Asleep At The Wheel
by Derek Halsey
Lucky Oceans, along with Ray Benson and Lerroy Preston, were the founding members of the western swing, roots band called Asleep At The Wheel. In this interview Lucky talks of the crazy days back in the 1970’s when the band was formed, about the crazy times on the road, meeting the greats of the Texas music scene, and his trips to Louisiana. Lucky met thelove of his life in the late 70’s, Christine, married her, and eventually decided to move with her to her native Australia. He talks of the music scene over there, his new Aussie band, The Zydecats, and of having Stevie Ray Vaughan visit him over there and playing in his backyard at a get-together. Lucky is also host of a daily radio show over in Australia called The Planet, that plays a wide range of music from all over the world. I spoke to him via email, through a 12 hour time difference, and due to his fine effort this interview came together. We appreciate it much.
You and Ray and Leroy played the Virginia/DC area, then the San Francisco area. What led you guys to relocate in Texas?
"Things were moving fast back then. Moving to the Bay Area got us our first record deal - with United Artists, and Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen helped us out a bunch, as did other Bay Area Based bands such as Clover, whose members went on to join the Doobie Brothers and to 'be' Huey Lewis. We also did a memorable tour as a back up band with Black country western singer Stoney Edwards - doing package shows through the south, also backing whoever else happened to be on the bill - Connie Smith, Freddy Hart (In the heat of his 'Easy Loving' success). In a rare reversal, Stoney got the hotel rooms while we stayed in the Winnebago, which we christened the 'Po'Folkabus' after Stoney's hit, 'Po' Folks Stick Together.' Stoney was a great singer, and a truly funny guy, who had had some tough breaks - notably a serious industrial accident. A week spent at his Dad's fishing shack in Seminole, Oklahoma, where Leroy Preston's face and lips swelled up like a fish from some allergic reaction was particularly memorable. But despite all this fun and success, a Western Swing band in the Rock Scene of the Bay Area was a bit like a fish out of water. We met Willie Nelson, and he 'invited' us to Texas, helping pave the way, by using us as a support act for numerous shows at clubs in Texas. We had an investigatory look at Austin and moved there."
What was the Austin music scene like back then?
"The reason we moved to Texas was because there was a real exciting thing going on there, first manifesting in the progressive country of Jerry Jeff, Guy Clark, Steve Fromholtz, Greasy Wheels, and so many more too numerous to mention. Austin was a place where people were open to all kinds of music and going out and having fun, but they also had their roots music. That's where we fit in. No young people were playing Western Swing to the degree that we were. When we moved to Texas, it was like coming home, musically, because it's the birthplace of Western Swing, with so many musicians and memories. Even a 'straight' country band in Texas play country shuffles, Ray Price's blend of Western Swing and country. And, of course, people still danced to Western Swing there so we could play for the hippies at the Armadillo and the dancers at the Broken Spoke the next night. Had a funny experience at the Spoke one time - The dancers had to have 'Cotton Eyed Joe' and we played it, as we'd learned it off a Bob Wills record, which just didn't do. Turned out they were familiar with a more recent recording which had the right space in it for them to yell BULL - SHIT!"
At what point did Texas swing, jump swing, and Bob Wills music come into the mix with the band?
"We discovered Bob Wills in West Virginia through Merle Haggard's great record, 'A Tribute to the World's Best Damn Fiddle Player.' It encapsulated the country elements Leroy was bringing to the mix - Hank Williams, Dick Curless, etc, and Ray and my background in blues and jazz. From then on, we haunted thrift shops and bought old Wills and WS 78s. I spent many hours copping Herbie and Leon and Joaquin. I think that Louis Jordan came into the mix in the Bay Area, a bit later. Our (unconscious) philosophy was that by listening to the music that Wills and Western Swingers would have listened to, we'd avoid being a one-dimensional copy. Louis' and Wynonie's songs worked perfectly in our format. We enjoyed many a steak dinner at Gallagher's in New York courtesy of Vaughan Horton, who was expressing his gratitude that we'd recorded the song he co-wrote - 'Choo Choo Ch' Boogie.' Count Basie was also a critical influence - at one point that was all you'd hear on the Wheel bus."
