There’s a few nice “gee whiz” moments in this memoir. Did you know that John Williamson doesn’t sing some of his old songs because they mention smoking dope? That he was no great mate of the late Slim Dusty? That the trademark buck teeth of another country legend, Chad Morgan, are falsies? That Williamson did his first performance in Tamworth in shorts to rebel against country music stereotypes? That’s he’s so passionate about an Australian republic he bets tails when they are tossing two-up pennies on Anzac Day because he’d rather his luck ride on a kangaroo’s backside than a British monarch’s head?
And there are old photos that will give you a chuckle too. What was it with fashion in the 1970s?
This book is like the hundreds of songs Williamson has penned – it’s True Blue. It feels authentic and proudly and uniquely Australian.
It begins in the Victorian Mallee town of Quambatook, where Williamson (born 1945) first lived. He was the son of a wheat farmer and grew up to do the same thing himself around Moree in NSW before a comic song called Old Man Emu became a hit in 1970. He wrote it while driving a tractor.
It was this growing up on the land that saw Williamson form his love of untouched Aussie bush – a passion that still burns bright and is a constant theme of this book. Former Greens leader Bob Brown is one of his heroes.
Another passionate theme of the autobiography is Williamson’s contempt for Australian country performers aping their American counterparts.
Williamson believes his success is due to “the fact I’ve never waivered from my belief in writing about us, as Aussies … about how this ancient land is our most precious heritage, about how this island continent makes us a unique mob.”
He believes he has pioneered a country style that is uniquely Australian and has helped keep open the cultural gate that Lawson and Paterson first unlocked. “I’ve allowed people and the bush to speak to me.”
He has been more than 40 years a professional musician, he has just released his 50th album (Honest People, which we review in this issue of Unsealed 4X4), sold more than five million records, won 25 Golden Guitars at the country music awards, and been inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame.
But his status as a cultural icon is reflected more by where he has performed his gigs – from suburban bikie pubs to the Sydney Opera House, from the top of Big Red sand dune in the Simpson Desert to Parliament House in Canberra, from remote Aboriginal communities to the SCG.
And this book reminds you that some of these gigs were events that are milestones in Australian history – the opening of New Parliament House, the memorial service for Sir Donald Bradman, the memorial service for Steve Irwin, the memorial service for the Bali bombing victims, the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, Steve Waugh’s final Test, the funeral of the first Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan.
His best known work, Hey True Blue, has become a genuine Australian folk ballad that will continue to be sung by generations to come.
Williamson’s dad was also a classic bush mechanic who loved nothing more than tinkering with engines, and that love rubbed off on his son. He’s a self-confessed revhead and there’s a photo of the 4X4s that used to make up his touring fleet.
Williamson still owns the two Troopies, which were bought for their toughness. “You can’t wear them out and they have hardly any rust. One of them is my main farm vehicle at Springbrook . The other has been decommissioned but I’ll turn it into a camper one day when I become a grey nomad,” he writes.
Hey True Blue, Penguin Books, hardback RRP $39.99
Words: Dan Lewis