Six Strings is a new feature on Post To Wire where we’ll be profiling Americana artists, predominately from Australia but sometimes international acts will get a look-in too. First up we asked the Newcastle-based singer/songwriter James Thomson to share his thoughts, opinions and anecdotes in response to our six questions. Thomson recently released his excellent and highly recommended debut album and has been garnering great reviews for both the record and his live shows.
What was the album that first led you down the dusty path of Americana music?
It was probably a combination of albums really – it’s difficult to pick just one. Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited was pretty seminal as far as I can tell. I heard my parents play it as a kid but my appreciation obviously became a little more sophisticated over time. It’s a brilliant album – there are a hundred years (or more) of musical history and forms packed into it but it somehow manages still to sound completely new. I kind of went back through Dylan and hit Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson along the way too.
What’s been your favourite gig you’ve played?
It’s always fun to do the Laughing Outlaw parties. There’s generally lots of good people and music. I did a gig with Bill Jackson in Melbourne a few months ago and he was brilliant. Also playing with Mark Olson (Jayhawks) was pretty great. We drank some beers and he told me about Sweden. I remember it was pouring rain outside and there were maybe 30 – 40 people in the pub but it was still just fantastic.
How did you learn to play your instrument?
My uncle was a harmonica playing truck driver. I used to go with him sometimes when he was driving – out to Lighting Ridge or Broken Hill or wherever. He kept a C harp on a chain around his neck and he’d sometimes play it while he drove with the other hand. He was the best harmonica player I’ve ever heard. That’s how I got into it (harmonica).
My mum, grandfather, older cousins all played music too. There was a guitar and a beat up piano in the house – I got about 3 or 4 guitar lessons & couldn’t afford any more so I started teaching myself. If I want to learn a fingerpicking technique or a song these days I mostly try learn off the recording or ask the old country/blues pickers I know – most of who have been playing for 30+ years. There’s no shame in that – this music is all about tradition and handing it down and on anyway.
I’ve never liked tabs or chords, they make your ear lazy. Especially with Folk/Blues/Country music you should want to make yourself as familiar as possible with the various forms, structures, chord progressions etc.
Do you feel there is a strong Country/Folk music community in Australia?
Sure there is. There are a lot of annual Folk, Blues & Country festivals that are successful. There also seems to be a lot more interest in those musical styles over the last 2 years (or more) and that looks set to continue. There are some great blogs/websites(like this one)/radio programs and people championing this music – which all helps.
Country music is still a no no for some people though because most of the stuff peddled these days is infantile, commercial dross. They should have their attention forcibly drawn to the real stuff; which is definitely still out there – it’s just not always easy to find. You can tell within 12 bars who ‘gets it’. The real stuff contains inherently what the commercial stuff tries terribly to fake.
What has been your favourite Americana release this year?
Ry Cooder’s new album Election Special is really great. Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down was my favourite record from last year and Election Special is maybe even better. It may have possibly been released either very late last or very early this year so if it counts (as this year ) then Bill Jackson’s Jerilderie is a wonderful album too. Great songwriting and the musicianship, particularly the dobro playing is great.
What are your aspirations over the next 12 months?
Keep writing songs, playing live and not getting caught. My album is out now and I’ll be going on the road to support that over the next few months.
I’ve got the majority of another album written and I’m recording some demo’s at the moment too. There’s nothing official planned as yet but I think I’ll have a new album within that that time (12 months).
My desire is and has been for a long while now to write and to perform – I don’t really mind how far I have to go to do that. Obviously every artist want to be successful – if they say they don’t care they’re unequivocally lying.
There is however a huge difference between making some kind of peace with that fact and popularity or money being the sole motivating factor in someone writing/singing/performing. Anyone can fake it as an artist but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to hide being a fraud.