A Roger Knox interview is a different animal than an interview with your typical attention-seeking artist. Sure, the singer has a new album on Bloodshot Records to promote, Stranger in My Land. But he’s also representing something much bigger than his own performances.
Knox is part of a long Aboriginal Australian country music tradition, and it will no doubt come as news to many country fans on this side of the globe that such a tradition even exists. Having learned of Knox several years back, underground country-punk musician Jon Langford spearheaded this project, and Knox welcomed the opportunity to introduce foreign listeners to his Indigenous people’s down-home, Down Under storytelling.
Considering that Knox lives on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, interviewing him also presented certain logistical challenges. In the end, the exchange you’re about to read happened through email, with Knox dictating his thoughtful responses to a friend.
CMT Edge: Country music has often been looked at as an American export. Yet people the world over have embraced it and made it their own. What’s most significant to you about Stranger in My Land being made available to a U.S. audience?
Knox: Our cultural song was taken away from us, so I grew up with what we knew as “country music.” At the time, we had no idea that it was American country music. It really appealed to me as a way to tell stories, so we used country music to tell our own stories. We added our cultural and spiritual influence with the didgeridoo, click sticks and chanting. To me, the greatest significance of my songs being made available in the U.S. is that we can share around the world the stories of our people and our history. It’s a fantastic achievement for my songs to be acknowledged in the home of country music, the U.S.
What did you make of an outsider like Jon Langford, a Welsh-born, U.S.-based musician, taking an interest in the Aboriginal country music — and yours, in particular?
To me, it’s a great honor to have the support of Jon Langford, as he is a highly talented musician, singer, songwriter and artist who travels the world, supporting people in their struggles. The first time I met Jon, he had just sung one of my songs [“Streets of Tamworth”] onstage at the Cultural Showcase in Tamworth. I was really excited because it was the first time that a white man had engaged with one of my songs.
These songs represent a variety of Aboriginal country singers, some from before your time and others your contemporaries. How far back does Australia’s Indigenous country movement go?
As far as I am aware, Aboriginal people have been singing country music as far back as the early to mid-‘30s. People like Dougie Young and Eric Craigie were writing songs and poetry, telling their stories which until now haven’t been recorded.
How close-knit is the performing community? Is there much of a divide between Aboriginal performers and other Australian country musicians?
The Aboriginal performing community not only feels a unity amongst themselves but also with their home communities and with the entire Aboriginal population, especially because their songs tell stories that everyone can relate to.
I think there is still a gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal performers, which I hope we can close.
U.S. audiences are likely to be unfamiliar with Aboriginal history. As Indigenous Australians, what has your family experienced over generations?
At 8 months of age, my mother, together with all her siblings, was forcibly removed from her mother by the government of the time and taken to a succession of institutions. She was released at 18 years of age and began searching for her mother, who she eventually found. They began the process of getting to know each other, their families and culture. The immense grief that my grandmother lived with all those years was shared by the entire Aboriginal population, as this was an Australia-wide policy. The impact of total dispossession and displacement has also affected successive generations of my family and all Aboriginal people. The theft of our culture has left us distrustful and suspicious of white people.
How have you personally struggled to preserve your ties to Koori culture?
I continually learn as much as I can about my people’s history, heritage and culture so that I can develop true knowledge of myself. Having a deep sense of self-worth allows me to help my people develop within their own selves and their communities a strong feeling of peace, harmony, self-worth, dignity and unity — a strong sense of brotherhood.
The themes of displacement and longing for home and freedom in these songs translate across cultural lines, even though they may feature images — blue gum trees, for example — that aren’t familiar to foreign listeners. I wondered if you could explain one term that shows up in “Streets of Tamworth” and seems to carry special significance — “Dreamtime.”
To Aboriginal people, the Dreamtime is the sum total of their spiritual beliefs. The Dreamtime has no beginning and no end. We come from the Dreamtime when we are born, and it absorbs us again when we die, so our spirits become a part of the whole environment forever. Traditionally, we maintain our spiritual connection with the Dreamtime through our close bonds with the land and environment.
From what I’ve read, you’ve done quite a bit of performing not just in traditional venues but prisons and Aboriginal communities. Why has that been important to you?
Because Aboriginal people make up a high percentage of prison populations, I take my music into prisons with the goal of bringing messages of brotherhood, comfort, love and understanding for everybody. Similarly, people in Aboriginal communities need that spiritually uplifting message, but because they can’t travel to city venues, I go to them.
How did you first get hooked on Indigenous country music? How did you later launch your own career performing it with your Euraba Band?
Country music was the only music around growing up, although gospel was around, as well. We were drawn to country music because our language, songs and dance were taken away from us and we couldn’t use them to express ourselves and tell our stories. There were family members on the mission who played music. At the time, there was no radio. These were people like Charlie Duncan, Ted Hinch, Albert Dennison. They would often be playing and singing country music on the mission.
The Euraba Band came about because, having suffered injuries to my hands, I couldn’t play my guitar, so I got family members together to form the band so that I could continue with my music and singing.
The rich, rounded tone of your voice certainly backs up your moniker “The Black Elvis”. Were you, in fact, inspired by Elvis? And if so, which era of Elvis, since his music changed so much between the ‘50s and ‘70s?
I had limited exposure to Elvis while I was growing up. It was only after his death in 1977 that I got to know his music. It was his gospel songs that struck a chord with me because at that time I was singing a lot of gospel myself.
There are lots of musical guests on Stranger in My Land, but one of them is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame — Charlie Louvin. Did you request that he sing on the album, or was that Jon Langford’s idea?
It was Jon’s idea, and I’m really glad that he thought of it because Charlie is a great asset to the album, as he is such an outstanding and well-known artist. He sounds really good on this particular track.
A lot of the songs on here seem to have a commonality with the work of socially conscious, hard country performers like Johnny Cash. Which American country singers most influenced Aboriginal performers?
The songs of George Jones highlighted people’s struggles with alcohol, but I believe the most important influence was Johnny Cash because through his songs, he brought to the world an awareness of social, cultural and emotional issues endured by a wide range of people and cultures. We built on these concepts using the structure of American country music to tell our own stories.