Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Aborigine Singer-Songwriter Roger Knox Reflects on "Stranger In My Land"

On Stranger In My Land (Bloodshot Records), Aborigine singer-songwriter Roger Knox delivers a collection of folk tunes that are rare, unrecorded, and/ or handed-down by his peers and predecessors. Knox is joined by an incredible roster of guests including Bonnie Prince Billy, Kelly Hogan, Dave Alvin (X, Blasters), Sally Timms, Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers), The Sadies, and Andre Williams. As if all these artists were not enough to intrigue new listeners as to who Roger Knox is all about, Stranger In My Land also includes one of the great Charlie Louvin's last known recordings. Stranger In My Land is sure to appeal to fans of Alan Lomax's field recordings, as well as to the contemporary folk and alt country fans who have an ear for music of the people by the people.

After hearing Stranger In My Land for the first time, I immediately knew that I wanted to interview Roger Knox. Although the good people at Bloodshot were excited to coordinate the feature, and wanted to make it happen as much as I did, they stressed that there were no 100% guarantees that it could even come together. Since Roger lives in the Australian Outback, coordinating this interview required the work of not just his willingness and eagerness to participate, but also the help of his friends with internet access.

So, I worked up my questions for Roger as if it was my only shot to discuss his work with him. I decided I would go for broke and just pitch everything- knowing that if all of the elements did come together, that I wanted to seize this rare opportunity to provide readers with as much insight into the man's work, up to and including his new Stranger In My Land album. This album is incredible, and I am overjoyed to share this man's musical history with you.


Can you describe your early experiences, including how and when you began learning and playing music?

Roger Knox: It all began in church. Songs were taught to me by my grandmother who was a Sunday school teacher. My mother was also a church singer. The music I knew growing up was Gospel music.

What kinds of artists, albums, performances, etc inspired you to pursue music?

Roger: People like Col Hardy and Jimmy Little and Jimmy’s brother Freddie Little inspired me to be a singer and perform. Harry and Wilga Williams, Slim Dusty in his early years was the only music we knew and it was taught to me by my cousins and brothers. People in my community sang Slim Dusty songs. Charlie Duncan played guitar with other community members and Charlie taught me guitar.

As an Aborigine, how has your own culture inspired you to both connect within your community and beyond?

Roger: Growing up we didn’t know a lot about our culture, a lot was taken away from us. Pretty much our humanity was taken away along with our language, our culture and true history. Once I began to learn the truth about our history and realize that I was from a culture of dignity, worth and ancient knowledge I became instilled with a great feeling of self pride. I grew up in a in a closed brotherly community called Toomelah Mission, where everyone was supportive of each other and there was a lot of love, caring, sharing and understanding.

I had a strong feeling of concern about the incarceration rate of Aboriginal people in prisons and institutions and would often visit the juvenile centers in Tamworth. This is where I met people like Chicka Dixon and Jack Walker. We used to talk about the injustice of the high rate of Aboriginal people incarcerated. We still believe that Aboriginal people are not criminals but victims of criminals. Crimes committed by Aboriginal people are most often minor and not reflected in the sentences they receive.

With the help of Jack and Chicka I was inspired to perform inside prisons and still do. I met former inmates who were peers of mine, musicians and politically active. These people inspired me to sing songs and tell stories about our culture and our lives. Performing inside helped to keep a solid cultural and community connection with inmates and helped to uplift and encourage them to be strong.

Can you share some of your biggest sources of non-musical inspiration?

Roger: My mum was a great inspiration to me because of her survival of the injustices inflicted upon her, owing to the stolen generation and her surviving it. Spiritual self realization is a constant source of strength for me and also the sacred places I often visit, Aboriginal sites such as Boobera Lagoon. My brother Jacko is a constant source of uplift and cultural knowledge.

Who are some of the western artists that inspired you?

Roger: Chuck Berry in later years, Col Joy, Rolling Stones, Billy Thorpe, Tony Worseley, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Jimmy Buffet, The Bachelors, Johnny Cash, and Connie Francis.

