A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
#14 Countrified folk or folkified country? (Greg Champion)
First published in Trad and Now magazine, February 2009
When musical chat turns to genres, labels and identification, if someone poses the age old question, ‘Is it folk?’ or the broader chestnut, ‘What is folk?’ I suddenly hear my mother calling.
(For a woman with reduced lung capacity, she can make herself heard well enough from 300kms away when the need arises, God love her.)
They are worthy and valid questions of a kind, with multiple levels and directions of discourse, but to borrow a phrase another family member uses, if someone starts on these topics, I can just feel the backs of my eyes going dry.
It’s fair game (sometimes) if weighty matters are being discussed at a conference or workshop, but when someone decides to get all loquacious after 17 pints of the sponsor’s product at a festival, that indeed is time to throw them their guitar or bodhran or electric spoons and ask can they play that one about the boat/shearers’ strike/ode to Annie, Nancy or Gwinviere.
For all of that, there’s one related topic that I’m continuously interested in: folk versus country. Which is not some sort of fiddle and dobro slap-down in the cage with folding chairs at ten paces, but more of a mild interest on where the line is, or if it exists.
Are there points of intersection, cross-over (and pass your partner down the line) or even symbiosis?
I’m suspecting ‘yeah’ on all three.
But lord knows I’m a punter and do not presume to be capable of long treatises on-topic. Instead, I took the chance at last year’s Maldon Folk Festival to buttonhole a favourite performer, just one of many who move in both worlds of folk and country: Greg Champion, as he made his way through a lunch-time feed of Indian food outside the Guinness Tent.
Gun to my head, having listened to Greg’s stuff on and off for the last 15 years, I would tend to tip him way over onto the country side (boom boom) with a splash of folk and a hint of boogie-woogie.
Greg, on the other hand, describes himself as part humourist, part folkie, half hippy, half bogan, part Victorian and completely South Australian. He’s probably best known by ABC radio fans and country fans as the author of such songs as ‘May Your Fridge Be Full of Coldies’, ‘Sensitive New Age Guys from the Bush’, ‘I Made a Hundred in the Backyard at Mum’s’, and ‘That’s the Thing About Football’, plus a string of parody songs.
Greg has similarly found the ground between folk and country to be a fascinating area, providing a ‘rich vein to mine’.
This could prove to be an interesting assignment. Like the hairdresser establishing hair colour, let’s start with his roots.
Greg: I had piano lessons when I was nine and a half, Mum got me a guitar when I was 10, and then I had guitar lessons for about a year. At 12 I started teaching myself, and at 14 I wrote my first couple of songs and sang in the local church in Adelaide, and at 17 I joined the Uni folk club and played in a coffee lounge as a duet with a bloke I met at the folk club.
T&N: Your earliest interests were folk, then?
Greg: Early influences were.
And very acoustic. I was clearly into Peter, Paul and Mary, The Seekers, Don McLean, Bob Dylan: those four were the real focus. I had little interest in rock or hard rock as a teenager. Pop, yeah; I loved what was on the charts. But mostly the folk and country thing.
T&N: Would you say you’ve gravitated a bit more towards country now?
Greg: No. I think what’s happened is…
I don’t think your tastes ever really change. I like the middle ground between folk and country.
I often think that Ian Tyson is the middle ground between folk and country in some respects. I think some Ian Tyson songs define folk/country cross-over, and I love his early work.
I like folk in a lot of respects and I like country in a lot of respects. But there’s bits of country I don’t like.
But when you come to the fringe elements of country: bluegrass and gospel and western swing and Appalachian and the folkie sort of country, we love all that.
T&N: So you go to folk festivals and you go to country festivals, do you find that guides what part of your repertoire you play? And how you play?
Greg: Oh, to a small extent. Most of the stuff is relevant in both environments. There are only a few that will go better in one environment, but there’s hardly a song that I’d only do at folk or only do at country. There may be a few.
It’s not like I’ve gotten a little more country over the years. The country environment is slightly more substantial than the folk industry, so you find yourself participating in the country industry more because there’s a little more of it.
And interestingly, the amount of folk-related acts at Tamworth has always been very interesting and I’ve been conscious of it ever since I’ve been going there, 18 years straight: the folkie acts.
Tamworth and the country scene is good because they’re tolerant – it’s a big, wide umbrella – and they’re very accepting of folk (as they should be). Thankfully, they don’t draw too big a line and say, ‘You’re folk; you can’t come in’.
On the other hand, some fans of country are only interested in three-chord wonders like ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’.
On the other hand, half of them or even more, are very open-minded about what is country, and what they want to see. There’s very little blinkeredness.
So the first time I ever went to Tamworth, Ted Egan and Colin Buchanan, and at the time Eric Bogle was going there, Norma Murphy, Jane Sanders: there were artists there that had strong folk direction.
T&N: [I threw some names of some folk acts at Greg that frequent Tamworth.]
Greg: Andrew Clermont is a fantastic example of a man who straddles the boundaries between folk and country with consummate ease. The man’s totally at home in the folk and country scenes. He’s lived there and he’s been in the industry for ever.
T&N: Back to you. When I walk into a CD shop, where am I going to find Greg Champion’s CDs?
Greg: Well, for starters, retail is such that they’ll never be in stores anymore.
T&N: I’ll rephrase: if I’m doing a web search by category, where do I find you?
Greg: Well, I’ve made humorous and non-humorous CDs, and it’s certainly a running joke that my straight CDs turn up in the comedy section. And I confuse them because I go a bit each way.
T&N: Speaking of CDs, tell me about ‘Strayana’.
Greg: The last three CDs have been non-humorous, and I’m best known for the novelty songs: ‘I Made a Hundred’, ‘Fridge Full of Coldies’, ‘Don’t Call Wagga Wagga ‘Wagga’’. But there’s this stubborn or recalcitrant side of me that keeps writing non-humorous songs.
The humorous songs have been backing up and they’re on this record, which I’m very pleased with. I think I’ve reached the point in my life where the songs are of a better standard, hopefully the singing is of a better standard, the production is of a better standard.
I think it’s my best one for 15 years, but that’s not for me to say – that’s for others to judge.
And you can judge for yourself. ‘Strayana’ is due out this month, and you can catch Greg at the Port Fairy and Yackandandah Folk Festivals in March.