When Slim Dusty set about recording his last album, he did so knowing the end was near. Despite terminal illness, he managed to lay down seven very fine vocal and guitar tracks before passing away. Slim’s widow Joy McKean saw the seven tracks to completion and release as Columbia Lane, album number 107 at the end of Slim’s sixty-year career.
Although not an ardent lover of country music, I come to it via the musicians I’m into: Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett’s country turn as ‘The Coward Brothers’, for the single ‘The People’s Limousine’, and Costello’s countrified King of America album, which Burnett produced; Bob Dylan’s excursion into country and the Rolling Stones’ excursions into dirty blues versions of the same. Nowadays, there is a respect given to country music via its rock ’n’ roll end, nebulously labelled ‘alt.country’. (“We keep hearing the words ‘alt.country’,” the Waifs’ Donna Simpson told me when I interviewed her. She had no idea what to make of the epithet with which her band had been tarred. “What is ‘alt’, ‘dot’, ‘country’? ‘Alternative country’? ‘Not quite country’? ‘Not quite folk’? I don’t know. It’s just acoustic music – a bit of country, a bit of blues, just whatever we’re inspired by.”)
Alt.country seems to originate with cool, sixties musicians realising that their country music equivalents were more talented, but not considered nearly as cool, mostly because they were on average ten years older, and it was kiddies and the serious men in suits marketing to the kiddies who were doing all the considering. Thus, the younger musician handed over some respect and borrowed some licks, riffs and sensibilities. The Lovin’ Spoonful paid tribute to such country musicians with their countrified spoof ‘Nashville Cats’, while the Byrds, under the influence of Gram Parsons, dedicated a whole album to them, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Dylan was recording with some of them on his acid rock album Blond on Blonde. Recently, fat, uncool, 70s Elvis Presley was posthumously exonerated, and with him, the country rock of his later years.
Why am I rabbitting on here? Because, if the only way you can bring yourself to give Slim Dusty a bit of time and respect is under the cover of an apparently ‘cool’ label such as ‘alt.country’, then be aware that Columbia Lane closes with a fantastic Don Walker song called ‘Get Along’. Otherwise, why not have a listen to a man who, in sixty years, recorded one hundred and seven albums – there's a lot there so something’s bound to appeal.
Oh yeah, this went to air on Saturday 6 March 2004.
Music: ‘Nature’s Gentleman’ - Slim Dusty
Demetrius Romeo: Joy, this album ‘Columbia Lane’ consists of some of the songs that Slim Dusty was working on before he passed away. How much work had to go into the seven songs contained herein to prepare them for release?
JOY MCKEAN: Not a lot vocally, but some of the instrumental parts had to be completed because Slim was concentrating on getting down the vocals and his guitar. They were the main things he had to concentrate on getting done.
Demetrius Romeo: How difficult is it working with Slim’s legacy after his passing?
JOY MCKEAN: It is difficult at times and yet, over the years, I’ve always worked with Slim on projects and albums and I am training myself to try and look at this as another one his projects that I have to go ahead and do my normal work on. I think that is the way I’m getting through it because, of course, it’s difficult when I think of him, and of him working on these songs.
Demetrius Romeo: Are there other projects that you would continue with after this? I understand that there was a live album planned at one stage.
JOY MCKEAN: There was a live album planned. There’s not a lot of material. He’s not going to ‘do a Jim Reeves’ with stacks and stacks of things coming out of the woodwork simply because Slim was a very prolific recording man. As you know, this was album 107. As soon as he'd get things ready, they were more-or-less released, you see. So there’s not a big backlog.
Music: ‘Long Distance Driving’ - Slim Dusty
Demetrius Romeo: The title Columbia Lane I understand refers to Slim’s home studio, which itself was named after the studio Slim used to record at when he was first signed to Regal Zonophone. Was there a lot of sentimentality and love for his career throughout?
JOY MCKEAN: Yes, you see, Columbia Lane was the lane everybody had to walk down to get to the recording studios and it meant a lot to Slim because when Slim began recording, Regal Zonophone was the only label at the only recording company in Australia. So to walk down Columbia Lane in the footsteps of people like Peter Dawson, Gladys Moncreif, all the radio big bods was a terrific thrill for Slim.
Are there other songs that just couldn’t be completed for release from this project?
Music: ‘Long Distance Driving’ - Slim Dusty
Demetrius Romeo: Listening to the songs, they’re all trucking songs. What was the project they were originally designed for?
JOY MCKEAN: Actually they were designed for a trucking album but you’ll see that ‘Nature’s Gentleman’ is very different. It was written by his mate James Blundell, and he’d had that one for a while and he wanted to get it on record, he really did. He hadn’t been able to fit it into a project in the previous year, but he was determined he was going to get that on record even though it wasn’t a trucking song. So he did that, and then of course, the Don Walker one which is so very different, but that is slightly trucking. And then of course ‘Blue Hills in the Distance’ is about being on the Gann, that new train. Rather, I should say it was a trip on the old one it was written about actually.
Music: ‘Blue Hills In The Distance’ - Slim Dusty
Demetrius Romeo: Despite being a prolific songwriter himself, I see Slim does sing a lot of other people’s songs. How would he go about chosing what songs he would record for his next album?
JOY MCKEAN: He always looked for something he could relate to, that he felt the people he knows so well could relate to, he looked for something that had a bit of grit to it, something ‘real’ to it. He had a gift being an ordinary Australian bloke. He had that gift of relating to what he could relate to, and because he was like so many other Australians, they could relate to it. That’s what he looked for all the time: really good, strong lyrics. And even if he only got lyrics, he could set them to music that would bring out the story and what the lyrics were trying to say.
Demetrius Romeo: Joy, for a lot of people, the name ‘Slim Dusty’ tends to conjure those more well known songs like ‘Pub With No Beer’ or ‘Duncan’, songs that we all know or know of. But having had such an extensive recording career, there’s such a depth of songs to draw from. Do you think that this is a time that more people will come to get to know Slim’s work, and what will they find if they do?
JOY MCKEAN: Well I think that a lot of people may decide to have a closer look. It’s like I’m hearing from overseas people saying, “I’ve only just found Slim Dusty in the last month or so”. If they do listen, they’ll find a very different horde of work than just ‘Pub With No Beer’ and ‘Duncan’. Slim was recording for a period of sixty years and he was drawing from real-life stories and experiences, so if you listen to a body of his work, Dom, you’ll hear all sorts of changes: changes in people’s outlook, in the Australian culture, the way we look at things and all the different things we’re interested in. If you listen to a selection of Slim’s work over that sixty years, you really will be amazed at the changes his music portrays.
Music: ‘Get Along’ - Slim Dusty
Demetrius Romeo: Joy McKean, thank you very much.
JOY MCKEAN: Thanks so much, Dom, it’s been really nice speaking with you.
Music: ‘Get Along’ - Slim Dusty