On the recent Bluegrass Music Cruise from Singapore to Darwin, there was an interesting occurrence – there were three musicians in separate bands who had all toured extensively with Australia’s most famous country music singer, Slim Dusty. What was especially interesting, however was that the three of us: Paul Trenwith, Peter Denahy and myself each represented a different decade in Slim’s storied career and it made me think and reminisce about that time.
Many people are curious about what it was like to know and work with Slim – he was after all, a nationally famous celebrity yet still had a very down to earth image of being an everyday Australian.
I can’t say I was ever a Slim Dusty fan, but I had great respect for him and his career. As one who has always been interested in the history of country music, I could see the influences ranging from Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry and Ernest Tubb amongst others and I did enjoy his ‘bush ballads’ where poems of sentiment and nostalgia were set to simple country style melodies that made for good fiddle material. He was also a great rhythm guitar player with a very strong traditional style using a heavy thumb-pick to set up a solid foundation.
I worked as the fiddle player and sometime guitarist from mid-1986 through to the end of 1989 and do remember that time very fondly. Musically the main thing that pervades my memory of that period was the need for his management team to carefully monitor his voice and ensure that it was neither worked too hard and he had sufficient power in the PA system so that he didn’t have to strain it. The years of playing the show circuit and old country halls with very rudimentary sound systems had really taken its toll and already forced him to take extended periods of time off.
I entered the band after one such period. Slim often hired musicians who were bluegrass pickers – that’s what young musicians then were into and therefore it was a good wellspring to draw from. After a recommendation from a friend, Slim actually called me himself and described the show and what was in store for the rest of year of 1986. I packed up and moved to Sydney without much hesitation! The initial plan was to play short tours and only play 3-4 nights per week, however this commitment quickly grew and it ended up becoming a five month period of extended touring.
Certainly the highlight of that year was a tour of the Solomon Islands to boost local morale following a severe cyclone. Slim had not been there since 1970, but there was a genuine frenzy of excitement amongst the entire population and the tour (for which we travelled in a RAAF Hercules aircraft) was a huge success. The gig was on a sports ground and the stage was very rickety – it was made of old pallets supported by 44 gallon drums! I will not forget turning on the hotel radio in my room that evening to hear the headline news in Pidgin English: ‘Thousands come look-look, him fella hat fella!’.
Following another down period in 1987, where there were very few shows and no touring, the Australian bicentennial year of 1988 was planned to be possibly the biggest national tour of all. For this year, a special set depicting an outback pub had been procured and a road crew of six technicians travelled with it, setting it up every night in all sorts of locations. We had a great band assembled for this tour as well and we had a lot of fun together and formed lasting friendships.
This was by far the most professional looking Slim Dusty show ever and it was booked in every state and territory in a tour that began in February in Albury and ended in Parramatta in December. That tour featured the full spectrum of Australia, from the luxurious Sydney Opera House to a dusty mining location on Groote Eylandt. There were outdoor shows, outback locations, big city auditoriums and country halls – it was a very busy and fun time. Slim was easily the top dog in the Australian country music scene and the only act that could offer a sideman an experience like that.
I’ve still got the tour schedules that were produced by the management and you can see here how some of these tours covered a lot of ground. I especially remember the long drive from Cairns to Mt Isa on one day immediately followed by a drive to Alice Springs the next!
Other features of these tours were the comedy and variety acts brought along for the ride. Geoff Mack (who wrote ‘I’ve been Everywhere Man’) was incredibly funny – he did a version of that song in Japanese and another variant of it called ‘I’ve had Everything, Doc!’and was a classic old-school entertainer. I also fondly remember John Brady, who was a real life cowboy stuntman (he had once doubled for Ray Walston in the movie ‘Paint Your Wagon’). He put on a unique show of boomerang throwing, whip cracking and … pistol shooting. Occasionally, when in the outback while travelling between shows, we would stop and he would load real bullets into those things and we would merrily blow away anthills. I can’t imagine anyone in Australia travelling with guns now or performing an act that involved firing guns onstage.
Days on the road typically involved a drive of around 300 kms or so in a pretty basic Toyota coaster mini bus, a sound check, a quick dinner (options were often limited and decent coffee was extremely rare!) and then the show, which ran from 8 to 11 pm with an interval. I still have much of the tour documentation from that period and you can see a typical day that ended in Bundaberg, QLD.
While the role of supporting musicians was never properly acknowledged on his early records or in any mainstream coverage of his work, Slim used the band well on stage. Each night, he featured the band’s instrumental skills, including giving me a fiddle feature piece, and he encouraged us to be part of the occasional comedy routine, which for me involved speaking to the audience. It really helped hone my skills of communicating with an audience and being comfortable with public speaking.
I have many cassette tapes of these shows and since I converted them to mp3 files, I have enjoyed listening to them again. I do however, wish the sound was better and the show made more use of good quality microphones rather than the very harsh sounding piezo pickups that unfortunately were in vogue then. Maybe it’s my bluegrass background, but I really don’t like the sound of acoustic instruments plugged in!
That year was a big high in many ways and I went on to many opportunities that were opening up. When Slim said he was doing a tour in late 1989, I agreed to return but could immediately see that it was not going to be the same as the previous year. There was a return to a much smaller scale of production and I was now quite keen on playing other, more challenging types of music. In addition, I could see Slim’s commitment to a touring band becoming much more part time and tours were becoming shorter and less frequent.
I had begun playing with another Australian icon in a completely different field, Mic Conway (in a band called Mic Conway’s Whoopee Band), and had a great opportunity to play with musicians schooled in jazz. I was also now ready to get my own band together and did this soon after with my brother Peter in a return to western swing with the first incarnation of the Baylor Brothers. I still kept in touch though and saw Slim and his family from time to time in a range of settings.
Playing with Slim Dusty gave my musical endeavours some recognition with the general populace that a life spent in the obscure genres of bluegrass, old timey and western swing could never provide. It was certainly an honour to be part of a long line of personnel that served him well and a great thing to be able to meet so many people through the years who have their own recollections and to share these.
Towards the end of my time there, I asked Slim for a reference and he was happy to give me the following: