Roger Knox is proof that country music knows no geographical or cultural boundaries. The Australian aboriginal country music artist is about to receive American attention.
“My music is basically country with an influence of aboriginal spirituality,” he says in a Skype interview from Australia. “I use all these (aboriginal instruments such as didgeridoos) but I still play country music. I may not sing about trains and sheep and cattle, but I still play country music.”
His current project, “Stranger in My Land,” came out last week on local label Bloodshot Records. Knox, 64, performs a collection of songs written by aboriginal artists, many of whom worked in obscurity. The album includes guest appearances by a passel of alternative music stars, including Kelly Hogan, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Dave Alvin, the Mekons' Jon Langford and Sally Timms, the Sadies, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and Andre Williams.
The late country legend Charlie Louvin guests on the song “Ticket to Nowhere,” a performance believed to be Louvin's final recorded performance before his death at the age of 85.
At the center of the recordings are Knox's warm, crooning vocals. The music is frequently upbeat and the lyrics often sharply political in tone. The lyrics are sprinkled with references to kangaroos and pelicans and detail the struggles of Australia's indigenous aboriginal population.
“The white man took this country from me/He's been fightin' for it ever since,” Knox sings on Dougie Young's “The Land Where the Crow Flies Backwards,” a song that sounds like swampy country-rock a la Jerry Reed.
There's an infectious, rocking beat on Vic Simms' “Stranger in My Country.” Knox splits the vocals with Andre Williams and Langford: “This land is like a store-bought pie and lots of people come/All to get themselves a slice and I can't get a crumb.”
How did an artist from the land down under end up on a Chicago insurgent country label? The project was spearheaded by Bloodshot artist Langford, the Chicago-based musician and visual artist who also illustrated the extensive booklet that accompanies Knox's CD.
Langford first read about Knox in “Buried Country,” a book by Aussie author Clinton Walker that chronicled the country's aboriginal country artists. When Langford visited Australia several years ago, Walker played a number of the recordings for him.
“A lot of it was field recordings,” Langford says. “It was a very deep-rooted scene of aboriginal people going back to the '40s playing country and western music. It kind of blew my mind. For selfish reasons I'm a great believer in country music being an inclusive art form. (The recordings) really struck a chord in me, that black people in Australia would use basically a white American music form as a way of telling their stories.”
Langford went to the Australian city of Tamworth during the city's annual country music festival. He heard Knox was performing nearby at the aboriginal community center. He went, got up onstage and played a couple of Knox's songs.
“Roger was quite shocked,” Langford says. “He got up onstage with me and told everyone in the audience he'd never heard a white fellow singing his songs before.”
Knox echoes Langford's memory. “This white person came up and performed one of my songs, ‘Streets of Tamworth,'” he recalls. “That really amazed me. He was coming to our little part of the town, through the streets, through the main area, to come to us and perform. That really made us all feel good. I went up to Jon straight away.”
A friendship was born. In time, Langford suggested they do an album. The material was culled from the work of earlier generations of aboriginal artists. Some of them were friends and peers of Knox, others were singer-songwriters who preceded him.
“Stranger in My Land” is a collection of country numbers with an activist edge. Knox performs an old school country recitation on the prison song “Warrior in Chains.” “Streets of Tamworth” references a “didgeridoo droning in the night.” Songs such as “Took the Children Away,” “Brisbane Blacks” and “Wayward Dreams” illustrate the trials and tribulations of the aboriginal people.
“I grew up on a mission, which is like a reservation where the Native Americans live,” Knox says, recalling his childhood. “We were under the system, we had a manager who looked out for us. He ran the place and told us what to do and made the decisions for us. We weren't allowed to come and go without reporting to this manager.”
The first music Knox heard growing up was gospel music, courtesy of his grandmother who taught Sunday school. Later, his older brothers and relatives who had gone to seek work outside the aboriginal community returned with various country songs. One of the major artists they covered was Slim Dusty, a long-running and popular Australian country artist who often celebrated the rugged bush lifestyle in song.
“Slim Dusty was talking about the land that we lived in,” says Knox. “He was talking about the sheep and cattle and drovers.”
Knox left the community at 17. He originally intended to pursue rugby and boxing until he went to Tamworth with a cousin and got his first taste of singing onstage. Inspired by the audience reaction, he became a singer. In time it was the music of aboriginal artists that resonated most deeply with Knox. He saw his own experience reflected in their songs.
He met activist aboriginal musicians such as Harry Williams. “It opened my heart and mind because I knew what he was singing about,” Knox says. “We talked about the missions and how we were under the control of the government. ... We sang about it, our struggle and our survival.”
For Knox, country music, with its themes of dislocation, heartache and human truths, has been the perfect vehicle for his songs. “We have many countries within a country here,” he says. “Country music is a good way of talking about it, telling the stories.”