Feature: The Whitlams Black Stump – Kookaburra

Having played in almost every corner of the land, with The Whitlams or solo, for decades now; sometimes with the footy on the TV in the next bar, sometimes with an old couple holding hands in the front row, always with a room full of people singing along, Tim Freedman’s got stories. 

He might sing about Ned Kelly’s sister, Kate, or driving down for a surf at Thirroul, about Gough Whitlam in a restaurant, or the pokies in the pub. He can tell you a yarn about composer Peter Sculthorpe on an all-nighter, or a bloke who puts his last dollar on race 8, share one about a love affair that got complicated, or confess that being single has its benefits as his bandmates phone home from a telephone booth on the highway. All of these stories paved the way for the debut album he has now made under the name The Whitlams Black Stump – a country album called Kookaburra, with multi-award-winning musician/producer Matt Fell and Rod McCormack.

What it took was a revelation as he drove some backroads between Gunnedah and Dubbo, Orange and Tamworth, listening to the radio and feeling at home. It got him thinking, and he made a phone call to Fell, who’s become a staple at the Golden Guitars as the man at the desk for albums by Sara Storer, Shane Nicholson, Troy Cassar-Daley, Fanny Lumsden and The Wolfe Brothers.

Even though I have inner city indie DNA, I do feel that when I play a particular selection of my songs, solo in a country town that I am particularly Australian. I’m giving them something especially local, as opposed to generic,” Tim says. “When all those people come in who have heard me on ABC local radio over the years, one of the reasons they are there is because they appreciate songs about their own culture… I am a parochial lyric writer, and country music has a strong sense of time and place, so clothing my stories in a country music coat seemed like a natural progression to me…I had to scratch that itch and investigate.”

The itch was scratched over an initial four “feverish” days in the studio – and then on stage with McCormack on banjo and guitar, Ollie Thorpe on pedal steel, Whitlams stalwart Terepai Richmond on drums, Fell on bass and George Washingmachine on the fiddle. The material is an eclectic selection that
has classic Whitlams, like ‘Blow Up The Pokies’ and ‘No Aphrodisiac’ and deep cuts from the band’s catalogue, next to second looks at songs from the most recent Whitlams album, and some covers that tell you a lot about where this record was coming from: not just Neil Young but two giants of “inner western country”, Bernie Hayes and Perry Keyes.

“Perry’s The Day John Sattler Broke His Jaw is probably the best inner western country song there is, and the next best is my favourite Bernie Hayes song, Your Boyfriend’s Back In Town, which is a title that was crying out to become a country song,” says Tim, admitting that the intimations of Phil Spector meeting Garth Porter on ‘Your Boyfriend’s Back In Town’ – timpani, female backing vocals, booming wall of sound – were exactly what Fell was aiming for.

And ‘Fallen Leaves’, the new beast in the repertoire, sits at track 3 – a collaboration between Freedman, Fell and Keyes, whose soaring strings wring out the heart wreck of the narrator’s admission that “What she don’t know won’t hurt her / but now it’s killing me.”

Something changed too, that was more nature than nurture.

One important technical aspect of the album is that when I am redoing a Whitlams song they are now sung in a lower register than they used to be. As you get older your voice lowers, and it’s more natural to be able to convey them now in an age-appropriate key. I can unleash the crooner within!” laughs Tim. 

Rather than some bloke just dabbling in country, the combination of lowering the tempos and keys, focusing more on the stories, using banjo and pedal steel, fiddle and a few more instruments a lot of modern country records don’t really include anymore – and working with musicians and producers who live and breathe this stuff – makes this sound whole, you could even say organic.

Definitely natural, and a very Australian story.

Kookaburra the debut release from The Whitlams Black Stump is available to stream now via E.G Records.

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