10 May 2005
Letter from Paul Kelly
You could write a book about The Stanley Brothers song Rank Stranger. A man returns to his home town after a long time away and wanders the streets like a ghost. Nobody knows him and no face is familiar. A stranger proclaims that his family and friends have all gone away to a beautiful shore by a bright crystal sea. It's sung in high, keening voices full of sorrow, wonder and hope.
The first time I heard it the hairs rose up on the back of my neck. I hadn't known music could be so weird and beautiful. This was in the early seventies and I was just starting to learn guitar. I could figure out the chords easily (G, C and D or 1,4 and 5, the first chords you learn) but the singing was beyond me. I persevered and began to dig deeper. I discovered folk music and The Long Black Veil and all sorts of odd characters who sang in voices distinctly their own but often from fantastical points of view. Dock Boggs in the one song shifted between a dying man pleading with death personified to Death himself talking back to him saying "I hold the keys to heaven and hell!". Dick Justice sang from inside the head of a little bird that had witnessed a murder. Twentieth century singers sang as doomed eighteenth century ship captains, nineteenth century outlaws, ghosts or moles in the ground. Women sang as men, young people as old and vice versa. Any event or subject could be a song – floods, drownings, fires, Spanish leather, catfish, jail, whisky, poisonings, train wrecks, bollweavils, mean bosses, tall tales, etc. Rock and pop music, a more self-expressive form where the song was usually about the singer seemed quite limited to me in comparison. The country of pop was where I took up residence but like an immigrant I always held on to those first songs, the dark, unruly hymns of home.
Bluegrass is a mysterious music straining with paradox. It's simple but not easy to play. It needs years of practice and discipline but only works properly if it's raw. A relatively modern style of music, the bastard punk child of country, that sounds as old as the hills, it's mournful and joyous, thrilling and sad all at the same time. These contradictions keep me forever in its thrall.
Making Foggy Highway was a highly enjoyable experience – the quickest recording I've ever done, completed in seven days. All I had to do was sing. The Stormwater boys nutted out the arrangements, writing down numbers on bits of paper ("the chorus is 1,4,5. The verse goes to a 6. I'll play a 2 over the 5 on the 3rd bar", etc) to nail down a sturdy structure. Then, freed by the certainty of maths, they swung like hell, inspirational to a man – Rod with his consummate touch on guitar and easy going control as producer; Mick in whose hands a fiddle looks ready to be murdered before sweet, warm bluesiness pours out; Simmo, the rock on steady rolling banjo; James on double bass who pushed us from the bottom and sang over the top and finally Trev, the oldest and the wildest of all, whose picking I would hear every morning on the patio outside his hotel room and who can sing old time songs 'til the cows come home. Throughout it all Ted Howard placed the mikes and pulled the sounds once in a while catching bonito off the rocks and bringing it up the hill for lunch.
Kasey Chambers joined the jamboree a few days in. We first met when she came to a gig at The Basement in Sydney. Afterwards we sat around with a gang in the band room singing Carter Family, George Jones and Gram Parsons songs. Gram covered the Louvin Brothers' Cash On The Barrelhead. I could think of no better companion to help me through their sublime and dippy You're Learning.
Play this record on a Saturday afternoon. Play it on Sunday morning. Play it at a barbecue or down by the river or any goddamn time you want. Please enjoy the tall tales within of giant stumbling blocks, tent-boxers, ghosts, angels of death, old men by the fire, lost souls, floating Jesuses and talking spirits. After thirty years of circling Rank Stranger, singing it in back rooms and around kitchen tables I summoned up the courage to sing it to tape. But it still didn't make the final cut. You see, the original is just so good.
Paul Kelly, St Kilda, May 10, 05