Originally published in Sounds of the City (Spring 2016/Issue No. 2)
Some Lonesome Picker - Greg Quill Tribute
“The time I learned that being friends was knowing that a promise ends, when fancy takes to her wings again” (‘Observations’ by Greg Quill)
The elegiac sense of belonging and knowing in that simple lyric line may hold a deeper meaning. The true value of good friendship can be in transcending flights of fancy. Guitarist, songwriter, producer KERRYN TOLHURST knows the value of good friendship and he’s now made his friend and musical companion GREG QUILL the subject of a lovingly assembled tribute album Some Lonesome Picker.
Quill and Tolhurst first worked together in Country Radio back in 1972, scoring hits with ‘Gypsy Queen’ and ‘Wintersong’ two of the most enduring songs of the era. Although they had many musical adventures apart they next recorded together as Quill Tolhurst, issuing the album So Rudely Interrupted in 2003. Over a period of 40 years Tolhurst has pursued his own successful career, after Country Radio with The Dingoes in the 1970s, setting up his Locomo studios in Tucson, Arizona, producing artists such as Jeff Lang, Cyndi Boste and Chris Wilson and now back in Melbourne with his Holy Mackerel Band at the Albert Park Angling Club.
When Greg Quill died suddenly back in May 2013, Tolhurst knew he had to honour his friend. He started with the songs and a wish list of artists.
“After Greg died I went back through his catalogue of songs,” he explained recently. “I chose the songs I thought represented him the best as a package. Then I made a wish list of those people who I thought might like to sing those songs. I matched up the songs with the artist who I figured would be suitable and contacted them and lo and behold they all agreed. (Laughs) I thought that might be the biggest obstacle, fighting over which song they wanted. They were gentlemen about it.”
With singers the calibre of Paul Kelly, Ross Wilson, Shane Howard, Joe Camilleri, Richard Clapton, Doug Parkinson, Russell Morris and Broderick Smith on board the process of recording was underway. Paul Kelly and The Pigram Brothers’ version of ‘Gypsy Queen’ is clearly a touchstone, a much sparser and natural retelling of the original, highly produced Country Radio hit.
“I’d asked Paul to do ‘Gypsy Queen’ which he was very happy about. He’d gone on a trip up to Broome and I got a recording sent to me from Alan Pigram. They’d been sitting around the back porch at Alan’s place and they’d come up with this version and I thought ‘wow, what a great approach, that’s fantastic’. A few months later The Pigram Brothers were down here for the Melbourne Cup, doing a concert, and Paul was here at the same time and so I hooked them up in the studio and we just did it live like they did on the back porch, so that’s what we got. We’d even had strings on the original Country Radio version so it just shows how songs travel over time.”
One of the great skills of being a producer is knowing how to treat the songs and what works best for the performance. For example, Tolhurst embellished ‘Terry’s Tune’ (Shane Howard), ‘Last Time Around’ (Russell Morris) and ‘Observations’ (Kevin Bennett) with fiddle, while on ‘Wintersong’ (Joe Camilleri) and ‘Almost Freedom’ (Richard Clapton) he used pedal steel and on ‘Fleetwood Plain’ (Broderick Smith) it was accordion.
“I like to treat each of the songs individually and give them their own character. I guess that’s where I come from when I produce a record, I don’t like wallpaper production where every song sounds the same, that sounds lazy to me. Because it was different artists as well I wanted something that fitted the character of those artists as well as the songs. And I took a bit of liberty with the arrangement for ‘Observations’. I’d always loved that song and it just occurred to me to do it in an uptempo way rather than the plodding, kind of ponderous ballad that it was. It just seemed to fit together just nicely. And Greg Field, the fiddle player, really made that come alive.”
On the surface Ross Wilson might not seem a natural choice for the lead off track, ‘Just Goodbye’, but he helms this magnificent song in fine style. It sees the backing band in full country rock mode, à la The Byrds or The Band. And once again it just highlights the qualities of a good song.
“Yes, that’s one of Greg’s earliest songs, from his first album. And Country Radio used to do gigs with Daddy Cool back then. I remember a memorable one at Monash University, that was chaos. Anyway, so that song came from the first album and it had 12-string and Greg always loved Roger McGuinn and The Byrds and I wanted to give it that vibe. Ross was into that and he’d also been a Byrds fan as well. We talked about it and came up with that arrangement. Also that song features Ross Hannaford on guitar which was definitely his last recording with Ross Wilson.
“Greg and I had bonded together over songs, I think we came to the same point at the same time. When I met Greg we were both hugely influenced by The Band, The Byrds, and the whole singer songwriter thing coming out of America at the time. John Stewart was one of Greg’s biggest influences. I think Greg was the first to emerge here, from the folk scene, and to start writing songs on that level, on introspection and observation. He was definitely a pioneer in this country. And that’s why I wanted to included guys like Glenn Cardier and Mike McClellan. They were contemporaries of Greg’s from the same scene, so it seemed appropriate to have them on it.”
I wondered if he had considered asking someone like Kasey Chambers?
“Yes, some people have mentioned that there are no women on the album, making it a bit of a boys club, but there were no women around doing that stuff at the time. That didn’t happen until a generation later, when our daughters started doing that, the late 1980s, early 90s. There are lots of them now. And I did ask both Kasey and Renée Geyer – and Renée had been a dear friend of Greg’s at the time – but both felt the music wasn’t part of who they were.”
For this writer, the best song is saved for last, Broderick Smith doing an astonishing version of ‘Fleetwood Plain’. If you didn’t know it was a Greg Quill song you might have said it was a folk song from the 19th century.
“Right, well I picked that because it was the title of his first album, one of the first songs he ever wrote and it certainly has that strange, mythical quality about it that’s timeless.”