One of the luminaries of the 2018 Cruisin’ Country line-up in October is Troy Cassar-Daley, one of Australia’s most popular country music performers and the creator of some of our greatest country songs. He joins John Williamson, and others, on the cruise and it was a real treat to be able to talk to him about it recently.
When you have so many albums and you have to put set lists together, of course not all songs are top of your mind – you have to go back and practise.
You’re absolutely right. First of all, it just means you’re getting old, when you’ve got a lot of records out, and second of all the set lists get harder. But next year will be a lot different, because I’m going out with a greatest hits set list. That’s going to be a lot easier to pick because they have to be chart songs.
Do you like that, though, or do you feel like you’re missing out on some of your favourites?
I like it for the fact that it’s easy to put the set together. When I’m doing a touring set and I have to include maybe six songs from the new record and then I have to go through the old catalogue and work out which ones have been in the long yard for a while, which ones need to come out, which ones you really love to play. I don’t think I do a show without doing ‘River Boy’ – I don’t know why, I can’t really leave that out. There’s different ones – ‘Born to Survive’ – that people do ask for a lot but which can’t be particularly fun to play. It’s very, very hard to put them together but, honestly, this cruise it’s going to be really easy to put this set together, because I look at this list of people and I just know there’s going to be people jumping up on [other] people’s shows – it’s going to have that vibe – and I like that. I like the fact there are going to be cross-pollinations, because I go from John Williamson here to Graeme Connors, Gina Jeffreys, Sara Storer, Tania Kernaghan and Anne Kirkpatrick, James Blundell, Amber Lawrence, and that’s just to start. And I’ve toured with Tania Kernaghan and Sara Storer and Anne Kirkpatrick. I’ve been on the road with Gina Jeffreys when I was twenty-four. She took me on the road as a solo act to introduce me to her crowd. So I’ve got big history with all these people, and I can’t wait to see them let alone enjoy the company of some people on a cruise.
And when you do your Tamworth show, quite often you bring in other artists and there’s that lovely sense of generosity from you as an artist, to say ‘it’s not just about me – the story of me is also all these people’. So I think this is just a continuation of your normal work.
It probably will be, but the Tamworth show really is about the building blocks of what makes country music what it is, and I think what it is, is that you have to remember that people help you, and no matter where you find yourself in your career, there always should be a hand out to give you a hand up to somewhere else or to do this or do that. I’ve had champions all throughout my life and I think that now that the baton’s been past to me, now that I’m in my forties, I’m probably the different generation that needs to be dragging the younger ones through and putting them on show as well. It shouldn’t be about me -people already know about me. I get more excited these days about introducing new talent to people.
I remember a while ago you had Luke Austen in your band and another young artist who were in their twenties, and I remember thinking that was such an interesting thing for you to do as an established artist, to bring these young guys in to be your rhythm section.
When I toured with Brian Young when I was in my twenties, Brian gave me a huge hand up with seeing my country. For the first time in my life I’d actually had a chance to see my country and then go out and make a living over nine months. It was an amazing experience. I then went back and did a documentary for SBS on Brian’s tour, and Damien and Luke were in the band at that stage. Brian pulled me aside and said, ‘When we get back on firm land, back to the cities where we all live, you know the biggest dream of those two kids is to be in your band?’ And I said, ‘You’re kidding me? They’re great players, those kids. I would have thought they would have had their own little bands to worry about.’ He said, ‘No – they really love and respect what you do.’ Next minute I get their numbers and give them a call, and they said they’d love to. They moved up from Grafton to live in Brisbane to be in the band. I don’t know how many years they were with me but it was a long, long time. Luke, obviously, got to a stage where he was making his own career and I had to let him go. I can’t just keep him there because I wanted him to play bass! But it made me so proud – it was like a dad with a kid leaving home when he left the band, because I thought, This is so cool. He’s now off doing his own thing, and that’s what’s important – and if you can be a little bit of a help in that process. And Damien, the drummer, was the same. He now lives with his two kids in Darwin, he drums in local bands, and all the experiences he gained from being in my band, he reckons, were so worth it because he not only has a day job that he enjoys but he also gets to play with some phenomenal artists up around Darwin. So if you can help these people on their way, like I’ve had the help, I think you’re going all right.
Speaking of a band – when you’re on the cruise, do you use the house band?