I am sure that some readers will be discovering your work through your new album, Stranger In My Land. Could you briefly discuss your previous discography as an Aboriginal Country and Western artist?

Roger: Give It a Go (1983) was my first album with Enrec records in Tamworth, with Steve Newton. I was in my late 30’s. I chose the songs as they were my favorites at that time, both of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal songwriters. It was released on cassette and vinyl.

Next was Koori Classics (1986/7/8). I was involved in a series compilation with other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. They were a series of 8 cassettes recorded in Enrec studios and released in the bicentennial year in 1988. We chose to do all 60’s rock and roll by mainly Aussie Rock and Rollers’. This included Koori Classic 4 (Roger Knox, Vic Simms, Max Silva) which was a series of prison songs.

Gospel Album (1990): My grandmother inspired this album and I dedicated it to her memory. She was a missionary and she took over the church ministry in our community when grandfather didn’t return from the war. Some of the songs were her favorites, ones she had taught us. Later on I released many of them. These were written by American artists like Hank Williams and I don’t know how she even got on to them, perhaps through soldiers or other missionaries.

Warrior in Chains (1991) is a compilation of songs that I did over the years, some written by a Native American friend who I met in Canada. There is a video clip which was done for the title song and was played on National Television.

On Going On, Still Strong (2003) I wanted to do a recording that was written by mostly Aboriginal songwriters. The three songs which were not are still great stories about Aboriginal people and that is why I chose them. Three generations of my family were involved in this recording. Most of my CDs have involved family members, because we are a musical family.

How and when did you meet Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers)? Can you discuss your friendship and musical connections?

Roger: I met Jon Langford at the Tamworth Country Music Festival 4 or 5 years ago where we were involved in a Cultural Showcase. It is an all Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander event. Jon came along and performed a song that I had previously recorded, "The Streets of Tamworth” which shocked and amazed me. That’s how we got talking. I thought it was a great thing and it was the first time I had seen a non-Aboriginal person perform one of my songs. Jon said he was from Old South Wales and I said I was from New South Wales and we hit it off from there!

How did you decide to work together to make an album?

Roger: Jon was inspired with the Buried Country production that I had been involved with. Buried Country documented the struggles of Aboriginal musicians across Australia. Jon liked a lot of the songs that were featured on this documentary and we talked about doing a recording of some songs with me performing them. I didn’t really think this would happen, but it did and I am glad. This all happened when we first met.

Stranger In My Land is a collection of songs originally written by Aborigine artists who were your predecessors. 

Can you tell us about some of the qualities of the artists and their songs that

 compelled you to include them on your album (knowing that the record would receive a wide US release)?

Roger: Dougie Young was an Aboriginal singer/songwriter/poet back in the 50’ snd 60’s. He grew up in Western New South Wales on the Darling River in a small farming town called Wilcannia. Carrying his swag he travelled around as a stockman looking for work on stock stations. His songs were about his travels, hardships and drinking songs. He had good words for someone who couldn’t read or write and is a hero amongst many Aboriginal people through South Western NSW and South Western QLD communities.

I met him in later life when he was in Newcastle living in a home. It was a thrill to meet him as I had met his family in Wilcannia and heard his songs. His lyrics speak of unity and nuclear war – he was concerned about the condition of the world and its leaders. So am I. This is one of the reasons I recorded two of his songs. I chose one of his drinking songs because even though I abstain from alcohol, so many of our people are affected by it. This concerns me greatly: how alcohol is destroying us.

Vic Simms wrote the title track "Stranger In My Land". Vic and I have been friends for many years and we have performed many times together in Sydney. He is from the La Peruse Aboriginal Mission. Vic was a Rock and Roll performer in the 60’s and had a number 1 hit in Australia with “Yo Yo Heart”.

He still performs and we have recorded together and done numerous prison concerts. Vic wrote and recorded an album whilst "doing time" in the 60’s. I chose the song "Stranger In My Land" because Vic talks about the injustices of Aboriginal peoples: genocide, stolen land, equal rights and the need for developing a better understanding of Aboriginal culture.

Dennis Conlon aka Mop wrote "Brisbane Blacks". Mop formed a band called Mop & the Dropouts. They were the premier Aboriginal rock band in Queensland during the early 80’s. They set up and organized their own gigs in communities across Queensland, which were a real grass roots band. They are one of my favorites.

Mop talks about the struggle of Aboriginal people in Queensland and is a big supporter of Aboriginal rights. He tells a great story, true stories of Aboriginal struggles and has performed at many rallies. The dedication of the band and the remote communities they travel to, continue to be an inspiration to me. "Brisbane Blacks" is the story about Aboriginal people doing what they thought was normal, enjoying each others company and not harming any one. When a TV journalist came and took it all out of proportion it made headlines on national television.

The songs chosen for Stranger In My Land had the purpose of telling my story to a wider audience. For instance "Brisbane Blacks" is written with great empathy, compassion and honesty. It highlights the lack of understanding between us and our onlookers. We include songs from Aboriginal Nations across Australia and showcase some of the beautiful Country we live on.

"Wayward Dreams" is a beautiful song by an old friend Bobby McLeod. He reminisces about our life before colonization, whilst at the same time acknowledging the struggles we face to be ourselves in the world we now live in.

Some of the songs on Stranger In My Land were previously recorded but difficult to find, as well as several unrecorded, handed-down folklore songs.

What does delivering these songs to a wider audience mean to you personally, artistically, and philosophically?

Roger: Artistically, I loved the tune when it was unaccompanied, and I felt so much pride in Auntie Maisie’s voice. She sings with real feeling about the country she loves. We have lost so many songs it would be a shame to lose this one.

Philosophically, Auntie Maisie Kelly was a strong spiritual lady who reared her family through music, which was part of her storytelling. She left the Valley and was drawn back to it. She always came back. She had strong ties to her land and her people, the Dhan-gadi people. It is important from a cultural perspective for Aboriginal people to keep these songs alive and to preserve them by singing them. It maintains the connection between their land and their people.

Personally, these are real true stories of Aboriginal people. Auntie Maisie Kelly sings about the valley she loves which has now been developed but still has its sacred areas. Many Dhan-gadi people from this area were taken to Bellbrook Mission – it became their home and land. Their ancestors would wander across this country - Aboriginal country – our songs and music reminds us of this.

The album includes lots of guests such as Bonnie Prince Billy, Kelly Hogan, Dave Alvin (X, Blasters), Sally Timms and Jon Langford (Mekons), the Sadies, Andre Williams, and Charlie Louvin.

Can you describe your work with these artists, and what kind of unique qualities you believe they brought to the material?

Roger: Every one of the artists contributed something special to this recording with their harmonies, vocals, and music. I love the vocals of Charlie Louvin he brought something strong and solid to that particular track. It is a great honor to have a country music legend the caliber of Charlie Louvin on this album.

Sally Timms brought her sweet, warm voice to "Home in the Valley". I just know Auntie Maisie would have been really proud. The Sadies are a great band to work with and they contributed a special effort to the project. Jean Cook added haunting melodies and some terrific fiddle to "Wayward Dreams". Andre’s gravelly voice was well suited to the title track "Stranger in my Land".

The fantastic guitar work of the Good brothers on that particular track made me really proud. We had a lot of fun recording "Scobies Dream" and Bonnie Prince Billy kept the momentum going. It’s a crazy song and this version is really different. I just love what we did with "Land Where The Crow Flies Backwards’.

Buddy and Alvin’s guitar really fit with Jason’s steel guitar and had a great funky feel. I still have a laugh when I think of Jon rapping around Enrec’s studio when we were recording it.

How was working with The Pine Valley Cosmonauts?

Roger: It was a great experience, they were such friendly and professional people who made me feel very welcome. They were a great help to me, settling me into a routine and encouraging and supporting me during our promotional tour of the USA last year. Coming form the bush in Australia to a huge stage and audience in San Francisco was a big buzz, but also a little scary. With the support of the PVC, I really started to enjoy myself and I thank them for that experience.

Please describe the processes of arranging, recording the tunes for the album.