When was the first time you met any of Bob Wills old band members? Did they accept you at first?
"I think the first time was when we recorded out first record in Nashville with Johnny Gimble. (What a great first one!) Johnny played special shows with us and has been on most of our albums since. He's a shining light - a beautiful man and musician. It meant so much to have him beaming on stage with us in the early days. One night at the Palomino club, we played two consecutive shows and I repeated Joaquin Murphy's solo in 'Jimmie's Jump' note for note on both shows. Johnny asked me, in the nicest way, why I'd want to repeat myself on a solo. After that, for good or bad, I've always followed his advice."
What was it like meeting and/or playing with Texas steel guitar greats like Herb Remington and Leon McCauliffe?
"We met Leon, Smokey Dacus, Al Stricklin, Eldon Shamblin, Leon Rausch and Bob, of course, during the 'For the Last Time' Sessions. They were all incredible - so happy to be making music together after all those years. I'll never forget Smokey and Al exchanging their sign for 'being in the pocket.' Leon was great and played beautifully, as always. I have seen Herb a few times - mostly at steel guitar conventions because he's based in Houston. He's still playing great. It's potentially embarrassing playing with people whose licks you've copped, but all my steel 'mentors' have been very supportive on stage. When it comes to the crunch, you've just got to be yourself and I think they appreciated that in me, even though I was so much greener than them. I do wish I'd picked Leon's brain a bit more, but maybe I'll pay a visit to Herb."
A lot of people think that the second album, "Asleep At The Wheel", Epic 1974, was a classic. as well as the album, "The Wheel" in 1977, and "Served Live", from 1979. What was it like to throw down those sessions?
"That's testing the old memory! ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ was done in Nashville, and produced by Earl Ball, the pianist who's now based in Austin. The band had really smoothed out musically by this album - it also sets the musical direction for future discs. 'The Wheel' - if I recall correctly, was a departure, recorded basically live in Sumet-Bernet studios in Dallas, where ‘For the Last Time was recorded. It has a very live room sound and was our most live sounding studio album. Another disc (Wheelin and Dealing?) notable for the meeting of Houston Jazz sax man Arnett Cobb (who came in on crutches) and Texas Western Swing sax man, the eternally cheery Billy Briggs – on 'They Raided the Joint.' Some really great feels on that album, but my soloing was a bit all over the place, as I was expanding my influences. 'Served Live' was recorded after a lot of members had left the band, but we had John Nicholas in there on vocals, guitar and harmonica. It was quite an exciting, vibey gig at the Austin Opry House. For almost all of our sessions, we did minimal overdubbing. With my rudimentary steel skills and Johnny Gimbles dictum to never play it the same way twice, I used to hope that a good solo would make it onto a take that became a keeper. I kind of paced myself so that good solo would come out around the 6th to 8th takes. Then I found out recently that Floyd used to ask to redo some of his piano parts. Either I didn't know you could do that or I played so loud that I leaked onto other tracks and couldn't redo them. Tommy Allsup produced most of the albums and he was an absolute joy to work with. He used to say; ‘Lucky really knows how to sell a solo!’ Haven't seen him in years but would love to. In general, the making of all the albums was a lot of fun."
What are your favorite albums by the Wheel?
"’Coming Right at Ya’ - our first album is quite amazing because despite our rudimentary musicianship - we jump out at you - it's brash and full of life. Considering I'd only been playing steel for a year or two at that point I sometimes wonder how good I'd be now if I'd kept developing at that rate. It was also memorable for being our first album, recorded in Nashville with that great fiddle triumvirate, Johnny Gimble, Buddy Spicher and Andy Stein. ‘Collision Course’ was different because we recorded it in New York and put a lot of time and money into producing it. I also liked 'Live at Arizona Charlie's' because it had some fire - I recorded it days after flying in from Australia. All the albums I was on have some great stuff - it was a real band, with lots of common interest, but different flavors through the three vocalists, Ray, Leroy and Chris. Some of Leroy's songs are real beauties too!"
What cuts did you play on that won the two Grammy's? Where are the Grammy's now?