Yes, I do. I won’t be bringing my own band. The house band is usually a spectacular array of Australian musicians anyway, led by Brendan Radford – even before I met my wife I knew Brendan, so I’ve got a lot of history with him, and the sorts of bands he puts together are pretty spectacular. They’re pretty much like the band you get at the awards in Tamworth. And how could you fault them, really? [laughs]
And the musicians in those bands in Tamworth play something like 25 shows throughout the festival, so they are match ready for something like this cruise.
They totally get it. My keyboard player, Vaughn Jones – I played with him the other night, we did a corporate gig and I said, ‘I don’t want to play any of my music for the crowd’, and they said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘I want to play some old covers for you so you can dance and it’s all old, familiar stuff.’ And they loved it. And Vaughn – who does 35 shows every Tamworth festival – said, ‘That was like I was 16 again back in a covers band at some friend’s wedding.’ And that’s the fine I think that you can have in music even when you’ve been in it a long time. You should change it up for your own sake, and also give people something they don’t expect. And the people at the [corporate gig] danced their feet off and had such a time, and we were playing things like ‘Dock of the Bay’ and old Eagles songs and Creedence, and I just loved it. It brought out the child in me. And, you know, every now and then you’ve got to do that just to keep yourself sane.
I remember seeing you and Adam Harvey in the very first Songbooktour – it was before the album was even out – and I turned to the friend I was with and said, ‘Those two look like they are having the time of their lives.’
Now this is the weird part: I got with Adam for those weekends because we wanted to do it for fun. We didn’t get a chance to play any of those songs in our normal sets, and we said, ‘How are we going to do this?’ I said, ‘Harvey, what we need to do is organise just a weekend of shows once every six months, just for us.’ Unfortunately, Sophie, it wasn’t for you [laughs]. It was so self-indulgent and people happened to enjoy it. Then one of the Sony people from Adam’s record company said, ‘You guys have got to make a record of this’, because after every show we’d get all these requests: ‘Is there a record?’ ‘Have you got a record coming?’ We’d say, ‘No – we’re just doing this for fun!’ We didn’t want to make a record, we just wanted to get out and play with an incredible country band some old songs that inspired us. It was one of the best fun experiences of projects that I’ve done. Harvey and I still reminisce about how wild fun it is, and the laughter, and the amount of tunes we got to play with this incredible country band.
When you play on Cruisin’ Country, do you work in some covers?
I think I’ll have to. There’s a few I really enjoy playing – especially from the Great Country Songbook. It sold about 85 000 [units] so a lot of people have the record. I’m going to definitely change it up and make sure it’s different to what people might see on the road – which I always do anyway. I make sure I let Brendan know what the songs are with plenty of notice. But when I look through the line-up … I’ve got big history with a lot of these people. I came through in the same wave after James Blundell broke through. There was myself, there was Lee Kernghan and there was Gina Jeffreys. Gina and Anne Kirkpatrick and James were three of the people who really did set the country music world on fire, and they showed people that it wasn’tall about hay bales and everything else – it could be young, you know? It was an amazing time for our music, and I was very, very privileged to be a small part of that wave of people who came through. So there’s going to be some cross-pollinations [on the cruise] and I hope people are ready for this. I want to make sure that there’s some times that we can do some songs together that we used to do on the road. Tania Kernaghan comes to mind. Sara Storer comes to mind. Anne Kirkpatrick comes to mind, because I’ve done duets with them.
If I talk to them I’ll mention that you’re hankering for some duets.
Absolutely. And I haven’t drunk for a little while – I’ve taken a bit of time off the grog because I was starting to feel like I was waking up every morning with a cloud over my head. I may break the drought on this cruise – it’s in October so that’ll be almost two years off the grog. So who knows – I might even have a couple of beers with some old friends. But this will be special, not only for the guests who come on board and hang out with us, but it will be special because there will be the artists who not only get a chance to catch up in Tamworth but they’ll be on a cruise with some fantastic other artists as well to share the bill.
You are on a cruise with your fans and there’s necessarily some interaction. I’ve seen how your audience interacts with you – how much your songs mean to them. In that kind of environment, do people come up to you and tell you that?
Oh yes. Like every other cruise people come along and say g’day. Adam Harvey said to me, ‘If you get all the autographs done in the first couple of days, normally people are happy with that’ – but he was lying through his teeth [laughs]. You’ve got to get through 2000-odd people on a cruise. So I signed feverishly to make sure I got everyone done so we could all relax. But it was still going on the seventh day – there were still autographs and photos to be had. But we don’t lock ourselves in our room, I can tell you now. It’s a lot of fun for the fans as much as it is for the artists. I’ll have my boy with me – he’s twenty now. Last time I was on a cruise with him, he was in the kids club. I don’t know if they have a naughty kids club – because that’s probably where he’s going to get locked up now because he’s twenty and he drinks and he does what he wants, and I think it’s a heap of fun to take him away from his radio job that he does in Brisbane, for a time away with a lot of great, fun country music fans.
