In 1992, Lee Kernaghan released the Outback Club, which not only won ‘Best Country Album’ at the ARIA Music Awards and ‘Album of the Year’ at the Golden Guitar Awards, but also made him a household name. With 25 years in the industry, Lee has sold over two million album sales, 34 number one hits and 36 Golden Guitars to his name. Currently on his biggest and most exciting tour yet; I spoke to Lee about celebrating this iconic milestone.
You kicked off your massive 31+-date Boys From the Bush – 25th Anniversary Tour at the Tamworth Country Music Festival in January with the Wolfe Brothers. How was that show?
It was epic! The Wolfe Brothers truly are the hottest in the land. They are brilliant musicians, songwriters and artists [of] international calibre, as good as any outfitting in the world, I reckon. There’s a whole lot of history behind those boys. They often joke about those times they were in the mosh pit at the Wrest Point Casino, watching the Lee Kernaghan show (laughs). Now they’re in the band, making their own albums, touring America and with a career of their own. Those boys have paid serious musical dues and done countless shows to get to where they are today. They have a wide knowledge of music – not just country music, but all genres of music – and I think that’s part of the magic of the Wolfe Brothers.
Can you walk around the festival unnoticed?
If I take off my black Akubra hat off. I could probably get away with it some of the time, but not all of the time. It’s a great spirit of mate-ship there and we’re all like one big family – the artists and the country fans. 6000 country fans descend on the town from all over Australia. There’s 2700 different events over two weeks – and it’s just full on country!
Did you catch any shows while in Tamworth?
I saw the [Golden Guitar] awards and I was knocked out by the quality of the artists performing. Travis Collins was brilliant! The McClymonts; Fanny Lumsden – great to see a new rising star coming up through the ranks and striking gold; Kasey Chambers was world class of course; and Troy Cassar-Daley did a sensational job as well!
You’re no stranger to the GGs – having won a record of 36 times yourself! (Second only to the legendary Slim Dusty) Is it better to attend the awards as a winner, nominee or guest?
[There’s] definitely not as much pressure without being nominated (laughs). The tough part about being a nominee is, if I do get the nod and have to make a speech, will I forget to thank someone?! Looking back at my 25 career now, I can’t say I’ve done it all on my own. It’s been an incredible talent bank of musicians, songwriters, producers and engineers that have all contributed to making those records that have gone out into the big wide world. That’s where that pressure comes in – just don’t want to leave anyone out (laughs).
So let’s talk about the 25th Anniversary Tour – as well as the Wolfe Brothers, you’re also being joined on the road by James Blundell, Christie Lamb and your sister, Tania Kernaghan. Most shows may have one or two opening acts – what’s the reason for having so many?
It’s all about putting on the greatest show possible! [And] it’s not everybody all on the same show; different venues have different opening acts. Even in Frankston, I’ve invited one of the graduates of the country music academy to open up the show – her name’s Chloe Styler and she’s just released an EP. On the show, Christie Lamb, the Wolfe Brothers, James Blundell will make selected appearances across Australia. My sister Tania, she’s got a new album out called All Australian Girl, and she’ll be appearing at various venues as well. [But] it doesn’t just stop with the calibre of artists I get to tour with but production, sound and lighting. The big AV screens that make it a visual spectacle as well!
I don’t know of many artists who would give so many artists the opportunity – especially considering the possible monetary loss and lesser time on stage for you. I guess what I’m trying to say is, it takes a special kind of person to do that.
I remember what it was like being an unknown artist and getting my chance to do an opening spot – it was actually at the Palais in Melbourne opening for Midnight Oil and that was an absolute baptism of fire! (laughs) Through the years I’ve tried to nurture and encourage new, up and coming artists. There’s been some brilliant acts that’ve toured with me. I remember Brooke McClymont was on tour with me on the Hat Town Tour when she was only 16 years old. She’d do a support gig, then head back to the motel and study for her High School Certificate. Eventually [Brooke, and her sisters Sam and Molly] teamed up as The McClymonts and joined me on the 2008 National Tour.
I’ll always be grateful to Slim Dusty for doing the same for me back when my career was starting off. He joined me in the studio to record his great song Leave me in the Longyard – it ended up winning a Golden Guitar for us – but it was what he did for me that stands so powerfully in my memory and will never ever be forgotten.
Do you guys have to behave yourself when your sister is on tour?
Yes, we do! I have to keep my package wrapped ever so slightly tighter when my sister Tania is around. I’ve got to behave myself otherwise she’ll tell Mum and Dad on me (laughs).