"The first Grammy was for our remake of Count Basie's 'One O'clock Jump' Which was on ‘Collision Course’. I played my impression of Buck Clayton's trumpet solo on Steel. We got news of winning the Grammy for it when we were playing some dive in Texas where the manager emptied the pool tables to pay us - didn't really believe the news until we read it in the paper the next day. The second one was for the first Bob Wills tribute - I flew in from Australia to play on a few tracks, including the winner, ‘Red Wing’, which I played on with Chet Atkins, Marty Stuart and Vince Gill (but not at the same time). My wife Chris and I flew to New York for that one and had a great time. The first Grammy got a bit damaged in transit, but a friend mended it. I was worried about corrosion, being so close to the sea, so another friend, Fred Kuhnl, fixed up a little glass display case to put them in. It sits on the piano. Occasionally, I get requests from local rock bands to 'borrow' the Grammies, but I don't think they're intentions are honorable!"
What was a couple of the craziest things that happened to you on the road with the Wheel back then?
"Gee, that’s a tough one – you’d have to get us all in one room together and turn the tape recorder on. We had so many great times and times that weren’t so great, like the bus breaking down or losing its heater in Minnesota when it was 25 degrees below. All the crazy characters that crossed out path – Billy Charles – the speed-crazed, once great Oklahoman who jammed with us in Berkeley with some kind of sitar/guitar and said ‘ I can play all your music, but you can’t play mine!’ All the crazy, drunken gigs, from the Sportsmen’s Club in Paw Paw where we started, to Tuesday nights at the Long Branch Saloon in Berkeley where Billy Charles and a young Lenny Pickett would come to jam. Eccentric guitar repairman Campbell Coe, holding his microphone while ‘interviewing’ us, running after our new bus as it pulled out of our group house in Lee Street, Oakland. Great gigs at the DJs convention in Nashville, the Armadillo in Austin, the Bottom Line in New York and the Palomino in North Hollywood, where Jerry Lee got up and jammed with us. The European tour where we supported Emmylou Harris and had a great time sightseeing in Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and England. Weird places in the hills of Santa Cruz and Albuquerque, and crazy all night escapades in Louisiana that ended up with us having spaghetti in the morning – "what’s this sauce – it’s delicious?" "That’s nutria!" (A kind of swamp rat) So many stories, so little time – I think you’re going to have to get us old fellas in that room, Derek." (Now there is an idea! Ed.)
What was the best thing musically that happened when you toured with the Wheel way back then?
"We were just so focused musically – somehow making a whole that worked out of pieces of straight country, western swing, jazz, rock, blues and Cajun music. It was great to have the first generation Western Swingers come out of the woodwork and start playing again, maybe because of us. I learned heaps from other band members – Bassist Spencer Starnes and I used to have Real Book sessions any chance we had. Link Davis Jr. was another sort of influence, mimicking me in a derisive way on his sax went I relied on clichés. It was financially unsupportable, but so much fun when we swelled up to 12 members. Double billing with Commander Cody was great, getting to see Bobby Black’s immaculate playing all the time."
When you were a kid your parents exposed you to much jazz and other music. How did that affect your ear for music as a kid?
"My parents were music lovers and that was the main lesson they imparted – that music could be enjoyed on so many different levels. My father could pick out the different players in a sax section. I learned to appreciate great solos and ensemble playing and got a sense of how important it was to tell a story in an individual voice."
Your Mom took you to see many a musician and band live when you were young. What effect did it have on you to see music live, right in front of you, like that as a kid?
"The effect is immeasurable. At the same time, I know that it is immense. Seeing someone play live is so different from hearing them on record – especially in a place where we often went - a tiny coffeehouse in Philadelphia called the Second Fret. It was there that Doc Watson enchanted me with his crystal clear sound and absolutely unpretentious personality and scared me with his version of a song about the Wendigo – to my recollection, a monster that chases you and your feet burn in the Canadian Snow as you flee from it. No other good music has frightened me so much since. (I say good music, because overly produced, synthesized music scares me in a creepy,’ the automatons are taking over the earth’ kind of way.) I saw John Hammond there, during the brief period when he was touring with Houston Bluesman John Littlejohn’s band. Their powerful, urban sound impressed me almost as much as their sharkskin suits and 3 inch konks. Or seeing Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee there – Brownie limping down the spiral staircase behind the stage and Sonny feeling his way – me sensing that there was some considerable friction in their personal relationship, but that they didn’t let that get in the way of their performance."
