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Cowboys’ Heaven

July 20, 2012

Tex Morton comicNew Zealand has a long tradition of country music that dates back almost as far as the Carter Family’s seminal Bristol recordings of 1927. Thirty years after his death, Nelson-born Tex Morton is still the leading name in New Zealand country music. In his heyday in Australia, he outsold Bing Crosby, had his own line of mail-order guitars, and even had his own comic. But new singer-songwriters such as Tami Neilson, Jackie Bristow and Miriam Clancy are taking up the baton that Tex passed to the Tumbleweeds, followed by Rex Franklin, Garner Wayne, Dusty Spittle, Barry Saunders, Al Hunter and many others. What came in between Tex and the Tumbleweeds was a bit of a mystery to me at first, but after a lot of research I found that the 1940s gap was due mostly to the war and the lack of recording opportunities. The country musicians were still going strong, they just weren’t being heard much outside specialist “hillbilly” shows on radio. In 1948 Jack Christie was doing experimental recordings at Tanza before the ‘Blue Smoke’ sessions, and he made same of the label’s earliest releases, along with the Tumbleweeds.

Once recording really got underway in the early 1950s, it was country music that was one of the mainstays of the Stebbing studios in Auckland. Certainly Early Kiwi Country Gold is the strongest compilation in the Stebbing “Archive Series” of remastered 78s. Jack Riggir, the father of Patsy – who recorded for Stebbing’s in the 1970s and 1970s – is among those featured, with songs such as ‘The Cowboy’s Heaven’ and ‘The Cowboy’s Mother’. But the singer who dominates the collection is Johnny Granger, the “Yodelling Drover” from Whitford, south-east of Auckland. He was a country crooner, and one of the first to record for the Stebbing’s Zodiac label. He had an approachable “crossover” style, closer to the country pop of Eddy Arnold than the honky tonk that Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell were recording in the US at the same time.

Granger did record an excellent version of Hank’s ‘Cold Cold Heart’, though, just weeks after Tony Bennett’s hit in the US. It is one of 15 Granger tracks on Early Kiwi Country Gold, which includes one of my favourites. In ‘You Don’t Know What Lonesome Is’  a dairy farmer mourns his loneliness, having only cows for company. The track features actual mooing cows, but the fact that Granger was a dairy farmer gave the recording an authenticity that few could match. Unfortunately another favourite – ‘Tear Down the Mailbox’, from 1952 – is not included in this set of re-issues, though it was a favourite with audiences. Granger’s Rhythm Pals play a rocked-up style of western swing, and in the bridge he exhorts the band to “get real gone”: “C’mon Yehudi – let ’er scrape, boy! … Okay, Bobby with the big bass fiddle … and a little bit of geetar …” The musicians he was shouting out to were some of Auckland’s finest in any genre: Ray Gunter on electric guitar, and Bobby Ewing on bass.

I had difficulty finding a photo of Granger for Blue Smoke. The closest I could get is the above poster, which comes from his short stint in 1950 with the Barton’s Follies variety show, touring Australia and New Zealand. He is in the black hat, centre left. It must have been a shock for Granger to leave milking behind for a while, and share a bill with “specialty acts, beautiful girls, funny comedians and scintillating scenes” – especially Nola, the “contortionist extraordinary”. The poster is among the Cabot papers in the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Early Kiwi Country Gold (Archive Series 1945-1956 Vol.3)Ephemera collection (Eph-D-CABOT-Variety-1950-01); a larger version of it can be viewed at the National Library/ATL website of digital images. 

Besides the tracks by Granger, the other artists on the compilation are Pat McMinn, Glory and Joy Thorburn, Jack Riggir, plus the Hillbilly Pals (who sing ‘The Lofty Bluegum Tree’ – are they from New Zealand or Australia?). Early Kiwi Country Gold (Archive Series 1945-1956 Vol 3), can be sampled and purchased at the Amplifer website, in its entirety or as individual MP3 downloads.

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