From picking up a ukulele as a blonde-haired boy to playing at packed-out premier events, Australian music legend John Williamson has always loved to perform.
An ARIA Hall of Fame membership, three ARIA Awards, four APRA awards, 24 Golden Guitar awards and a Centenary Medal for services to Australian society for singing and songwriting are just some of the accolades John has collected throughout his career of nearly 45 years. Add being made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1992 ‘for service to Australian country music and in stimulating awareness of conservation issues’ and it’s easy to see why he is considered a ‘True Blue’ Aussie legend.
There aren’t many Australians who couldn’t sing along to his trademark song Hey, True Blue, which is also the title for his recently released autobiography. The book, which has sold extremely well, was released alongside his 50th album Honest People, co produced by award-winning producer Matt Fell and full of songs about real people, places and times.
John, born in 1945 to parents Shirley and Keith in the small wheat-farming town of Quambatook, is proud to call himself a Mallee Boy. He has fond recollections of his mother and father singing in the family’s kitchen. While his Mum was too shy to perform publicly, his Dad used to play “just with mates who were farmers in the area, at dances in locals halls and places like that. “I guess I just took it up from there,” John explains.
“At 19 we moved to North West NSW on the land and I was the only one who used to do any singing in the area. “I’d sing in the local pub and restaurants, and it was then I wrote Old Man Emu.” And that’s where John’s journey to stardom began. In simple terms, he moved to Melbourne, won New Faces, Old Man Emu became a number-one hit, and he became a sought after performer selling more than five million albums.
“It was Old Man Emu that made me realise I had a talent for composing songs,” John says. “But when it comes to favourites I can’t separate the songs Raining on the Rock, Galleries of Pink Galahs or Cootamundra Wattle. “They showed me I could write more than one song.”
After 45 years in the business, there have been some amazing highlights to recall, including singing at the 2000 Sydney Olympics with the crowd joining in. John’s heart-stopping moment was when the audience lifted the stands singing Waltzing Matilda alongside him at the 1998 Bledislow Cup. “Well, they sang alright – 70,000 Aussies in full tonsil. “They really belted out the song like never before. “It was particularly inspiring, especially when I stopped singing for a moment and took in the full sound.”
To John Waltzing Matilda is “our larrikin anthem. “It describes things that are deep down in our Aussie psyche and will never die: our affinity with the underdog, love of the bush and the campfire. ”I’ve always loved the song and have had some amazing experiences when I’ve been asked to sing it publicly,” he writes in his book.
As far as shockers go, he tells The Retiree it was performing with an unknown band in Armidale. “Only one person came to the show; we didn’t bother performing, he helped us pack up then had a drink with us. “Another time I played with a band called Sydney Rodeo, disguised as a clown. “The venue staff treated us like crap and it wasn’t until I came out of costume and they realised who I was that they gave us any sort of respect. “It proved to me how hard it is for those starting out in the business.”
There aren’t many places John hasn’t performed in Australia. But, the one he is looking forward to most is “in my shed on my property. “I’ve already got a couple of hundred people coming next year, and probably another 50 or so mates on top of that. “I really want to share my shed and the beautiful area it is in overlooking the Gold Coast hinterland; you can see nothing but wilderness. “Yeah – all Australian boys need a shed!”
A successful career has enabled John to pursue his passion for the land beyond his music. Among the organisations he is proud to be involved with are Life Education, Wildlife Warriors Worldwide, Landcare, the NSW Wildlife Information and Rescue Service, Protect our Coral Sea, and Variety the Children’s Charity. He met his wife Meg, who he married last year, on the Variety Bash six years ago. “She loves the Bash, and I love doing it for the kids. “I’ve had the same Holden Ute for each one and really enjoy every journey.”
Despite his charitable character, and his particularly love for the land, John doesn’t call himself a ‘greeny’. “I prefer bluey,” he remarks. “Australia is a country rich in the shades of red and blue and the further inland you go, into the heat, the leaves of the trees have a real blue tinge. “Tassie also has its magnificent blue gums, and so I think of myself as a bluey.”
He’s also a proud republican. “I really believe that we should have our own head of state. “It’s pretty obvious to me. “I even have a flag that I think we should by flying; it’s the Southern Cross with a red background and ochre kangaroo.
“I love this place,” John reiterates. “I’m never not inspired by the bush and I suppose in the early days I was lucky that not too many people were writing about it.
“My forty-four years in music have been quite a journey,” John writes in his book. ”But my life has not really been about music, more a continuing love of the Australian character and especially the bush. “Song writing became my way of expressing how I feel. “Nature has been my enduring inspiration, the songs have flowed from that and I’ve been blessed that some of them have become well-known celebrations of our great land and its people.”
John’s longevity in show business has enabled him to entertain generations of Australians. “Kids who used to listen from the back seat while Mum and Dad played my music, are now entertaining their own children with the same songs. “People tell me I’m part of their family and that’s a really fantastic thing for them to say. “I love being able to write songs about Australia for Australians.”
With gigs planned beyond 2018, John is showing no signs of slowing down. “While I don’t see me ever fully retiring,” he says, “I do often then about the time when I can have a chook yard again and grow a few veges. “Part of me always wants to get back to the land where I have a real connection.”