What is the mood like backstage before you go on stage?
There’s a saying in the music business – don’t peak too soon. So it’s like a little bit of controlled anticipation and focus prior to the show. That last half an hour, before we hit the stage is when things start to unwind a bit and we start psyching each other up. After the show, backstage has been the scene of some pretty good parties! (laughs) Anything can happen at our shows and usually does.
To coincide with the tour, you also have a new album coming out on March 24. I know Adam Brand and the Wolfe Brothers are involved –what more can you tell me about the 25th Anniversary Album and who else is making an appearance?
Kasey Chambers, The McClymonts, Adam Harvey, Tania Kernaghan, John Williamson – see now I’m in that problem where I might leave someone out (laughs). It’s a big line up! It’s a mix of originals and some covers I’ve wanted to record since forever. The covers are duets. I do a song called Trip Around the Sun with the McClymonts, which was recorded years ago by Martina McBride and Jimmy Buffet, but it’s just a song that I love! I thought, the 25th Anniversary Album, I’m just going to do stuff I love.
How did you choose who you wanted to sing with?
It was about a decision from the heart. The Wolfe Brothers and I teamed up for a song called Damn Good Mates. It was originally cut by Tyler Farr [as Damn Good Friends] but with the permission of the songwriters in the States, we’ve Australianised that song and I can’t think of a better bunch of blokes to have recorded it with.
I really wanted to do a song with John Williamson because he’s such a legend. With Kasey, we did New Year’s Eve together in 1992 at her hometown of Beachport. Her and her Dad, Bill have been quite a part of my musical journey. As has Troy; done late night jam sessions at the Tamworth Services Club in the 80s before either of us had any thoughts of making an album, so people who have been special to me over 25 years of making music, that’s why I’ve invited them on to the album.
Being duets, how are you going to sing them live without the recorded artists being on stage with you?
I’m still figuring out how I’m going to do some of that (laughs) but they’ll be special guests joining me on the tour from time to time. Troy joined me in on stage in Tamworth, as did John Williamson, so it’ll be an incredibly exciting tour for us. It’s awesome getting out on the road and hanging out with the band. We’re all one big family out there on the road!
Being the 25th Anniversary, what were you doing 25 years ago?
I’d been doing [music] for about 9 years professionally, playing pubs and clubs. I was a sound man, a roadie, the talent booker and the singer all rolled into one. But by the early 90s and the age of 26, I was broke. I had to move back home with Mum and Dad. I was playing cocktail music two nights a week at a piano bar. Looking back I’d reached the end of the line and I thought my career was over.
Garth Porter, the famous record producer, the former songwriter for Sherbet and keyboardist, he encouraged me to come to Sydney and do some songwriting with him. He didn’t really like the songs I was writing and he said to me, “Mate, you are a boy from the bush. Your father, Ray’s a truck driver; your Mum, Pam’s a dairy farmer’s daughter and your Grandfather, Pat is a drover of sheep and cattle. I want you to go immerse yourself in the works of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson and then start writing songs about you, where you come from and your life experiences.” Boys From The Bush was the first [song I wrote]. It was those words of advice that gave birth, not only to that song, but the Outback Club.
Is there anything you would change about the Outback Club if you had a chance to go back and rerecord it?
I think if I tried to rerecord it I’d just stuff it up (laughs).
Is Boys From The Bush still your most requested song?
I’d have to check iTunes! (laughs) When I’m working out what I’m going to play on the tour, working out the set list, I’ll often go there and go, “what are the top Lee Kernaghan songs?” It’s usually there around the number one, two or three. I wouldn’t feel the show would be complete without singing it. I’ve never got sick of it – not even a tiny bit.
You’re bringing the tour to people who may not know anything about country life. How do songs like Boys From The Bush resonate in suburban or city areas?
The music resonates right across the country in the little towns and right through to the cities. I don’t see it so much as country music as it is the music of our country, of our people, of our way of life, and that’s why so many people across our nation can connect with this genre of music. People like Keith Urban and Kasey Chambers [are] definitely taking the music into the main stream and that’s a great thing!
If I’m singing about Spirit of the Anzacs, that goes right across the board. If I’m singing ‘I’m an Australian Boy’, there’s references in that one like, I’m stuck in traffic in Flinders Street, Blues and the Bombers down at the MCG, I’m an Australian Boy. This music is not just for a select crowd it’s for an Australian Crowd – a big one! (laughs)
[Originally posted at the AU Review]