21 Feb The Dusties
Light comes slowly to the Bogan River. I’m lazing beneath the straggly gums by the riverbank on a fold out chair, a freshly brewed cuppa warming my hands. The muddy brown water is dark and still in the clouded light. The early pelicans glide by, ripples on the water giving them away. I glance over at the bar shed nearby, a rustic concoction of wood, corrugated iron, beer kegs and old machinery built around an old truck, the great tyres of which poke up through the verandah. I smile. With a full day’s work on my plate yesterday, its powerpoints, tables, benches and river views made an ideal office.
It’s warmer this morning, thanks to the cloud. Nonetheless, the orange outback sun shoots flames through the horizon, returning welcome warmth and light to the land. My porridge bubbles on its little picnic table. I’m tuned in to ABC Western Plains, to discover it’s Slim Dusty’s birthday and the local MP Mark Coulton wants a national Slim Dusty Day.
Brekkie announcer Andrew Dunkley wants people to write their favourite Slim songs on the station’s Facebook page, as well as whether or not they think Slim Dusty Day is a great idea.
I have a soft spot for Slim Dusty. Ever since I edited a national country music magazine in the late 90s. Slim Dusty and his mate Shorty Ranger. Picture them, two country kids from the backwoods with an ear tuned to the radio listening to Hank Williams way back when, so inspired they changed their names to Slim and Shorty and took up teaching themselves guitar. We know how things ended up for Slim – how many of you know Shorty also had a career in country music, coming runner-up to Reg Lindsay at a mammoth talent quest held at Sydney Town Hall in the early 50s.
It’s Slim who is my inspiration for The Write Road – where other artists went with the numbers – centralised towns where they could count bums on seats – Slim took his music to his audience. Into the dust. Slim Dusty.
I have a friend who is obsessed with the music of his generation – Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Credence Clearwater Revival and other storyteller musicians. About a decade ago he was organising big events in a local hall that celebrated the music, messages and relevance of his heroes. I said ‘you should do one for Slim Dusty’.
This is a man with a love of literature and human storytelling, particularly as it relates to life. He also loves the Australian culture he was born into – in fact, we have a pact to use one colloquial Australianism a day, our small effort to keep the language we grew up with alive.
So I pushed the point.
A Slim Dusty tribute album – Not So Dusty – had just been released, featuring a range of Aussie artists singing Slim songs: Midnight Oil doing Pub With No Beer , James Blundell on Plains of Peppimentarti, Screaming Jets doing Cunnamulla Fella. I gave it to my friend and ordered him to listen. Then I gave him a CD of Slim singing the originals.
The next music night my friend organised for his friends was all Slim Dusty.
Andrew Dunkley lists the favourite songs his listeners have left on the Facebook page. I take a wander in my mind – what’s my favourite? I’ve always had a soft spot for Lights on the Hill. Someone says Lights on the Hill. Dunkley says ‘that’s my favourite too!’.
Mental As Anything did the Not So Dusty cover.
I happen to know – like most others who are paying attention – that Slim Dusty did not write Lights on the Hill. His wife, Joy McKean, did. Like she wrote so many others of his songs. Joy and her sister Heather (who married Reg Lindsay) were famous on the radio well before Slim and Reg. Yet here we are calling for Slim Dusty Day and giving him credit where credit is certainly due – but due to more than the individual.
We cannot separate Slim’s fame from Joy’s. I go to the Facebook page and remind everyone that Joy wrote Lights on the Hill. I don’t remind them she also traveled everywhere with Slim. Slim and Joy Dusty. As well as their children Anne Kirkpatrick (now a country singer) and David Kirkpatrick (a doctor, last I heard). Joy’s commitment to her family and their love of land and song was everything to Slim Dusty.
And don’t forget these were days of rough roads, no communications and slow going. The Dusties made good on a massive commitment to the people way out west in isolated and lonely country. They brought them music. And returned with their stories to share with the rest of us.
So there’s only one thing for it – SLIM AND JOY DAY.
Or DUSTY DAY.
Or SLIM DUSTY AND JOY MCKEAN DAY.
I’m all for it.
Because despite those who say we bestow far too much public accolade on celebrity musicians and movie stars, in the case of the Dusties they were so very much more.
Just ask the people living way out back in the dust.
Written by Stephanie Dale, author, journalist & traveling writer; founder of The Write Road and Walk and Write.
Stephanie Dale is an award-winning journalist and author with a fondness for walking and writing. She is a passionate advocate for the visibility and voices of everyday people and focuses on supporting new and unpublished writers to write and keep writing. The Write Road is dedicated to empowering people to tell their stories, their way.