What is Australiana? Tin roofs rusting in the ochre sand? Burnt feet padding on the summer tarmac? Bushrangers and Ned Kelly? Wherever we look for Australian culture there seems to be a caricature and a rather pinched one at that. From Tim Winton to Tim Minchin, Banjo Paterson to Henry Lawson, Peter Bibby to The Chats, there prevails a distinct sense of oneness amongst the harshness of this sunburnt land. Though over the years none have quite so elegantly captured the unique Australian landscape like John Williamson.
After over 50 albums and an autobiography, the ‘Mallee Boy’ has been dubbed “the voice of the people of the bush” and is the unequivocal king of country pub sing-alongs. This is the tale of John Williamson, Australia’s last true bush poet.
Like a shrimp on the barbie, nothing summons the nostalgia of Australian culture quite like the anthems of John Williamson.
John Williamson is etched into the DNA of Australian culture. Or rather, he reflects what he sees in Australian culture. Like all true artists, he stands as a vessel to reflect the social and cultural climate that exists around him in an authentic and deeply relatable way.
Although he’s unrecognisable on Sydney streets John Williamson’s lyrics are sung at Cricket Grounds, Olympic Stadiums, and rural watering holes all across this wide brown land. As synonymous with this country as the caw of the cockatoo, or the laugh of the kookaburra, Williamson’s voice is a national treasure.
He has sold over four million records worldwide and even composed an album with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra which went platinum.
Gather round the campfire friends, let the billy boil. This is the underdog tale of John Williamson.
Life in the bush
John Robert Williamson was born to Keith and Shirley at the Kerang Bush Nursing Hospital in 1945. Both Keith and Shirley, who had five sons, were farmers and occasional singers.
Raised in the town of Quambatook, in northern Victoria, John was taught the ukelele at seven years of age and was plucking out tunes on the guitar and harmonica in no time.
John cut his teeth at local bars and in 1969 began pursuing a full-fledged career in music, penning his first song, the iconic Old Man Emu, which won him first place at a local talent show and peaked at No.4 on the charts.
Over the next 10 years, Williamson released four albums which all flopped. Disillusioned, he started a new band named Crow in 1978 who toured country pubs nationwide and were one of the first Australian bands to fuse reggae and rock.
In 1981 the band separated and John was once again on his own, though later that year he would pen his next big hit, Diggers of the ANZAC (This Is Gallipoli). In 1985, he launched his own label, Gumleaf Recordings, which released several of his biggest albums.
17 years after his first hit John Williamson finally saw mainstream success. In 1986 his album Mallee Boy went 3 times platinum and saw him grow a fanbase in NZ, UK, and US. The record featured some of his biggest hits including the unofficial national anthem True Blue.
“I took a pen and paper out to the back lawn at Epping in Sydney, sat down at a wrought iron table and immediately wrote down ‘True Blue, is it me and you,'” says Williamson.
In 2014, John released his 50th album, Honest People. Aside from the music Williamson has seen the end of his 34-year marriage, a controversial resignation as head of the Country Music Association of Australia, and a battle with prostate cancer, so it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
Honest People is a perfect reflection of John Williamson’s chief concerns and obsessions over the years: nature (Heatwave), egalitarianism (Girt By Sea), family (Keep Walking), marriage equality (It’s All About Love), sport (Grandpa’s Cricket), and the slow disappearance of the country town lifestyle.
Not only that but Williamson has championed equality for years. He has toured extensively with openly gay fiddle player Pixie Jenkins since the early ’80s, praying for a time “when it’s not important what sex you are, or what sex you have. Or what colour you are, or where you’re from. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Since 1989, Williamson has penned protest songs for the environment too with Rip Rip Woohchip achieving significant international attention. In 2017, at the age of 71, Williamson released two more protest songs as singles, feeling he couldn’t wait for the album to come out.
Pigs On The River, inspired by the illegal use of water from the Murray Darling River for irrigation which ultimately led to three mass fish deaths at the Menindee lakes in 2019 causing scientists to exclaim, “The Darling will die.”
Love Is The World covers a plethora of social issues from same-sex marriage to the rise of nationalism explaining, “It just seems the world has gone a bit crazy, and the only thing that’s going to make a difference is caring for one another. Love is the word politicians never seem to mention.”
A huge advocate for equality, Williamson was weighing in heavily on the same-sex marriage debate back in 2017, doing anything he could to get his voice heard.
“In Western Australia, less than 100 years ago Aboriginal people and white people couldn’t marry. Now when we look at that we’re quite shocked. I really think in 20 to 30 years from now, our grandkids will be like ‘Is that really true we had a problem with that?'”
Ultimately, John Williamson imagines an Australia full of “caring people” who “stick by each other” and “love this country no matter where they are from.”