.
“After that I just couldn’t put the violin down - I was playing it all the time - I’d be walking around on the back lawn after tea in the dark and playing anything that came into my head.”
In the nineties, he became fiddle player with The Plough Boys, playing gigs in Irish pubs around Melbourne, during the time when Lord of the Dance was big and people were “discovering Celtic roots they never had”.
Being a “handy” fiddle player has got him a lot of jobs, especially in the country music scene, and one of those was with Slim Dusty.
He says it was “an incredible journey” hooking up with Slim, which led him to see more of Australia than most people would in a lifetime, and it only came to an end when Slim passed away.
Pete’s only job outside show business was working “at Conroy Brothers feedlot” in Milawa, risking life, limb and his musical livelihood every time he entered the yards and had to “jump out of the road of some mad animal”.
“Everything you’re doing in the yards when you’re processing cattle is dangerous for your hands, because they’re always thrashing their heads around,” he said.
“When you’re drenching them, inoculating them - even if it’s for their own wellbeing - everything you do is hurting them.”
“My boss Mick would say ‘watch your hands’ and to this day I don’t know how I didn’t lose a finger.”
After four years on the road with Slim, Pete embarked on a short tour with Troy Cassar-daley and played a town near Mildura where he met Allie - the woman who would become his wife 18 months later.
They lived in Ouyen for a while before moving to Yackandandah about eight years ago, where Allie runs a vintage clothing store. Pete says he feels at home in the town which is close to everywhere he needs to be, and has become a great place for anyone doing anything “a bit arty”.
This year he’ll head over to Japan once again to explore the Bluegrass scene, but this time leading a “grass roots” tour for intrepid music lovers interested in riding the bullet train, seeing local bands and experiencing the country.
He’s still writing songs and has plans for a new comedy album, but he says despite being able to make it sound easy, writing comedy is “the hardest thing in the world”.
He’s also notching up more awards, including Golden Guitars in 2016 for Instrumental of the Year (for “Cluck Old Hen” and Bluegrass Recording of the Year (for “Singin’ Shoes”).
Pete said his mentor Geoff Mack would often describe himself has the “utility man” - the one who puts the tent up, opens the show, performs in a comedy sketch or plays on his guitar in the orchestra pit. Having been called on recently to emcee at a number of festivals and shows, including The Man From Snowy River re-enactment in Corryong, it’s a description which seems to be a good fit for Pete too.
He admits to feeling a little teary sometimes at Corryong, up there on horseback and looking out across the crowd, especially when The Man From Snowy River soundtrack is played.
“Geoff said to me ‘I think it’s because I was never good enough in any particular area to specialise’ and I don’t specialise either,” he said.
“I don’t know either if I’m good enough to be just one thing - to be just a stand-up comic or just a musician - but whether or not that’s the case, I don’t mind because I love doing the lot.”
When I suggest the problem might be that he is incredibly talented at many different things, he’s quick to dismiss the notion.
“I’ve got a whole heap of things that I’m sort of half good at,” he said.
“But what I’m really thankful for is being able to do a show and make people feel good - I’m glad I’m able to do that.”
“... I’ve got a whole heap of things that i’m sort of half good at.” - Petedenahy