ABOUT THE BOOK
Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic explored a ‘weird, old America’ which was reflected in its dusty folk songs and hillbilly tunes. With Buried Country, his sixth book, urban cowboy Clinton Walker has done a far better job
Jeff Apter, Rolling Stone, 2000
It will be some time before the sweetest fruit of historical revision can be harvested, but this book – humorous, moving, informative, exciting and honest – is an important and welcome early move
Alexander Garvey Holbrook, Louder than War, 2015 (in full here)
Walker dives headfirst into this labour of love. He has captured the essence of the performers and the significance of their most popular songs. Aboriginal country music’s heyday is behind it; thankfully, Walker bothered to uncover it for posterity
Buzz McClain, Washington Post, 2001 (in full here)
A masterwork…What more can a book do than bring you back the past and make it real – especially a past you never knew?
Nicolas Rothwell, Australian Book Review ‘Books of the Year’, 2015
The book is where Buried Country begins. Everything flows from the book, first published by Pluto Press in Australia in 2000, and got back into print, expanded and updated for the world market, by Verse Chorus Press in 2015.
The book was possibly, you could almost say, first conceived, or at least the seed was planted, as far back as the early 1980s, when I was a practicing rock journalist in my early twenties and becoming increasingly interested, among other things, in country music and Aboriginal music. As a graduate of the Class of ’77 – in other words, the punk tipping point – I was politically and aesthetically committed to the DIY empowerment of the underclasses. And so what that meant was country and Aboriginal music as well as post-punk indy rock (which was my bread and butter, after all, here on the Australian pub circuit) and the first stirrings of what’s now called EDM. This might seem like an unholy mix, but to me it made perfect sense, all the cutting edge/s. EDM amounted to synth-pop on one hand and hip-hop on the other, and synth-pop was straight out of post-punk experimental electronic music and hip-hop was just the then-next phase of my long-standing immersion in the music of African-America, of jazz, blues and soul. Country music was coming to terms with my own white trash heritage. Or so I thought, at first. But it became so much more than that.
When I started going to the annual Tamworth country music festival in the 80s with my dodgy hillbilly-grunge band the Killer Sheep, we went and saw Roger Knox with his then-Euraba Band, and my head was completely turned. Roger and Koori country became my introduction, as I now know in retrospect I was well-predisposed to do, to getting more involved with black Australia and its music.
By the early 90s, after I’d thrown in journalism as a totally constricting straight-jacket and was concentrating on writing books, the idea that would become Buried Country started to coalesce. Having written extensively on Aboriginal acts by then - in newspapers (like this c.1984 piece here on the Warumpi Band from the Age, which itself became fabled in its own small way), and in the music press and even for a 1989 ABC-TV special called Sing it in the Music - I was able to discern the Aboriginal tradition that existed in country music, and I could see it was a story in danger of disappearing for want of some sort of record. I could also see a way of writing that sort of record. Because by then I was myself already working on a book like Stranded, which was a prosopographical account of the Australian punk/post-punk generation of musical innovators. Stranded was itself squarely in a tradition that included books I’d long loved like Peter Guralnick’s Feel Like Going Home (1971) and Lost Highway (1979), Valerie Wilmer’s As Serious as Your Life (1977) – I’m unashamed to celebrate these inspirations, which blended group-biography (prosopography), oral history and music criticism to show me a way to do it – and also Barney Hoskyn’s Say it One Time for the Broken Hearted (1987) and then even the oncoming punk revisionism of Please Kill Me (1997) and Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming (1991). I take pride that Buried Country, I think, sits quite comfortably alongside these titles now.
Barney Hoskyn’s Say it One Time for the Broken Hearted, in particular, when I read it when it first came out in ’87, showed me that crossover could work both ways: That it wasn’t just white artists ripping off black music, or black artists sneaking into the mainstream (predominantly white) charts. It showed me that black and white music was a constant churn of miscegenation; that Ray Charles’s monumental and hugely successful 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, for example, wasn’t a one-off or an aberration, but rather that country music and deep soul were always bedfellows. I suppose I’d always been able to hear the country influence in artists like, say, Solomon Burke, Clarence Carter or Arthur Alexander, and could always hear the country licks in, say, Chuck Berry – and could always hear the soulful strains in Elvis, or Charlie Rich – but I wasn’t until I read more deeply that I could articulate that feeling. I wasn’t till I read more deeply that I fully grasped that the funkiness of so much 60s soul was thanks to white session musicians at Stax, Muscle Shoals and other studios in the south where Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and so many others recorded their classic sides. I became aware that music, popular music, was indeed a great big egalitarian melting pot, a sprawling tangle of colour-blind cross-fertilization, and that that was part of its power. And so the reverse crossover, as I’ve come now to describe it, at the heart of Buried Country started to make more sense to me; and made even more sense when in the run to completing its production, I got a copy of the then-new 3CD box-set From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music – and it showed me that Charley Pride wasn’t the only hardcore African-American country artist, that he was in fact just the tip of the iceberg; all of which gave me absolute affirmation I was on the right track…
An absorbing and at times bleak account of Aboriginal country music ... Listening to the CDs while reading the book strengthens Walker’s assertion ... Walker wisely allows his subjects’ first hand reminiscences to carry the narrative ... compulsively readable
Stephen Cummings, the Age, 2000
Zealous passion and rigorous attention to detail
Barnaby Smith, Bunyip Voodoo, 2015 (read in full here)
A zestful ramble through this large and little known territory ... There are so many compelling personalities and riveting stories in this book ... although many of the stories here are deeply tragic, somehow the book and the voices speaking within it remain remarkably buoyant. The photographs are wonderful
Peter Doyle, HQ, 2000
That so many of the more than a dozen major artists profiled in Buried Country have died since it first came out in 2000 (including Jimmy Little, Lionel Rose, Bobby McLeod, Bob Randall, Gus Williams, Herb Laughton, Black Allan Barker and Ruby Hunter) is vindication, in a sad sort of way, of the urgency I felt about committing to the project in the first place. Had I not got their stories down back then, so much would have been lost. And I take pride in that, that I was able to salvage those narratives before they disappeared.