On the subject of Harvey lying through his teeth: I get the impression, from talking to other people, that he does that a lot.
[Laughs] It’s a common trait. We’ve played some funny tricks on each other. One of them, we played this festival but I played the night before him and I told everyone to chant for ‘The Gambler’ until he played. Of course, he left ‘The Gambler’ till the last part of his set, but all the way through they’re going, ‘Gambler, Gambler, Gambler’. It got back that it was me, of course, and I was the worst in the world [laughs] and it was the funniest thing, because he said to me, ‘I owe you one – you’d better watch your back’. And we’ve been great mates ever since. We were very, very good friends before The Great Country Songbookbut what it cemented with us was that our love of country music runs very, very deep. I couldn’t get to do the number two with him because I was in the middle of writing another project and the book as well.
You’ve just released Lost & Found, which is 25 songs from your archives. Will you be working some of those into your set? I know they’re B-sides and things like that.
I think I’m going to have to put a few in. Even at the shows we’ve just played – we did a bit outdoor show for the Commonwealth Games, and it was amazing, just the amount of people we found down the street who came along and had some fun with us, and they were asking for a couple of the songs from that. So I’m going to have to look at it. But it started out that I was just cleaning out my studio, which I call my shed, because I didn’t know where anything was – it had become one of those hoarders’ houses. Then I found this big box of tapes and CDs and DAT tapes and started to play them while I was cleaning up. I realised then that a lot of those songs aren’t available for people to go and get or stream, so I decided I’d put them together. And the front cover is a beautiful little open road with these really nice autumn trees, and it’s taken on Kingala Road at Halfway Creek, where I grew up. So to be able to incorporate a little bit of those memories of your upbringing with this sort of record is really, really important. Right back to the first vinyl I released up to the things I was doing as B-sides in Nashville, so you get a lot of different [things]. There will probably be a part 2, because I’m still finding tracks.
And that first vinyl you mentioned is probably ‘Proud Young Man’, your first single. When I was listening to it what struck me was how developed your sound was. There seemed to be no sense that you were still trying to find out who you were musically – is that how it felt at the time?
All I can remember was is that it was very, very intimidating for me to be in a studio. I knew that the players were going to do a good job because I knew a lot of those fellas from Tamworth after visiting in my late teens and into my early twenties. I was only 20 years old, and I guess when you look at what you do at 20, you’ve got to start somewhere. I’d written these two songs – I’d played them in Star Maker, actually. Keith [Urban] had won Star Maker that year [laughs].
Bloody Keith, getting in the way of everyone’s progress! [laughs] I’m still good mates with Keith and it’s wonderful to be able to look at all these little tiny stepping stones and relate them to songs. Keith was more than ready to win Star Maker because he was so polished and so professional compared to the rest of us, but we all started there. Star Maker was a great learning curve for me to play original material in front of people. I was scared, I’ve got to say – I was worried about how it would all turn out. But it was a start. Now it’s great to be able to look back and share these things with people too.
Each album of yours is different – no one could ever say you stagnate. What drives you as an artist and as a songwriter to keep changing?
Do you have a favourite place you go and eat sometimes?
And there are certain things on the menu that you know are going to be the same, and if they take them off you get very wild with them. Because I went through TAFE as a cook, I guess this analogy sort of fits me. I always feel that you have to serve up things that people expect, because there will be their favourites they always look for on the menu. Then you’ve always got to make sure you have a fresh selection of things. And that fresh selection means you have to push your limits a little bit, and I always try to do that. If I look at the last album, I don’t want to repeat myself, but I also want to have a little bit of familiarity in there. I just love making music. At the moment I’m slanting into a blues direction with some country stuff as well, which I love, because people never get to see that side of me when I play. So there are some more rootsy, Americana-style things that I’ve been listening to that really have got my ears pricked up, saying, ‘Wow, I like the sound of that.’ I like the sound of someone like Chris Stapleton, who has a really basic sound, to me, and I think it would be lovely to make a record with a really basic sound without too much layering, which gives people a chance to hear another side, and play a lot more guitar.