Slim Dusty was right: Aus­tralians should feel proud to sing in a lo­cal ac­cent, writes Missy Hig­gins

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -


I’VE al­ways had a soft spot for Slim Dusty. Those three-chord songs and nar­ra­tive lyrics are ev­ery­thing I love about old-school coun­try mu­sic. There’s no fancy pro­duc­tion, no frills — just sim­ple, well-told sto­ries of a post­war, out­back Aus­tralia, writ­ten by a man (or some­times his mis­sus), on a beaten-up gui­tar.

The simplicity of Slim’s mu­sic be­lies the ge­nius be­hind it. Any song­writer will tell you it’s much harder to write a good, sim­ple, catchy tune than it is to pen an in­tri­cately sculp­tured, multi-lay­ered com­po­si­tion. One re­quires brain, the other re­quires heart. Paul Kelly does it. So does Bob Dy­lan. It’s a solid, clas­sic, well­trav­elled style. Folk and coun­try singer/song­writ­ers are nearly all cut from the same cloth.

The coun­try mu­sic in­dus­try in Aus­tralia owes a lot to Slim Dusty. Be­fore Slim there was lit­tle to no coun­try down un­der that wasn’t a di­rect copy of Amer­i­can coun­try — or at least none of it was be­ing played on the ra­dio. Slim’s Pub With No Beer, his first huge hit, was seen as a turn­ing point in Aus­tralian mu­si­cal his­tory: coun­try was carv­ing out a ter­ri­tory and a sound of its own. Aus­tralian coun­try be­gan to take over the air­waves with a fresh, home­grown style.

How great it must have been for all those farm­ers, those out­back pub own­ers, to hear their own ac­cents for the first time on the ra­dio, telling their sto­ries.

Had I been a gen­er­a­tion or two older, I might have been di­rectly in­flu­enced by Slim, but I was never much ex­posed to him as a kid. When I did find the mu­sic by which I would be for­ever in­flu­enced, it was via mu­si­cians who had likely also been in­formed by Slim: Kasey Cham­bers, the Waifs, Paul Kelly. So I still have Slim to thank. And not just for my song­writ­ing style, but also for my “Aussie” singing ac­cent.

It’s hard to say ex­actly how I came to sing like that, but it must have had a lot to do with the mu­sic I was lis­ten­ing to when I was start­ing out: Frente and Some­thing For Kate both sang in strong lo­cal ac­cents. Few artists were do­ing that be­fore Slim ar­rived on the scene.

As with Chrissy Am­phlett, blaz­ing the neon trail for front­women all over Aus­tralia, Slim blazed the red-dirt trail for Aus­tralian singer/ song­writ­ers, al­low­ing us to re­main unashamedly our­selves.

Per­haps the other rea­son I be­gan singing the way I do — it’s strange we don’t all au­to­mat­i­cally sing in the ac­cent in which we speak — was be­cause I never quite be­lieved a singer who didn’t sing in their own ac­cent. I want to con­nect to singers on a per­sonal, hon­est, emo­tional level, but I rarely felt that with Aus­tralians who sang as though they came from some­where else. In fact, it felt to me as though many of those singers were act­ing when they sang with an Amer­i­can twang.

I don’t feel strongly about it any more: we’re all in­flu­enced by dif­fer­ent peo­ple, and if your in­flu­ences sang with an Amer­i­can ac­cent, then it’s un­der­stand­able you might do that too.

But back when I was start­ing out, it be­came a state­ment. I was choos­ing not to be­tray my roots, I was be­ing more “au­then­tic”. Things are much more black and white when you’re younger — right and wrong, good and bad — and it’s all so we can cre­ate the il­lu­sion that we know who we are and where we stand in the world. As the years roll on, we re­alise we know far less than we thought, and so there’s some­thing mighty — if mis­guided — in the cer­ti­tudes of our youth.

I recorded my first al­bum, The Sound of White, in Los An­ge­les when I was 20 (or was it 19?). The pro­ducer, John Porter, said to me very nicely one day: “Your ac­cent, it’s … very strong when you sing, isn’t it? Per­haps, ah, we could tone it down a lit­tle? Some peo­ple might find it a bit dis­tract­ing.”

I took great of­fence. Not only did I not tone down my ac­cent, I went even harder with it. “Boom, that’ll show them,” I re­mem­ber think­ing. “How dare any­one think that me singing in my own ac­cent is dis­tract­ing? I’m not f..king Amer­i­can!” The ac­cent went on to be­come stronger out of sheer spite. “If this is go­ing to po­larise peo­ple,” I thought, “I may as well not do it in halves.”

Hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to sing Slim’s The Big­gest Dis­ap­point­ment as a duet with Dan Sul­tan has been a ca­reer high­light.

Dan re­ally owned that part. We tracked it live in the stu­dio: it al­ways makes me feel like I’m a kid again, har­mon­is­ing with my brother and sis­ter at the kitchen ta­ble, tap­ping forks against mugs and singing real close.

After the record­ing, I was thrilled to dis­cover it was Joy McKean, Slim’s wife, man­ager and some­times co-writer, who wrote the song. What an amaz­ing thing: to write a song for your hus­band to sing about his life as an ado­les­cent, and for it to sound so au­then­ti­cally like his own voice.

That kind of song­writ­ing takes great skill. As they say, be­hind ev­ery great song­writ­ing man there’s an even greater song­writ­ing woman. This is an edited ex­tract of The Big­gest Dis­ap­point­ment, an es­say from Missy Hig­gins’s book Oz, pub­lished by Eleven and avail­able from Septem­ber 29 in con­junc­tion with her lat­est al­bum re­lease Oz.

Missy Hig­gins re­sisted pres­sure to sing like an Amer­i­can

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