What was it like to see the following musicians live? Your impressions of Mississippi John Hurt?
"A gentle man who seemed a little bewildered that so many people were interested in seeing him, but who adjusted quickly. I asked Chris Smither about him recently and he added that John was not all sweet and gentle – he was pretty salty. I guess the fact that he had all these double entendres in his songs was too foreign to think about. But what an incredible thing to see the man who was a genre unto himself. The more I hear of African music, the more I see the connection to John Hurt.
"Saw them at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Good show, as I remember, but I was distracted by the fact that my Mother was there and they were kind of an adolescent rebellion band. Also distracted by my guitar playing friend Wayne Johnston’s constant comments – ‘They must be on drugs!’ - of course, at least one of them was on drugs! I remember being a little disappointed because they didn’t have the full bottom you get from a dedicated bass player. My mom just reminded me of another concert I saw at the same venue – I was quite young and I took public transport to go see Ravi Shankar there, but after I left, I realized that I’d left during intermission and missed the second half of the show."
"Didn’t know anything about him, but some older kids from up the street, who were jazz fans/players (Gordon Fels and Mike Seifert) got Ray and I to come along to a Coltrane concert in an auditorium at Temple University. This concert proved that some musicians are just of a different order than others. Trane didn’t say a word all night, he just blew into his sax with single pointed spirituality all night while a stream of other sax players alternated getting up with him until they wore out. It was during the Rashied Ali/Alice Coltrane period. I feel truly blessed to have seen this – it was like some kind of spiritual transmission. There’s almost a Christ parallel here – that a man would go so deeply into his music and the meaning of it, that he’d die for lack of attention to his own body."
"I’m baffled when someone talks about Son House as a lesser musician of the Delta guys- Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson – or when someone complains about his ‘sloppy’ style. Seeing Son play (At the Second Fret and at a concert at Swarthmore University) were experiences similar to seeing Coltrane. What was so important about Son’s playing was that he held NOTHING back. In retrospect, I see that he was so haunted by the breach between the lord’s and the devil’s music that he needed to pour all this energy out while playing the ‘Devil’s music’ in order to banish doubt about it. In any case, the effect was electrifying. He showed me that music could be enlivened by the rawest emotions – a shout that liberated and lifted. His hesitations, grunts, slams of his feet on the floor and his bottleneck on his guitar while he drew the music from the deepest depths are unforgettable reminders of what music can be about if you stop thinking about it. And yes – the purity and intensity of his style put him up with Patton and Johnson."
How about a story about being Big Joe Williams chauffeur?
"I chauffeured Big Joe, because that’s what a succession of young men who worked at Bob Koester’s Jazz Record Mart in Chicago did. Joe lived in the basement there and he owned an old Ford, but for some reason he couldn’t drive it. I was probably one of the worst chauffeurs in the world, having only recently gotten my driver’s license, and Joe used to let me know with the comment, "Boy, don’t you know how to drive?" Mike Bloomfield describes his adventures in the same role with Big Joe in his book, "My Life With Big Joe." I remember driving him to parties in Gary Indiana, where there’d be house parties with wine and fried chicken. Oddly, I never asked him to show me anything on guitar. At the time, I hadn’t played music professionally, and it was like his guitar was a sacred object that I couldn’t touch."
You met a gal from Australia in 1979. What was it like to make the decision to go and live in Australia?