Roger: My contribution to the Stranger In my Land CD was recorded in Tamworth with Jon Langford and a crew of Australian musicians including my son Buddy. Over the 4 days we spent in Enrec’s Studio, we laid the foundation of the album with sound engineer Steve Newton. This was an organic process utilizing he skills of everyone concerned.

Jon Langford was responsible for taking these recordings back to the USA and co-ordinating the various contributions from international artists. The final mix was done by Blaise Barton, Jon Langford, and Bloodshot owner Rob Miller at Joyride Studios in Chicago.

What was most surprising and/ or unexpected working with these artists in the making of this record?

Roger: Jon has a devilish way of changing an old ballad into a rap type arrangement, like on "Land Where the Crow Flies Backwards". "Stranger In My Country" was transformed from a country rock tune into an upbeat rock and roll number.

I was really surprised when our old Auntie Maisie Kelly song, with Jon’s touch, was smoothed out into a beautiful, soulful, country ballad. Jason the pedal steel player was pretty amazing with some of the things he came up with. Very fitting.

As a quiet and shy man I found the experience of traveling alone to the USA a big adventure and am really grateful for the self-assured professionalism of working with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. The PVC uplifted me, giving me the courage and confidence to perform at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. This was one of the bigger audiences I have performed in front of. I am thankful for the fun and enjoyable experiences the PVC shared with me. I couldn’t have done it without them.

What came most naturally while working together?

Roger: Jon and I worked together creatively. I brought a story with a message and a feeling. Jon brought with him an outsiders vision. He was able to arrange the material in interesting and different ways. In doing so we were able to retain the importance of the message to me as an Aboriginal Elder and deliver it in ways I would not have considered myself.

What would you say bound you all together for the project?

Roger: Musically we were bound together by the process of creating something new from old material, in doing so we have told ancient stories in modern ways.

Jon, Bloodshot, PVC and other contributing artists have given their time and skills freely to this project. Their efforts I feel, demonstrate their support of Aboriginal people and the need for the telling of these stories. Philosophically, we were bound together by our belief in the place of Aboriginal people in today’s society, specifically the need for sharing of different kinds of knowledge and respectful listening to Aboriginal voices, both past and present.

Artistically, I felt our project demonstrated respect for the often unacknowledged creative contribution Aboriginal people have made to Country Music industry. By singing these songs we keep our stories alive.

I've read that this album is "about a man and a people’s struggles in their own place of origin, and the specific steps and experiences in a journey that such a complex life path can take". 

Can you speak to these elements and describe what this project means to you culturally and artistically as an Aboriginal Australian Country and Western artist?

Roger: Songs are about passing on our knowledge of the bush and the land we live in. Through song and dance (via oral traditions) Aboriginal people have shared and preserved cultural knowledge across a huge continent. This project has continued this tradition but in modern recorded form. Listening is about learning, learning is about caring, and caring is about understanding. This is a good project to help develop understanding with the white community through Country and Western music.

Working with Jon and the PVC on this project has taken my work as an artist in a completely new and unexpected direction. It has inspired me to create new material, particularly about our "Country" and tell more untold stories. Working with Jon was an awesome experience and I’d love the opportunity to work with him again.

This project has also inspired me to take myself more seriously as a bridge builder between the colonizer and Aboriginal people. I also see myself as a mentor and guide for younger aspiring Aboriginal performers and musicians. I’d like to see them take on new and unexpected challenges and not allow fear or shame to hold them back.

Will you be touring for the album after it is released?

Roger: Yes we will be touring for the album release in Melbourne and Sydney and touring through North Eastern Australia. We would also love to revisit the Northern Territory and catch up with some of the more remote communities there.

What have you been listening to lately that you have found significantly inspiring?

Roger: Young Aboriginal Rap artists, Street Warriors, Last Connection, Kooriefied, One Young American. Justin Earle- I met him in SF. Sadies, Waco Brothers, Mojo Juju, Buddy Knox, LJ Hill, Jason Scott, Stiff Gins, Johnny Huckle, Mop and the Dropouts, Warren H Williams, Shellie Morris, Pixie Jenkins and Johnny Green..

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