Selling a pitch on the book was not easy. It’s hard not to blame that on racism. Two comments from publishers who rejected the idea I will never forget: One said, I can’t sell a book with a black face on the cover. Another comment was, I don’t think any of those Aboriginal bands are any good. Eventually I connected with long-standing leftie imprint Pluto Press, due to the company’s then-boss Tony Moore, with whom I’d done some work previously, and we set to producing the thing.
I continued to encounter racism and what I call cultural apartheid after the book was published. I would occasionally meet people, middlebrow Arts snobs, who would laugh in my face when it was explained who I was and what I did, what Buried Country was all about. At the mere thought of Aboriginal country music, they would scoff, Why would they bother? Which by extension said to me, Why would you bother? You must be a fool. They must be stupid too. I would just have to walk away, and that was something that happened more than once.
I do have to say though, just as many people said to me, shaking their head in wonderment, I never knew, and pleased to find out. To which I'd say, Well, that's why Buried Country had to happen.
So, moreso, the reception to the book was just humbling. I was delighted when it was praised for the depth of its research and its scope generally, but then to me, even as I know so many present-day writers don’t do it, research is a mechanical thing that just happens as a matter of course. I was delighted when I was praised for "two-fisted, economical prose." I hate writing that self-consciously flaunts itself as 'good' writing.
I was more delighted, took great pride, when the book was praised for getting out of the characters’ way and just letting them speak for themselves; for avoiding mediation apart from putting narratives in an accurate chronological frame, and offering a critical appraisal of the artists' oeuvre; and for not resorting to rhetoric to make (political) point/s, nor indulging in memoir. This lack of the first-person pronoun ‘I’ didn’t help Buried Country's capital-‘l’ Literary standing, since the Australian land of letters seems to need its non-fiction freighted with lashings of me-me-me – just as the presence and number of illustrations obviously denoted its lack of gravitas too – but, well, for me, I’m in it for the long haul, and Buried Country, paying heed to neither fashion nor self-importance, has outlasted all the transient prize-winners and short-term hits.
I was especially delighted when it was pointed out that the CD substantiated the book’s critical claims, thus justifying its very existence. Perhaps ultimately though the most flattering thing is the way Aboriginal people themselves have taken Buried Country to heart. This hit home all the more strongly when I came to prepare the second edition of the CD especially. Since I had to go to a whole new generation of younger artists to get clearances to include their tracks on the album, I found there was a real lot of love out there for Buried Country. So many of them said to me, Yeah right, Buried Country, I love Buried Country! More than a few also said, Oh, Buried Country, yeah, my dad loves Buried Country! Or, my mum loves it!
What was disappointing about the new edition of the book, of course, was that this story so quintessentially Australian had to go offshore to get back in print. I could have kept bashing my head against a brick wall here in Sydney, but I was sick and tired of doing that. Verse Chorus Press, operating out of Portland, Oregon, with Englishman Steve Connell at its helm, had published two previous books of mine (the rest-of-world edition of my best-selling Bon Scott biography Highway to Hell, and the 2005 reboot of Inner City Sound), and so this wasn’t just the path of least resistance, it was a way to do the job well, and on a global basis. The new design of the book by Louise Cornwall is beautiful.
If I published no other book that had the sort of impact of Buried Country, I couldn’t complain. It's simply part of my life now, partly defines me, and I'm more than comfortable with that.
Buried Country is much more than a dry academic tome… (Walker) knows how to tell a good story and get the facts right at the same time… he does what Peter Guralnick has done for American soul, rockabilly and country music: recorded the story of a musical lexicon in the words of its creators
Stuart Coupe, Sydney Morning Herald, 2000
An eminently readable offering, revealing and intriguing... a book that should prove an eye-opener for those who think of Aboriginal music purely in terms of Yothu Yindi
Fred Dellar, Mojo, 2000
Walker is an experienced music journalist with an excellent grasp of the realities of the music industry and where music fits within popular culture. Consequently, his analysis of musicians and live and recorded performances is firmly grounded in the realities of making a living by making music and making a culture by making music. Those two strands of the life and work styles of musicians are interwoven in the book and that is one reason it is such a compelling read
Karl Neuenfeldt, Journal of Australian Studies, 2001
Challenges the secularist cultural relativism of the assumed readership
Graeme Smith, Centre for Studies in Australian Music, 2000
An overdue antidote to non-Aboriginal ignorance of the indigenous tradition. Walker is an astute observer and interpreter of popular roots culture… The reader is drawn in like a moth to the light as he illuminates the link between country music and Aboriginal identity
Robin Ryan, Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 2000 (in full here)
© Clinton Walker, 2021