Wayside Ballads Vol 3
Wayside Ballads Vol. 3
Out April 2021
We Talk With Bill Below
By Rob Dickens
A chance meeting between an Australian music Hall of Famer and a much respected songwriter ended up in the production of two new records during the grim months of Melbourne’s lockdown during 2020.
Kerryn Tolhurst had always been on Bill Jackson’s radar. For Jackson it felt like a natural fit with Tolhurst’s experience, sublime playing skills and natural bent towards folk, country and rock music. Also Kerryn was a great writer – this had to help.
By June 2020 and countless file transfers/emails/phone calls later The Wayside Ballads Vol 3 had been completed and still they pushed on, also completing an as-yet-unnamed follow up.
Vol 3 is another excellent recording, a grouping of important folklore and historical narratives that are presented in a vivid and telling manner. Further, the album completes what has to be a landmark Australian folk music achievement.
Jackson sees it as a natural ending to the trilogy he envisioned with his brother and co- writer Ross back in 2014 with ‘Vol 1’ (see our review) recorded in Australia and ‘Vol 2’ the US.
Aside from a few special guests, The Wayside Ballads Vol 3 is essentially Bill and Kerryn playing the songs as they were written, accentuating the captivative stories and lessons therein.
The first song from The Wayside Ballads Vol 3 is “The Shed” which recounts a shearers strike in New South Wales (see more details in our interview below).
LTTL: Congratulations on completing the wonderfully ambitious Wayside Ballads trilogy with Vol 3. Do you personally ascribe any unique descriptors or labels to each edition or do you consider them a continuum of sorts?
BJ: Thanks Rob – Yes, it’s really pleasing to get the three volumes finished as envisioned back in 2015. They are a continuum in terms of content, however what sets them apart I suppose was a deliberate decision to use different producers on each album and a different location to record in.
Vol 1, recorded in Melbourne, was always going to be more electric and just something I wanted to do, so I enlisted long time friend Shannon Bourne to oversee the project. To this extent it garnered some really wonderful moments for me. Tracks like ‘Try’ and ‘Silver Bullet’ produced some beautiful interplay between Pete Fidler on Lap Steel and Shannon on Electric Guitar to enhance the lyric – abrasive sounds/abrasive lyrics. To counteract this there are some wonderful acoustic sounds on songs like ‘Kates Pretty Green Dress’ and ‘When the Whiskey Runs Out’.
Vol 2, recorded in Nashville and produced by Thomm Jutz was the type of record I always wanted to do. Great players in a great environment just playing the songs and pretty much one take. To this end Thomm hired some of the best people in Nashville like Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Dan Kimbro and Lyn Williams and we pretty much finished the album in three days, keeping all the ‘live’ vocals – the way records used to be made.
The about-to-be-released Vol 3 came about through a chance meeting with Kerryn Tolhurst and was recorded remote to each other during the first COVID lockdown in Melbourne, 2020.
How as a recording and performing artist did the sustained Melbourne Lockdown impact you? How did COVID affect the recording, post production and release timing of Vol 3?
Well I had decided early in 2020 to start recording ‘The Wayside Ballads Vol 3’ with Kerryn Tolhurst. Then the pandemic hit and Melbourne went into lockdown. We both wanted to press on so we decided to record the album remotely. I was thrown into the deep end somewhat with limited recording resources at home and without a real head for the technical aspects of recording. Kerryn was very patient and got me up and running and so began four or five months of file transfers, idea sharing, emails and phone calls. We then decided we were going to make a fairly simple ‘folk’ album with the songs at the heart of it. Kerryn was very instrumental in the choice of the songs and the balance/feel of the album. He also played some beautiful Lap Steel, Dobro, Mandolin and Guitar over the tracks to add to my Acoustic Guitar and Harmonica. I really love the songs on this record and how they sound. So the lockdown in a big way really shaped the end result of ‘The Wayside Ballads Vol 3’. In essence the collaborations with Kerryn were a great distraction during the lockdowns. (Note: We recorded a second unnamed album as well after this one)
I love the attention you give to Australian folklore as we can easily let past deeds and narratives slip away, too engrossed in the present and future. The topics on this album include convicts, human rights, military service, the Great Depression – all dear to us as local themes. How important to you is the history lesson aspect of your songs?
As you know I pretty much write exclusively with my brother Ross. He is somewhat of an historian and has written a few books. We both have a fascination with the extraordinary lives of the ordinary people in our past. Lives that make us feel part of who we are and where we have come from – ‘Where did you find that depth of hate when you landed on these shores, using sugar, guns and alcohol to help you win the wars….‘ (From Track 1 – ‘Convict Blood’). The history thing is not to everyone’s liking but we’re taking up the slack from where the schools cut out ha! There is a lot to be learnt from the past and it should never be forgotten – it is who we are today. As for the Kelly saga, well it’s a story that just keeps on giving and we love to explore it’s many colorful characters without being too obvious in a narrative sense. Ross is a war historian and Vietnam Vet so we explore those areas as well. Human Rights and songwriting is starting to re-emerge. It’s very important that as songwriters we spread the news.