"I met Christine Haddow in Nashville in 1977 while she was photographing Stoney Edwards for the Boston Globe and we had an immediate rapport. She kept returning to Australia to do film work, but we kept corresponding. One day, when the correspondence had thinned out, I got a letter from her saying that she was coming to the U.S. on the three months she had off between films and would I like her to stop by and visit me in Austin on her way to see Jack Clement and crew in Nashville? When she arrived I was living in a trailer off on its own, with a small annex, off of Bee Caves road near Lake Austin. Things proceeded pretty rapidly from there, with Chis and I marrying and having our first child, Leela (Who’s now living back in Austin and is sometimes called the ‘Queen of South Austin’ for her looks and her love of local music) and buying and renovating a house in Wimberley within a year. For Leela’s birth, I took 7 weeks off to be at home, while Herb Steiner subbed for me on steel on the Wheel gigs. Those seven weeks off were by far the longest I’d had off from being on the bus and they broke the momentum of being on the road. After coming home from a road trip and having Leela not recognize me, I decided to leave the band. Nothing much happened for me musically in the short term, and Chris’ dad had just died, so we decided to go to Perth to meet her family and introduce them to Leela. I was really taken by the place, saying ‘It’s like America in the 50s,’ which can sound condescending to Aussies, but I meant it in the good sense that people were friendlier, more willing to help each other out, less hurried and more into leisure time and raising children. It seemed a more suitable place to raise kids than in the rock and roll lifestyle that I’d been living, so I said to Chris, ‘Let’s live here,’ which she didn’t argue with. We went back to Austin, with her Mum Eileen, to sell the house, during which time I recorded ‘Lucky Steels the Wheel,’ packed up our stuff, had a garage sale and moved to Australia. In retrospect, I can see that it was a love move, not a career one, because why would a Western Swing steel played move to such a place? I have been through many different musical experiences here –playing pedal steel with many different kinds of groups – bluegrass, a jazz big band, jazz quintet, a top 40 nightclub group, a country music comedian, an improvised music group and many others. I made a 6 part TV series about world music in Australia and played my dobro on all of those shows. Next weekend, I go to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory to lead a group of disparate guitarists in an improvisation for the Darwin Guitar festival. Our kids have all grown up healthy and strong – Leela is based in Austin now where she’s going through a country music discovery parallel to mine at the same age. Toby has been gigging for a few years, playing piano in a swing and a funk band and completing a certificate in jazz piano. He’s based in Ithaca New York now, where he’s just finished an exchange program at Ithaca College where he also played bass in a rootsy rock band. The youngest, Jacob plays piano too and has inherited Toby’s very wide-ranging musical tastes. Jacob loves discovering new musical sounds and textures and in the process of doing this, has turned me on to many of them."
When you first arrived there did the Aussie's know much about the Wheel?
"Some Aussies knew about the Wheel – some guys I still play with had bought Wills "For the Last Time" so they’d been exposed to Western Swing. Various people knew about the band and if they didn’t, my Grammies helped them think that something good was going on."
Has Ray or anybody visited you over there?
"Ray hasn’t been over, although I’ve made efforts to try to get the Wheel to tour over here. The Wheeler I see most is Tony Garnier, who has come over three times with Dylan. We always have a great time. The first time he came over, in the early 90s, he laid down some great bass on the record by the band I was with at the time, ‘Dude Ranch.’ Whenever friends from the US come over, we always hook up, so I end up seeing people almost as much as I would have if I’d stayed in Austin. Balfa Toujours came over last year and we had a Cajun corroboree – a jam between them and an Aboriginal band called the ‘Letterstick Band" in our backyard. Our backyard was also the scene of a feast we had with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble and the Thunderbirds when they were touring over here one Thanksgiving."
How did you join up with the band the Zydecats?
