The Gold Coast Bulletin - - FRONT PAGE - WITH ANN WASON MOORE

‘We have all of the big city prob­lems like traf­fic and high prices but with­out the big city in­fra­struc­ture’

YOU never for­get your first time.

For me, it was 1989.

I was 13 and had big permed hair and a big teen at­ti­tude and was liv­ing in the big old state of Texas.

Sud­denly, from our brown shag-car­peted lounge room I heard the strains of an Aussie ac­cent, singing: “Dingo-ohh…” What the …?

That was my in­tro­duc­tion to John Wil­liamson.

My home­sick Aus­tralian par­ents had been sent a CD by the True Blue crooner, and three decades later I still can’t get that song out of my head.

Al­most ev­ery Aus­tralian I’ve met can tell you when and where they first heard the fair dinkum folk singer.

I may be only a half-breed, but there is some­thing about the land­scape and wildlife of this coun­try that haunts ev­ery Aus­tralian, whether or not we’ve ever been out bush.

Per­haps that’s the ap­peal of 73-year-old singer/song­writer Wil­liamson, now in his 48th year of per­form­ing.

Given he’s about to re­lease a new al­bum next month, his 20th, you could be tempted to think that age shall not weary him.

But he’s hav­ing none of it. “I’ve been out to lunch all day with John Laws,” he says, yawn­ing. He doesn’t men­tion it, but Laws reg­u­larly refers to Wil­liamson as his “lit­tle brother”.

“They (his man­age­ment) weren’t meant to tell you but I had to come home and go to sleep. John can talk, you know.”

Well, that ex­plains why our in­ter­view is oc­cur­ring 10 hours af­ter it was sched­uled. Not only is Wil­liamson on coun­try time, but mates come first – not to men­tion long lunches. How Aussie is that?

But it re­minds me too just how high-pro­file Wil­liamson is. Even though he re­ally doesn’t care.

Never mind the charts, he con­tin­ues to be at the fore­front of sig­nif­i­cant events in Aus­tralia, pre­sent­ing the voice of our coun­try when it is needed most.

He’s brought grav­i­tas and poignancy to events which cap­ture our hearts, whether the Gold Coast Com­mon­wealth Games, the 2000 Syd­ney Olympics, Steve Ir­win’s me­mo­rial, Sir Don­ald Brad­man’s me­mo­rial, the Rugby World Cup or the first Bali Bomb­ings me­mo­rial ser­vice.

And yet, ev­ery April 25 you’ll find him down on Cur­rumbin beach, singing to the thou­sands who come out for the An­zac Day dawn ser­vice.

Be­cause – and this is the other thing you for­get – the Gold Coast is his home. High in the Hin­ter­land hills of Spring­brook lives one of our great­est trea­sures.

But the orig­i­nal true blue is wor­ried we’re los­ing the green be­hind our gold.

“I grew up in Quam­bat­ook in Vic­to­ria’s Mallee coun­try, but my folks al­ways loved the Gold Coast back in the 1960s – and I was just de­lighted to go to a mo­tel with a swim­ming pool,” he says.

“But it’s cer­tainly not the same city any­more as it was then, al­though it’s still one of the great­est beaches in the world.

“I’ve been here a long time now. I bought those 10 acres up in Spring­brook way back in 1976, al­though we didn’t get

‘For me any­one can be­come true blue if they love this coun­try like I do. It’s not na­tion­al­is­tic, it’s just be­ing proud of what we’ve got and re­spect­ing it’

around to build­ing the cot­tage un­til about 10 years later. Of course, it was Al­bert Shire back then, now we’re of­fi­cially part of the Gold Coast. I didn’t ask for that.

“I’m not knock­ing the Coast. It’s big and it’s dy­namic but I think we’ve lost con­trol of it now.

“It just grew too big too fast and now we have all of the big city prob­lems like traf­fic and high prices but with­out the big city in­fra­struc­ture.

“We need to slow it down but that’s up to the coun­cil and that’s just not go­ing to hap­pen.

“Res­i­dents have lost con­trol, we have no con­trol over what’s hap­pen­ing to our city. We need to stand up for our­selves be­fore we lose the very things that make us so spe­cial.

“The shadow of de­vel­op­ment is lit­er­ally ru­in­ing the beaches. It’s al­most as bad as Syd­ney. We need to look for­ward to our fu­ture, not just be ob­sessed with how to make a quick quid.”

For an artist who has been out­spo­kenly sup­port­ive about, amongst other is­sues, gay mar­riage, re­pub­li­can­ism and con­ser­va­tion­ism, Wil­liamson reg­u­larly re­minds me – or is he re­mind­ing him­self? – that he doesn’t want to be po­lit­i­cal. Fair enough.

Af­ter all, he’s seen how that can work against you.

“Peter Gar­rett should have just stuck with Mid­night Oil, stuck with the band – not the po­lit­i­cal party,” he says.

“I’ve been asked to be in­volved from the Na­tion­als to the Greens to be a mem­ber. As soon as you join any kind of party you gain en­e­mies. And I al­ways think that the power of one is much more sincere.

“I’d lose half my fan base in a minute and have to hold up ideals that are not my own.”

Wil­liamson is noth­ing if not sincere.

He be­lieves in na­tional pride, but strug­gles with the def­i­ni­tion of na­tion­al­ism.

He sup­ports im­mi­gra­tion, but also be­lieves our great­est strength is our bor­ders – “our moat” as John Laws de­scribed it to him at that long lunch.

“It’s a dif­fi­cult time at the mo­ment be­cause you have these jin­go­is­tic move­ments in coun­tries like the US, France and Eng­land. I be­lieve in a peace­ful pa­tri­o­tism,” he says.

