Boy from the bush

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To most Australians, Lee Kernaghan is the man in the black hat who was named Australian of the Year after fund-raising for drought-hit rural communities.

To his fans, he’s a country music icon.

Lee burst onto the scene with Boys from the Bush, the hit song he first performed live at the Tamworth Services Club in January 1992 and released as a single later that year.

Since then, he’s racked up 33 number one hits on the Australian Country Charts, sold two million albums and won 36 Golden Guitars at the Country Music Awards of Australia, more than any other artist except the legendary Slim Dusty.

He also has been inducted into the Country Music Roll of Renown, along with his father Ray, also a country singer.

Lee has won three Australian Performing Rights Association (APRA) awards and four Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Music Awards.

In 2015, he was the recipient of ARIA’s Outstanding Achievement Award for his album Spirit of the Anzacs, the highest selling Australian album of that year – in all genres.

On a wider stage, he was awarded the Order of Australia (OAM) Medal in 2004 and named Australian of the Year in 2008, in recognition of his support of rural and regional Australia.

His Pass the Hat Around tour raised more than a million dollars for drought-ravaged country communities.

It all sounds like a dream success story, but there was a time when Lee Kernaghan was burnt out by the grind of performing cover versions to empty pubs and clubs and, in 1990, he had all but given up the idea of making a living through his music.

That all changed the following year when he co-wrote Boys from the Bush and other tracks. The rest is country music history.

In 2017 Lee will be on the road again, with the Boys from the Bush 25th Anniversary Tour.

Rosemary Desmond caught up with Lee to ask what inspires him.

Apart from your father Ray, who has  had the biggest influence on your song writing?
I couldn’t pin it down to one particular artist, but Slim (Dusty) has always been a huge inspiration. One of the greatest highlights of my life has been recording Leave Him in the Longyard with The King (Dusty), back in the early days of my career. It just stands out as one of the finest moments.

What was it like being part of a travelling country music family?
We were very fortunate that back in 1978, Dad packed up the whole family and our musical instruments into a GT Falcon and a 26-foot Millard caravan and we headed around Australia on the Rick and Thel Carey tour. As a 13-year-old, I was exposed to country music day in, day out, as we travelled across Australia and that’s where country music was really born inside of me. The late ‘70s was also a turning point in country music in America. People like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams Jr were starting to break through with their own brand of country/southern rock and that really appealed to a 13-year-old boy from Albury. Through my teenage years I worked with Dad in the pubs and clubs around the Riverina and when I was 17, we hit the road with Waltzing Matilda, ‘the world’s fastest truck’ and a mega outdoor show that Dad had put together. That really catapulted me into country music as a career path. It was probably the 1982 tour with Dad that turned it around for me and sent me down a country road’.
Is that what inspired you to write this music?
My real inspiration is Australia, our people, our way of life and the things I see as I travel around the country. Touring is such a big part of what I do   – that’s where I get to feel the pulse of Australia and turn as much of that into songs as I can.
You have worked overseas though...
Back in my early twenties, I spent quite a bit of time in Nashville (Tennessee) and some of the best songwriters are over there but something kept drawing me back to Australia. When I made my first album The Outback Club (1993), that was it for me because any thoughts of doing things internationally were gone because I was singing about the bush and utes and circle work and a younger generation of Australians living and working on the land. I didn’t want to water that down by making it a product that would fit into an international market. It had to be 100 per cent Australian.

How long will you be on tour in 2017?
It’s an epic tour that will take us all over Australia. We’re kicking off in Tamworth and rolling out across Australia throughout the rest of the year.

Would you still call yourself a ‘boy from the bush’?
I spend most of my time travelling through the bush but I’m located just south of Brisbane now; bringing up a family and getting kids off to school, you’ve got to be close to the major centres. Getting myself around the country, I have to ‘fly in, fly out’ quite a bit. But for anyone who spends their formative years in rural or regional Australia, there’s something just gets stamped inside you that never leaves you, no matter where you go in Australia or the world. It’s certainly where my heart lies.

With around 80 per cent of the population living within 50kms of the coast, do you think most Australians understand the hardships of life on the land and in the outback?
I’ve seen the cities really come to the fore in terms of bushfire relief, drought relief and flood relief concerts that I’ve been a part of. That’s one of the great things right around Australia – it’s not really where you come from, if there is an important community cause where help is needed, Australians do stick together and they certainly do pass the hat around.

What else do you want to achieve?
For me, I think just happiness. It’s what we all strive for. Your health is so important and no matter what you are able to accumulate in life, it’s not really worth anything if you don’t have your health. I try and get to the gym three or four times a week and pay for my sins.

But you are only 52, so are you going to keep doing what you do?
I really love this (career) and whenever you release a new album, you’ve got all these new songs which are like new members of the family who have suddenly arrived. I’ve got some fantastic duets on the new record. I’ve recorded with John Williamson, the McClymonts, James Blundell, Adam Harvey, the Wolfe Brothers. My wife Robby and sister Tania also joined me in duets, so I’m really excited about the new songs.

This article by Rosemary Desmond originally appeared in the February/March 2017 edition of 50 something magazine.

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