"I came up with the Zydecats when Dude Ranch was on the brink of dissolving at the end of 1993. Buying a three row Hohner button accordion from a thrift shop in Melbourne set me off on a course that eventually led me to Zydecats. In the early days, the Wheel went to Louisiana quite frequently, playing this amazing place called Jay’s Lounge and Cockpit in the tiny town of Cankton, near Lafayette, Louisiana just about every month. It really was a cockpit, where they’d have cockfights, and Jay and his wife, Marie, would serve us up delicious helpings of what they called Loser’s Gumbo after the gig. The gigs were amazing – this old weatherboard hall out in the country, with huge exhaust fans and shell parking lot and great dancers. We played gigs there with Coteau, the predecessors of Beausoleil and lots of other folks. Clifton Chenier also played there, in a breaking down of the color barrier that was unprecedented then. Jay’s was such a great gig, that a lot of people who met out there ended up getting married and I’ve heard of them going back to the remains of the building, putting some music on a boom box and having an anniversary dance. So in Louisiana, I got a taste of Cajun and Zydeco music, hanging out with the Balfa Brothers and Nathan Abshire a bit. Texas and Louisiana musicians have this nice relationship, where they admire each other’s quite different music, and sometimes mix them together. Anyway, to make a long story even longer, I missed Louisiana music and decided that if I were going to hear it in Australia, I would have to make it myself. Because most people don’t pick up on the subtleties of Western Swing here, grouping it in with Swing, which they found square and old fashioned, I thought that Cajun and Zydeco music, with their rock and funk and blues beats, would appeal more. There is also a problem with country music, which exists here, even with some very good players and singers, but seems sequestered off in a fickle world of its own which isn’t strong enough to support a band in a town this size. Going to Austin recently was a real eye opener. Country music makes SENSE there – it belongs in Texas with that Swing/Shuffle flavor. The country music that makes sense here doesn’t have that. So – I decided to form the band and enlisted my colleague from Dude Ranch, Kent Hughes, who is a really good singer and all around guitarist whose strengths are in country, rockabilly and exotic distorted guitar sounds. I asked Bill Rogers, a soul oriented sax player (also a charismatic, give all singer) who had been in Cold Chisel, at one time Australia’s most popular band, that I was forming a Zydeco band and he said ‘Pick Me.’ The original bass player and drummer have gone and our second bassist, the immaculate Ben Franz, is now on an extended North American tour with the Waifs. But our second drummer, Tasmanian man/mountain Konrad Parks, who has an incredible command of many different grooves, is still with us. Graeme Bell is playing some great bass while Ben decides whether he’ll rejoin us."
What is the musical philosophy of the Zydecats?
"Musical philosophy is a fluid thing that changes over the years and incorporates the member’s specialties. Basically, we like to have the people dancing and having a great time. Our long time gig, at Clancy’s Fish Pub in Fremantle, has been happening for about 7 years, and is thought of as ‘Church’ by many of our regulars. The important thing is to keep it different and open to new stuff by rehearsing regularly and adding new material and trying to have a little something special happen on every gig that only happens that time. We have a repertoire of about 200 songs, including about 60 of our own compositions, in so many styles – country, rockabilly, rock, blues, Cajun, zydeco, swing, New Orleans Funk, Latin and African."
How much of a New Orleans influence is there in the music?
"Our sax player, Bill, does a lot of Professor Longhair stuff and we also do some adaptations of Dirty Dozen Brass Band arrangements. Our drummer, Konrad, is always going to the next level of subtlety with second line beats."
You have any stories from spending time in New Orleans?
"Haven’t been to Nawlins for a while, but I have been to Lafayette 3 times in the past 10 years. I go there to study Cajun music and accordion and to enjoy the great hospitality of my friends there. Junior Martin, a steel guitarist who makes excellent Cajun accordions, usually puts on an informal steel guitar convention when I arrive there. I remember one Saturday, when my friend, Ward L’Ormand from the group File, went to 4 or 5 gigs in the single day. People there sure can play music and have a great time!"
How long have you been doing the radio show?
"I’ve been doing the radio show since 1996. I came in as a programmer although I had no experience in radio and progressed to a presenter when the regular presenter went on a long holiday. With two children and my parents and friends in the states, I am currently looking at ways of broadcasting and playing in the US a bit more often. This could be done virtually, as I did my tracks for the last Asleep at the Wheel album, "Best of Asleep at the Wheel" in Perth, on tapes that had been Fedexed there, and could do the same thing for radio, or in person, as I did when I came over to do a couple of shows for Prairie Home Companion, or as I always do, recording and gigging when I visit Austin."
On your show you play a mix of music from all over the world, from Africa to the US. How much American music do you throw into the mix?
"When I first started presenting, my producer (who programs 75% of my shows) was careful to not put too much American stuff into the shows. His reasoning was that it would keep people who were aware of my American accent and sensitive to cultural issues from resenting my presence. I haven’t done a tab of how much US music but my guess is somewhere around 20%. Of course, I’m more familiar with the American stuff and can give more of an insight to it because it’s my roots. On the other hand, it’s amazing discovering all these other kinds of music from all over the world."
Your radio show is available online. What kind of response do you get for the show and from where?
