“True Blue” Australian country music legend, John Williamson has never been shy to voice his opinions on topical issues. His two latest singles are no exception or void of controversy: “Pigs On The River” expresses his anger towards irrigators on the Murray-Darling River and “Love Is The Word” about hatred in the world.
Back in October you performed on Crusin’ Country No7: Family Reunion – a specialised cruise perfect for country music fans and music fans alike. How did you find the whole experience?
It’s a lot of fun because it’s the one time a whole lot of country musicians and excellent players too, get together. At the end of the day, when there’s a bar open to anybody who wants to jump up and play, that’s a lot of fun. I only had to work my own show on one day so the rest of it was having a good time with some friends.
I walk around, for sure. But half the time I sometimes don’t realise [people are] saying hello to me and I get into trouble, but anyone that wants to say g’day, it’s no problem to me. I go back to when people didn’t want to know who I was, so you got to take that in stride. (Laughs)
If you don’t like mixing with punters that’s almost like you shouldn’t be in the business because they’re the ones that put you where you are. They’re the ones who buy your records. Country people are nice people; you know they’re not going to be silly. I stop at having a beer with them but saying hello and having photos, it’s what you do. It’s part of your business. I think the American way is keeping artists aloof, but I think the Aussie way is that we don’t think we’re above anybody and we’re not.
You recently released two songs: “Pigs On The River” inspired to write after watching a story on Four Corners about irrigators in the Murray-Darling River System; and “Love Is The Word” about the lack of love in the world, expressing his feelings towards marriage equality and the ongoing debate about it. Did you play the new songs on the cruise?
No, not these two, I [was] only still developing them. I tend to see how they’ve been accepted before I do too much. “Pigs On The River” is going to be hard to do to sound anything like the CD, but “Love Is The Word”, of course, is almost a solo [and] will be easy. Generally over the years, I tend to do the songs I find get the most requests. I come out after the show and say hello to people. If I’ve missed something that comes up often enough, I’ll put it back in the show.
I usually try songs out [on the road] but “Pigs On The River”, I was hoping to get out because I was quite angry at what was going on at the Murray-Darling River, the catchment area, that was the one that was really important. “Love Is The Word”, I had a feeling there was plenty of songs like that out there, so I’m quite surprised at the reaction to that one. Love is the only way this world is going to come together.
There has been a lot of negative comments towards you and the song because of its association with same-sex marriage and the same-sex marriage debates. Were you at all worried about the reaction of fans and people in general who were so opposed to the yes vote?
I have a conviction about things and it doesn’t bother me who gets upset by it. In fact, I suppose if you make a statement that is controversial, you expect that. I hope there are more positives than negatives – that’s what I’m told anyway. I’ve never bothered about negative people.
I come from the folk era where we write songs about things we feel, things that are important to us not just love songs or songs to make hits. If these songs are hits than that’s great but that helps the cause more than anything else. I write about 1% songs like this; it’s amazing how much publicity you get out of the one percent.
This song is not just about [same-sex marriage]. It’s about the way the world seems to be going. It’s getting a bit negative everywhere. When I wrote “Rip Rip Woodchip”, I even had a death threat! My fans generally don’t hate me for it. I sang it and half the audience booed the other half – they didn’t boo me. (Laughs) It’s like they didn’t like each other about it but they certainly understood that I can say how I feel. I always have if I’m asked that question and if I say I don’t want to say it, I think that’s being a coward about it. I don’t think you should be afraid to say how you feel.
I think Australians in the long run realise we have free speech in this country. It is okay to say no or yes, that’s for sure, but you don’t force it on people. I’m prepared to say I vote yes, but it’s about so many other things. . You truly don’t get into trouble in a long run in Australia. This might be a surprise because I’m a country boy; I’ll say these things that are all up to the low daily news these days.
How do you feel about the way the government handed the same-sex marriage postal plebiscite? Do you think it could have been done in a better or different way?
They shouldn’t have been spending money on it. It [was] never going to go away, so they should have voted for it in Parliament. In 20 or 30 years time people will think how ridiculous this whole thing was. There are a lot more important things to worry about in this world.
Let’s talk about “Pigs On The River” now. What was it about the story that inspired you to pen the song and what do you hope people listening will get out of it?
There are irrigators along the Murray-Darling Basin. I’m talking about a small percentage; it’s important to underline that because it’s the bad ones that give the good ones a bad name. They are taking water illegally. It’s like they regard the water that’s going past them as theirs and completely ignoring the fact that the water has gone all the way down to Adelaide naturally for centuries. They’re claiming it, trying to take the lot of it. They’re not taking any notice of the regulations and they’re getting away with it. I think they should be treated as thieves in the green sense.
I want to support the people who aren’t going to say anything along the river because some of these companies are big, quite strong companies. Our people aren’t game to say how they feel. I’m giving them a chance to say and I’ve got some good reaction to it. A lot of people are jumping up and down about the story on Four Corners and so they’re really upset about it.
If the bullies want to have a go at me, that would be typical. People are always trying to defend their wrongdoings. But I haven’t actually mentioned any particular irrigator or any particular type of irrigation. They know who they are and the people down the river know who they are. I don’t have to spell it out.
What was the reasoning behind releasing two singles at the same time instead of just going with the typical one?
That was Warner [Music’s] idea. I was quite happy to go with one at a time but they thought they were topical. That’s the nice thing about releasing these singles is that instead of having to wait till the album is finished, you lose the impetus on what’s current. Back in the old single days that was easy to do, so it’s almost like going back to where we were in the 70s and 80s, where you put out a single to stir things up. Now it’s mainly albums. I’m currently finishing off a whole lot more tracks.