The first single is “The Shed” which covers the shearers’ strike at Brookong in regional New South Wales involving an ancestor of yours I believe. What is the story there?
Imagine walking into a massive woolshed where a shearing team of 250 handled 10,000 sheep a day, up to 50,000 a week. It would be a frenzy of sound, colour and movement. And in the 1880’s, when wool was in its heyday, it was how things were done.
The woolshed at Brookong Station, near Lockhart in south-west New South Wales, set the scene for a dramatic stand-off between shearers and pastoralists. In August 1888, resentment over pay and working conditions boiled over. Unionised shearers decided they’d had enough and abducted non-unionised shearers, who were employed by the property’s owner during the busy shearing period. The union group held the captured shearers in their camp on a reserve across the creek from the Brookong woolshed for up to a week. Ten strikers were arrested and nine were tried and imprisoned.
Our paternal Great Grandfather William Jackson was an active participant and one of the nine sent to Goulburn gaol. The revolt, like many others across the country at the time, paved the way for the trade union movement and The Australian Labour Party.
We felt this was an important story and the involvement of our ancestor made it a personal journey of self reflection. A lot of the ground gained through these struggles has been lost again in the last generation of wealth concentration. Unions will survive and grow again. Kerryn very much shaped this track with the most beautiful guitar line and steel sounds.
As with the two previous instalments, all the songs here are written by you and your brother Ross. You must have a special connection to write so many songs together?
Ross and I have been writing together since around 2005. I don’t even remember why it started then as he had been writing poetry from a very young age and I had been writing songs. It just never occurred to us to combine the two things. What he wrote never seemed like a song to me even though the ideas were great. ‘Settlement Road’ from my first solo album (2006) was the first and it just snowballed from there. He lives down in Sale in Gippsland Victoria, so it’s never face to face brainstorming. He sends me lyrics (poems) and I work on them or the idea or we discuss an idea we want to write about from scratch. It is indeed a very special relationship and very candid.
You dedicate the album to the legendary songwriter David Olney who died (I think while performing on stage?) last year. Tell us about that relationship.
I first became aware of David through my US manager, Mary Sack in 2008. She had started looking after David around about then and brought him to our first show in Nashville at Norms River Roadhouse. Ruth and I met David for breakfast the next day and I guess from then on we just kept an eye on each other. The more I researched the more I became aware of what an incredible and unique songwriter David Olney was, as well as a person who was absolutely invested in his art – someone to look up to and learn from.
We hooked up again on my 2010 and 2011 visits to Folk Alliance International in Memphis and David was directly instrumental in connecting me with his then producer, Jack Irwin at Silvertone Studios in Nashville. This led to the recording of ‘The Nashville Session’ and then the ‘Jerilderie’ album, both produced by Jack. To see David Olney ‘live’ was something else – dangerous, poetic and exhilarating. I had a burning desire for people here to experience that in person and so it passed that I went through the process of setting up a small tour for David and his wonderful sideman, Sergio Webb to Australia in 2013. Audiences loved them and they loved Australia. It was a great time and tour. Pete Fidler and I opened for them at quite a few shows here.
David must have been listening because I received news on his return to the US that he wanted to record our song ‘Something in Blue’ from the ‘Jerilderie’ album – the biggest thrill of my life. David Olney rarely did ‘covers’. It came out on his 2015 album ‘When the Deal Goes Down’. We stayed in touch. I have a lot of Olney stories…too many for here. David’s passing came as a huge shock and I still can’t believe it. He was a Giant. There is no doubt he was one of a kind and one of the greats.
Kerryn Tolhurst is an acclaimed yet humble figure on the Australian music scene. On Vol 3, he produced and played a bunch of instruments. Tell me how you got together and his importance to the finished product.
Vol 3 is what it is because of Kerryn Tolhurst. From the multitude of songs I ran by him he was integral to the final choices, the arrangements and the general balance of the album. He is a superb musician and arranger. Full of ideas, a lyric reader and an interpreter. With Kerryn it is all about the song and how it fits into the cracked mosaic of an album. I can’t thank him enough for the amount of thought and work he put into this project.
Let our readers know about the Vol 3 launch and tour dates.
‘The Wayside Ballads Vol 3’ will be launched at The Brunswick Ballroom on Thursday, June 3.
Songs will be in duo mode with Kerryn and also with a full band playing other songs from Vol 3 as well as from the unnamed-as-yet follow-up we recorded during lockdown two. My Special Guest on the night will be Ruth Hazleton with Fiona Steele playing songs from Ruth’s acclaimed ‘Daisywheel’ album. Tickets are on sale now.
(LTTL: HERE’S THE LINK)
Where’s the best place to get a copy of Wayside Ballads Vol 3?
From Bandcamp when it is released in April – both hard copy and digital. I will spread this and other links over Social Media. I don’t do Spotify as of the last three albums – just don’t see the point of basically free streaming.
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Wayside Ballads Vol 3