I confess I’m not naturally drawn to Country Music, but I could be converted to it by an experience I recently had interviewing Troy Cassar-Daley over lunch regarding his new album, Home.
Everything I’d heard about TCD being a top bloke proved true … here’s a fella (a word Troy uses often) who has won a swag of ARIA, APRA, Golden Guitar awards plus Deadly Awards (Australian Indigenous artist awards) and four Country Music Entertainer of the Year awards. Yet, after every single show he still spends at least an hour personally signing autographs for fans. Troy’s genuine and affable ‘glass-half-full’ nature really won me over following our interview, while at a photo shoot on the edge of the Manning River. He paused to sing a song – you guessed it, about a river – to a wide-eyed young Aboriginal boy. Deal sealed. If they make them like this in Country Music, I’m listening …
You recorded your new album, Home, over two days in Nashville, Tennessee, in October 2011. Was that a short recording time?
Only the band tracks took that time; the rest of it took a couple of weeks … it was just the key players who finished it off. The steel and the fiddle came later – they don’t need to be sitting in on the band sessions.
Finally, there was a harmony-vocal fella, whom for many years I’ve had heaps of respect for – John Wesley Ryles. He’s sung on just about every hit for Brooks & Dunn. He’s just amazing, and he came in to finish off.
How did you manage to access people to participate in the album? Do you have a lot of personal pull in Nashville?
I have absolutely no pull in Nashville, but I have friends who do. I went straight to Keith Urban, whom I called for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I wanted to know who he’d use as his session leader, and Keith said: “Biff Watson is the fella. He’s a great guitar player, and he’ll really get what you do because he’s a guitar player”. Secondly, I needed to borrow a car off Keith!
As you do …
He made me promise I wouldn’t hire a car if I ever came back to town, so I said to him: “Righto, while I’ve got you, is the ute still hanging around the farm?” Keith said, “Yeah man, come and get it, it doesn’t do any miles.”
Keith gave me the name of this fella who is really the ‘corner man’ for when you really need someone who is going to write your charts out, deal with the players and talk in their lingo. I don’t record in Nashville, so I just gave him all my demos – 14 songs; I pulled two out at the last minute.
13 tracks ended up on the album …
Yep, but I had to get it down from 16, and that’s like picking a State of Origin for me.
How was the overall recording experience?
Those fellas don’t need a rehearsal. They don’t have to run over and over songs until the soul’s gone. They would listen to my demo (which was embarrassing, as it’s me playing guitars and I sort of figured they’re world-class and I felt a bit under-gunned) … they listen to the demo and then they write a chart. This is how they do it over there – talk about capturing the moment.
You’re dealing with the ‘best of the best’ in terms of musicians.
When I was living in Grafton, I would listen to records made by George Jones and Alan Jackson and I thought, “One day it’s my dream to make a record with that band”. I wanted to hand pick them all one-by-one. It started with the rhythm section and then the guitar player. I would have moved the earth to the left by one inch if I couldn’t get guitar player Brett Mason. He’s my favourite guitar player that’s alive.
What about Tommy Emmanuel; he’d have to be a bit of a hero?
I love Tommy. We’ve toured through America together. He’s so patriotic – he takes a lot of Aussies overseas to do acoustic openers for him. The first gig I did with him was in 2010 in bloody New York at B.B. King’s House Of Blues Bar. I never thought I’d be playing a gig there – amazing.
You made a decision to not play on this album and to sing only …
I wanted to be a better singer on this record. To be able to do this you need be able to hear what’s going on, and I needed to put myself outside of the record in order to do that.
You first went to Tamworth when you were 11 years old…
I wanted to go to Tamworth pretty bad. There were a lot of talented kids there around the same age as me.
I didn’t do any busking the first year, but I came back home totally inspired and nagged mum for a new guitar. The first place I moved when I left Grafton was Tamworth. I lived there for three years. It’s been a good town to me, and I learnt a lot there.
Who were your musical heroes growing up?
Slim Dusty was a huge one. Slim to me made it OK to feel like you could sing about your own country, and I’ve continued to sing about my country in just about every album I’ve made. There’s also Merle Haggard, and there was an Indigenous fella called Roger Knox whom I loved as well. He was so inspiring, because he sang and played with his sons in the band – he had a great family unit travelling around the countryside.
Tell us about the song Tall, Dark Ringer, which features on Home …
I’ve met at lot of these fellas on tour up around the Cape. I did a documentary up there with Ernie Dingo. We sat around the fire talking to these Ringers, and they told us the Ringers up there have this mythological presence because they help all the cattlemen break the Cape – they help them survive when they’re flooded in and taught them where to find food. All these things were legendary up there.
The title track, Home, a powerful song and even a little bit melancholy …
I was about to go back home to Grafton for a few days with my kids to show them where I’m from and I thought, “I want to write a song about this”. It was a bit of a sentimental journey and I thought my kids might be bored, as they’re 11 and 13. I took them to places that I haven’t been to for a while – back to my mum’s place, which is on 100 acres, and we caught Witchetty Grubs. I took them fishing and went via the cemetery to my nan and pop’s grave, before I got to my little childhood home, where I had my first 10 years at Nan’s house.
That was the final destination. I had a bit of a howl at the cemetery … my daughter was rubbing me on the back and said, “Dad, you’ll be all right. Look over there Dad, there is a sign which says, ‘no parking on the grass’”. This made us all laugh.
That’s where Home came from – if you’re going to write about it, you need to go back there.
I looked at how you record the albums. Is it a conscious decision to have a break between albums following a decent tour?
It really is making sure that I take my holidays off with my kids. It’s not about money. If you want to give your kids all this stuff that you never had but you don’t give them yourself, then you leave them nothing. You’ve got to say no to things … my wife and kids come first.
You’re a ‘glass is half full’ kind of bloke …
Always. I hate whingers. I reckon surround yourself with positive people. It only takes one on the road to ruin a whole tour – they don’t last very long with me. I just can’t bear negative people. It takes so much less energy to be positive.
Interview by Karen Farrell.