“I do be­lieve that the fact that we are girt by sea is one of our best as­sets. Some say that it makes us iso­lated, but I think it just keeps our se­cret safe.

“That’s not say­ing I want to keep oth­ers out. I wel­come and em­brace all peo­ple – we just have to make sure we look af­ter our coun­try, that we care for our back­yard.

“Ac­tu­ally, I filmed a piece for Anh Do’s Brush With Fame pro­gram and I told him that I think he is true blue. He was quite tick­led by that, but it’s true. He’s ab­so­lutely an Aussie.

“For me any­one can be­come true blue if they love this coun­try like I do. It’s not na­tion­al­is­tic, it’s just be­ing proud of what we’ve got and re­spect­ing it.”

Coun­try is king for Wil­liamson, espe­cially when it comes to his mu­sic.

De­spite fans from all over the world, he only has eyes for the ears of the Aussies.

“I never aimed at be­ing an in­ter­na­tional star,” he says.

“Why bother? I do just fine here … how much money do you need?

“It’s great that Keith Ur­ban has made the big time, but that was never the path for me.

“One of my dreams was to be loved in Aus­tralia like Wil­lie Nel­son is loved in Amer­ica, but never to com­pete in Amer­ica.

“I’d rather be a hero in my own coun­try than any­thing else. Ex­cept maybe a Wal­laby.”

The po­si­tion of Aussie hero is one that has been left va­cant since Wil­liamson’s own idol, Rolf Har­ris, fell hard and hor­ri­bly from grace.

The ca­reer of the iconic artist be­hind Tie Me Kan­ga­roo

Down, Sport and Jake the Peg ended when he was con­victed and im­pris­oned for sex­ual of­fences. In 2014, at the age of 84, he was jailed for five years and 9 months on 12 counts of in­de­cent as­saults on four teenage fe­male vic­tims dur­ing the 1970s and 1980s.

Fol­low­ing his con­vic­tion, he was stripped of many of his hon­ours, in­clud­ing the AO and CBE.

Wil­liamson, him­self a Mem­ber of the Or­der of Aus­tralia, says it was one of the great­est dis­ap­point­ments of his life.

“It was heart­break­ing, it was aw­ful,” he says.

“I was so in­spired by him. He was the first artist to em­brace be­ing Aus­tralian – he sang with the ac­cent that I have. We’d never heard any­one do that be­fore.

“I still be­lieve in his mu­sic … but not his char­ac­ter. That’s gone for­ever now, isn’t it?”

Wil­liamson is not vol­un­teer­ing for the role of new na­tional hero, but it’s one he’s likely to as­sume, re­gard­less.

Along his jour­ney he has been in­ducted into the pres­ti­gious ARIA Hall of Fame, se­cured three ARIA Awards, 26 Golden Gui­tars, MO Awards, three APRA Awards, plat­inum and gold al­bums and sold more than four mil­lion al­bums.

Be­gin­ning with the re­lease of the clas­sic Old Man Emu in 1970, which went to num­ber one for five weeks, he has con­tin­ued to cre­ate hits in­clud­ing True Blue, Coota­mundra Wat­tle, Rip Rip Wood­chip and Clouds Over Tam­worth.

And, if Wil­liamson has his way, Old Man Emu is where it will end in 2020.

“Ev­ery year, on the an­niver­sary of Old Man Emu’s re­lease, I have a big party at our Spring­brook house,” he says.

“Fans can buy tick­ets and the pro­ceeds go to char­ity. We love it.

“We just had the 48th birth­day for Old Man Emu. And I think I might call it a day on his 50th.

“I’m get­ting old, I’m find­ing what I want to do these days is pot­ter around in the gar­den up at Spring­brook.

“In fact, that’s where the new al­bum ti­tle came from, Butcher­bird. They’re a re­silient bird, al­ways digging around for the worms while I’m digging in the dirt.”

Wil­liamson is wor­ried, how­ever, that the en­vi­ron­ment sur­round­ing his beloved birds is not so hardy.

As drought grips much of the coun­try, he says our own Hin­ter­land is at risk too.

“Things are re­ally dry up here right now.

“The wa­ter­falls are a trickle and if we’re not care­ful we’re go­ing to see some bush­fires. It does worry me.”

While the world might stim­u­late anx­i­ety, his work does not.

In fact, Wil­liamson says he couldn’t be more laid­back about his ca­reer – or what­ever is left of it.

“I have to ad­mit that I’m in­ter­ested to see what the new al­bum will do. I don’t think I’ve ever been so re­laxed when record­ing. I don’t have any­thing to prove, my runs are on the board. This is for me – and the fans.

“Some­times I do look back and think that it’s in­cred­i­ble that I’ve come as far as I have, but not of­ten.

“Mostly I just look out at the au­di­ence and I’m happy to see such a mix of ages and faces out there.

“My kind of mu­sic isn’t made much any­more. It’s about the land and our peo­ple and our coun­try, it makes you feel love for your fam­ily of Aus­tralians. Of course, I like to throw a ‘bum’ or ‘shit’ in there ev­ery now and then for the kids. They love it.

“I like to say that I have re­cy­cled fans. All those kids who heard their par­ents lis­ten to me, they’re back again with their own kids.”

Just like that frizzy-haired girl back in 1989.

And that re­minds me of my own chil­dren … fair dinkum, it’s time to dig out the old Dingo.

Pic­ture: ANNA WARR

Coun­try mu­sic le­gend John Wil­liamson pic­tured at Spring­brook.

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