(Photo by WILK)
IF THERE IS A CHOICE between truth and legend, print the legend.
This cultural wisdom worked a treat for pulp novels in the 19th century, for westerns in the golden years of Hollywood – the original line after all coming from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – and outlaw country music in the 1970s.
Of those “outlaws”, Merle Haggard had done hard time (including being in the San Quentin jail when Johnny Cash did his first shows there) as had David Allan Coe, while Johnny Paycheck would go to prison in the late ‘80s. But Cash (an overnight stay in a county jail notwithstanding), Willie Nelson, military veteran Kris Kristofferson, Jessi Coulter and others could barely scratch up more than a speeding ticket.
Some of those singers had a past, some of those singers had of a dodgy future, but it didn’t really matter if they had the beard, the denim and leathers, and the attitude. Print the legend!
Just ask a youngish Henry Wagons, now a bearded/hatted/booted singer and songwriter, broadcaster and raconteur, with an album called South Of Everywhere imminent, but then a kid who knew deep down that he would never walk into a saloon and silence the pianist and gamblers, or send the women scurrying for safety. Hell, he couldn’t even make the people in front of him look up.
“I was playing in a lot of bands in the late ‘90s, of different sorts, as so many Melbourne ratbags did,” he says. “I was at uni, I was playing in a noise band that sounded like an out of tune TV, I was playing bass in an indie rock band called, Breaking The Law ….”
Which he never did, right?
“I might have stolen a mint Aero bar from a 7/11 at 3 o’clock in the morning in Fitzroy, but that might be as bad as it gets,” he confesses under this relentless cross-examination. “But I was noticing that in that sort of DIY scene, that shoegazing scene, everyone was kind of a shrinking violet. Everyone was kind of stand-and-deliver, they dressed the way they did at home on the couch.
"And I was 18 and 19 going back through my parents record collection, seeing people like Marty Robbins and Merle and Johnny Cash and Elvis and [pause] Rod Stewart, even the Blues Brothers, and thinking no one’s giving it, no one is delivering on stage in this obnoxious way: I want to try that, it looks really fun.”
Such an epiphany, that would spark a two-decade (so far) career, came with broader cultural input than Stewart in animal print leggings and Jake and Elwood’s porkpie hats.
“My now bass player, Mark ‘Tuckerbag’ Dawson, a dear friend who I played music with, gave me Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, the first one. At the time I was also reading Cormac McCarthy, the Border Trilogy. I also had just seen Dead Man, the Jim Jarmusch film,” says Wagons. “I was really attracted to that mythology, that trippy Western stuff that was a combination of Looney Tunes Foghorn Leghorn mythology from my childhood, these deep songs, the Blues Brothers.
But wait, there’s more, possibly in keeping with the fact this budding cowpoke was a suburban Melbourne kid who had ridden a horse once, “but really badly”, and was more tooled up for some of that fancy book learnin’ them folks back east are always talking about. And I don’t mean Zane Grey.
“I was studying philosophy as well, I was a real philosophy wanker, and I really liked grappling with those concepts. So I started writing some murder ballads, some death songs, and telling some tall tales,” and I feel like ever since then, when it comes to writing and engaging with the country music mythology, I’ve never been pushing shit uphill,” Wagons says. “I’ve never had to fake it, or force it. It’s had a momentum that’s been out of my control such that I’m still doing it, and to my immense satisfaction it’s taken over my life. And I’m really thankful for it.”
We look at each other for a bit, that explanation having been a decent old ride but in truth I am fixating on the picture of Foghorn Leghorn riding with a death posse into the darklands of the Texas/Mexico border, possibly being chased by a dark-browed philosophy major and a love interest from Miss Prissy. Now that’s an image to play with, one worthy of an outlaw country song on its own.
But back to young Henry and his new obsession. It took a while for people to realise this was not a fad, this was now him.
“Some of my bandmates, especially early days of [his alt.country band] Wagons, were like ‘this country stuff is really fun, but when do we get to hear some real Henry songs?’. At the time I’d try and please them somehow, and I never quite could,” he says. “I feel like what I’ve done is me. I feel like for better or worse I’m telling stories, I’m playing a character, I’m having fun with dark concepts, and if you know me that is kind of exactly who I am.”
Don’t let Wagons near a gun in Reno. Just sayin’.
“Even though I’m not listening to a transistor radio in a prison cell in the American South in the 1960s, this is all I can do. This is actually the most authentic expression of me and I feel like when I’ve tried to do anything else it’s then I’m faking it,” he says. “I don’t know whether I am brainwashing the mythology or vice versa, but either way, this is where we’ve ended up.”
And where we’ve ended up is a new album that could be said to work the same territory, but retooling its characters, touching on locations and characters not just local but tangible in Henry Wagons’ life. Maybe even parts of him.
“Some of them are completely made up but they are very much embedded in stories of the road around Australia, and it’s a very honest record,” Wagons says, adding wryly. “I’m trying to be at peace with it and not trying to impress my bass player anymore.”
And who wants the truth all the time anyway? I tell him that after listening to the album I didn’t want to know, in fact actively worked against knowing, whether Dover, in Tasmania, is truly “south of everywhere” as claimed in Felix Granger The Finger Picken’ Boy. I’d rather exist in a world where that song and that character are very real and there are no narcs pulling out an atlas to prove Wagons or me wrong.
“When I talk about ‘the South’ to Americans, it’s like, this ain’t the South; I’m from Australia, now we’re talking the South,” says Wagons with a grin. “Spoiler alert: Dover is very south. And it is a real place. Though it’s not the furthest south.
“But it harks back to what we were talking about: Felix isn’t anybody, he is not a real person, but he is every guitarist, every lead guitarist I have ever met. When I approached Chris Cheney, who plays lead guitar in this song, he said ‘this song is me’, and I said that’s really nice Chris, thank you. But in my head I was going, I know.
“So [Felix Granger] is not true, but he is actually more true than anyone.”
Truth is legend is better than truth. Print that.
South Of Everywhere is out February 3 on Cheatin’ Hearts Records.