"I hear from people constantly about how much they love the show and how they think it is truly unique. I hear from people I see at gigs or run into on the street at home or in other Australian cities and by letter, email and phone. We also hear from America quite frequently, from people who get it on the Internet or from Radio Australia’s short-wave broadcasts. Often they tell us that it’s their favorite show. It used to be available only through Radio Australia, but now it’s also available through its original network, Radio National, on demand, for the current and four previous programs. The address is: www.abc.net.au/rn/music/planet. You’ll need real player to listen to it. This is not a community radio station – our original broadcast, on Radio National, the nation’s most respected radio network, reaches 10s of thousands of people all over Australia."
What are some of the best musicians from around the world that are great that Americans would not be familiar with? Whose music you play or have played on the show?
"Lots from Mali in West Africa – besides Ali Farka Toure, there are many great kora players, such as Toumani Diabate, who plays on our show’s theme. Great singers too, like Malian Salif Keita, Sona Diabate and ‘Bambino’ Diabate from Guinea. Oliver Mtkudzi and Thomas Mapfumo from Zimbabwe. Caetano Veloso and Tom Ze from Brazil, any number from Cuba – Chucho Valdes, La Familia Valera Miranda, Fado singer Mariza from Portugal, amazing bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons and accordionist Richard Galliano from France, Scottish singer Dick Gaughan. There are so many more. Just check our past programs and playlists for examples of artists we’ve featured in the past."
What are some of the good musicians in Aussie land that are worthy of attention?
"Paul Kelly is a great singer/songwriter in the Dylan tradition who I used to play with quite a bit. Jeff Lang is a hot slide player who’s currently touring the states a bit. Riley Lee is a really good, American born, Australian based shakuhachi player. Lots of really good jazz players – tart alto sax man Bernie Mcgann probably the most individual of them Two really good groups headed by bassist Lloyd Swanton – one, the Necks is a bass, drums and piano trio who are unlike anyone else. Everything they do is totally improvised for the night, but they’re quite melodic, with long, slowly unfolding pieces with jazz, rock, world and dub influences. His other group, the Catholics, blend jazz solos with world music riffs that you can dance to. The Group, ‘Mara’ blends jazz with Balkan music, which has quite a strong contingent in Australia. Aboriginal music takes many different forms, from the traditional, to traditional combined with techno to country music, rock and reggae, which have all been adopted and integrated by indigenous people. The Tropical, top half of the country has a lot of powerful groups singing in native language and playing the style known as ‘top end reggae.’ An indigenous group called the Pigram Brothers in Broome, in W. Australia’s north, blend country blues with tropical feels in songs about the land where they live. Almost every style is represented here, but except for Aboriginal music, there seems to be a lack of an Australian style beyond a youthful enthusiasm and a willingness to experiment and blend things together. Paul Kelly returned from a US tour recently and commented to me how each area of the US seemed to have its own local musical style and succeeding generations were quite happy to take up the style of the place they come from and push it a little further. That’s a great asset that developed as a result of the cohabitation of European and African cultures in the Americas. In Australia, you usually have to adopt a style that originated elsewhere and put your own little twist on it."
What is a good tip to check out, outdoors wise, in the area surrounding Fremantle? Gorges? Outback? How are the beaches? Are you afraid of sharks?
"One of the main things that attracted me to Australia was the pristine beaches. When I first moved here, I went body surfing and boogie boarding almost every day. Something like 75% of Australians live within 10 kilometres of the coast and the coast is their wilderness. For that reason Australians are very serious about protecting their beach and riverfronts and keeping them accessible to everyone. Except for port and fishing marinas, the beach is everywhere. I have a walking track I love to go on just off the South Fremantle beach. There’s a bushwalking trail called the Bibbulmun track which takes 7 weeks to walk in its entirety. I walk small stretches of it with my family and friends. We did get a little afraid of sharks after someone got taken during an early morning swim on nearby Cottesloe beach, but that is something that only happens once every forty years or so in the Metropolitan area. I’m often amused by Americans who say they would like to go to Australia but are afraid of all the dangerous creatures there. There were no predators here between when the dinosaurs died and man arrived. I think it’s a discovery channel show called ‘Australia’s Tiny Assassins’ or something like that which is frightening people. Statistics show that Australia, particularly W. Australia has the world’s most venomous snakes and spiders, but you could easily live your whole life without encountering one of these critters. The thing about Australia, away from the urban centers, is that it’s so big and relatively uninhabited, that it’s awe inspiring to see so much of nature without human interference. Western Australia is a huge state and I’ve only seen a tiny proportion of its natural and isolated beauties – the gorges and ranges, etc. It’s a big country – Perth is about 3000 miles from Sydney and has been called the most isolated city in the world. It’s the end of the line here."
What food do you miss living over there? And what good food do we Americans miss out on not living over there?
"I miss Cajun style food, Texas and soul food barbecue, bagels, hoagies, Philly Cheesesteaks and my mother’s cooking. She and my dad used to run a restaurant in Philadelphia that did ‘International Home Cooking.’ Her passion is cooking and she can make a magnificent, esoteric meal in many different cooking ‘languages.’ Like its music, Australia doesn’t have a distinctive culinary signature, but excels in creative things done with its very fresh foods. There are some very good Indian restaurants here. The thing I most miss about Australia when in America is genuinely fresh produce and good Italian expresso style coffees. The coffee thing is a little better in the post Starbucks world, but it’s still inferior to the many Italian cafes of our urban areas here. I just figured out my theory on why Italian expresso culture doesn’t exist in America: Italian migration to the US happened pre-expresso, Italian migration to Australia was primarily post WWII."
Tell me about your solo album. who played on it? is it still available? etc.?
"My solo album is called ‘Lucky Steels the Wheel’ It’s half instrumental and half vocal. I recorded it with a great bunch of people – Ray Benson, Floyd Domino, Tony Garnier, Spencer Starnes, Chris O’Connell, John Nicholas and Danny Levin from Asleep at the Wheel with special guest, Johnny Gimble. Johnny has always said that it’s one of his favorite albums. Its term with its original label, Blind Pig expired and I reissued it on CD with two additional tracks by the Zydecats with a local company called Sunset Music, but that contract has now expired too, and I’m thinking of putting it out on my own. I can be reached at: email@example.com My most recent recording was a double album called ‘Dirt Music’ which accompanies a novel of the same name by multi-award winning, much beloved W. Australian author, Tim Winton. We blended our own new recordings with an all acoustic group with previously released roots music from Keb Mo, Rory Block, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott and Australian artists. Since moving to Australia, I’ve produced quite a few albums, written a bunch of songs and written scores for TV and Film."
What is next for the Zydecats and are you playing in America any time soon?
"The Zydecats have put out one album. (See our netsite: www.zydecats.com.au) We have nothing out of the ordinary planned – we do two regular gigs every weekend which people come from all over Australia (and England, Ireland, Sweden the US) to see. Bill and I both work full time jobs as well, so it’s a bit hard for us to travel, but we do get to the occasional Australian Festival. I would LOVE to bring the band to the US – both for people to hear us and to expose the other guys to all the American music that I love so much and really has to be seen in context to be fully understood. A couple months ago, on the excellent steel guitar forum (www.steelguitarforum.com), I heard mention of a new kind of steel guitar, made from a carbon fibre lattice, so no neck was necessary, with its own distinctive tone. I contacted T Sage Harmos, a fellow in Minnesota, who co-makes the guitar and told him how thrilled I was that someone had figured out a way to make my vision of a neckless steel guitar come alive. He’s now making me a guitar and I hope to come to the US and play it at the annual steel guitar convention labor day weekend in St. Louis. (This is all very recent – I haven’t been invited to St. Louis or anything)"
Lucky, we appreciate the interview. How about a hello, goodbye to the folks in the States.
"The amount of rootsy, heartfelt music that has originated in the US is truly astonishing and inspiring. I consider myself lucky to have been a part of it. I love the way people are so straightforward with each other and all the different cultures there. Having experienced the Australian thing, which has its own, less definable character, I would love to see more Americans come over here to experience it, but I’m sure I’ll continue my life of loving and crisscrossing the two cultures for many more years."
Listen to THE PLANET, hosted by Lucky Oceans on ABC Radio