Graded on a Curve: Roger Knox and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Stranger in My Land

If the name Roger Knox is a new one, well join the club. The reason for the man’s obscurity relates to his status as a prime exponent of Australian Country & Western music, Knox helping to shape a tradition most of the world doesn’t even know exists. But in teaming him with Jon Langford’s Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Bloodshot Records’ issue of Stranger in My Land not only provides exposure to a very appealing singer, but through relating Knox’s background it also helps to uncover many aspects of his country’s very worthwhile Aboriginal C&W scene.

Upon introduction, Roger Knox’s tale might seem more than a little unusual. It’s certainly a colorful one. In his home country of Australia, Knox has been crowned with the accolades King of Koori Country and Black Elvis due to his major participation in the Aboriginal Country & Western movement. He somehow survived two plane crashes in the same day, a distinction that is very likely worthy of World Record status. And the claims made on behalf of his ‘80s group Roger Knox and the Euraba Band are aptly described as quite bold.

In the extensive notes for Stranger in My Land, Knox’s new LP with The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, it’s stated that in the ‘80s the Euraba Band was the “hottest act in Australian Country music, black or white.” That’s not an easy statement to verify due to Aussie country’s lack of prominence, but in the spirit of goodwill behind this Bloodshot Records release, it feels right to take them at their word.

And if Australian C&W doesn’t exactly possess a high profile, the Aboriginal side of the spectrum is apparently even more of an unknown quantity, even on the continent where it originated. Buried Country, a book/CD set released a few years back made a valiant attempt to shed light on the subject, but as the informative notes accompanying this record explain, that document is now out of print, and the story of Aboriginal Country sadly persists in obscurity.

That doesn’t sit right with Bloodshot and this LP’s producer, Mekon and Pine Valley Cosmonauts-instigator Jon Langford. One of best aspects of Stranger in My Land is how it quickly becomes more than just a means of overdue exposure for Knox. Instead it stands as an enlightening point of entry into a very intriguing and neglected thread in global musical history.

But while highly informative, it’s complimented by a dozen well-done songs that if certainly similar to the American C&W sounds that inspired them (the genre was initially spread around the world through members of the U.S. military), still hold a distinct musical flavor and lyrics from an assortment of writers that are highly specific to Aboriginal issues, particularly the friction between blacks (the indigenous population) and whites (those who came and took) and the mistreatment the former suffered from the latter’s institutions of government.

When American C&W felt the need to get political or topical it frequently (but by no means always) succumbed to the reactionary. It still has that problem in fact. However, the words sung across Stranger in My Land are closer to the spirit of righteous folkie protest, displaying at various times anger, uplift, or plainspoken truth, with the distinction that the songs included here essentially detail the direct experience of those who wrote them, a situation that finds them squarely back in C&W territory.

Bringing these songs to a new listenership through fresh recordings is a method that could easily backfire, but as a major part of the music’s narrative, Roger Knox proves a fine vocalist for the job. He’s a rich-voiced, welcoming singer clearly in touch with the background Stranger in My Land illuminates, and across the record’s running time he seems quite comfortable with Langford’s aim of revealing not only his considerable charms, but also the history of Aboriginal country to the reliably hungry fan base of contemporary Americana.

At a glance, Stranger in My Land’s impressive list of guest artists can give the impression of one of those infrequently released late-career efforts from underexposed or neglected performers, LPs finding them paired with a parade of highly-respected better-known names that provide stature by association along with a hopeful increase in consumer interest.

Sometimes these endeavors can inspire cynicism in listeners, but the singers and players found here are so well-picked and their contributions so immersed in goodwill that any hints of the self-congratulatory are thankfully absent. Instead it becomes clear that Langford and Bloodshot simply want to present Knox and the assorted musicians that influenced him in the best possible light.

And it’s fitting that the guests hail from territory outside the C&W establishment. Under the Pine Valley Cosmonauts banner there’s The Sadies, Andre Williams, Blaster Dave Alvin, Bonnie Prince Billie, Kelly Hogan, the recently departed Charlie Louvin, Mekon Sally Timms, and Chicago-based actress/musician Tawny Newsome.

It’s a group that radiates a definite alt-country flavor (with a few smart wildcards thrown in), comprised of individuals who like Knox and his Aussie peers recognized the value of uncut C&W and instead of simply engaging in mimicry, chose instead to adapt it into something distinctly their own. But right off the bat things get a bit more complex than that, with opener “The Land Where the Crow Flies Backward” bringing just a hint of country-soul ala Tony Joe White to the table courtesy of Dave Alvin’s wah-wah guitar and Knox’s vocals; while forthright the man’s pipes also possess an undercurrent of funkiness.

The song derives from Dougie Young, a figure who never recorded commercially, described by Buried Country author Clinton Walker as the “great lost phantom of Aboriginal country music.” Thankfully, he was captured by anthropologist Jeremy Beckett, with Young’s exceptional version of the song easily findable on YouTube. Hearing the original reveals how Knox retains its structure but develops it into something quite fresh. Young’s lyrics hold a serious, direct tone, but Knox’s take counterbalances them with a grooving, warm atmosphere.

The song was recorded just outside of Tamworth Australia at Enrec Studios with home-grown players like Jason Walker on steel-guitar, Neville Anderson on drums, and Knox’s son Buddy alongside Alvin on guitar, and it’s a real bonus to find Knox in the company of such cracking Aussie players.

The following cut “Stranger in My Country” features The Sadies and backing vocals from Andre Williams and Langford. It’s a cover of a song by Vic Simms from his RCA-backed album ’72 The Loner, recorded in front of a prison audience while the artist was himself incarcerated, a document that seems a prime candidate for reissue.

The version here clips along quite nicely with an almost Creedence-like feel, and Knox’s singing is crisp, strong and straightforward. If Williams’ appearance seems odd given the R&B background on which his risqué rep largely rests, please note that he’s also recorded C&W on the album Red Dirt. And that LP’s backing band was none other than the Sadies.

Next is “Blue Gums Calling Me Back Home,” originally by Harry Williams & the Country Outcasts, and the version here retains the relaxed prettiness of the original (like many of the tunes covered here, also currently available for listening on YouTube). Vocalist Kelly Hogan does a swell job of tackling the backing parts of William’s wife Wilga, the band hits a rhythmic sensibility that’s remindful of the Tennessee Two, and Knox’s singing holds a sturdy smoothness that spans all the back to Merle Travis.

“Took the Children” just might be the highpoint of the whole record. Doing justice to the soulfully heart-wrenching Archie Roach original couldn’t have been easy, particularly since the song’s subject matter, which details the forced taking of Aboriginal children from their mothers in a wrongheaded attempt at assimilation by the Australian government, actually happened to Knox. His vocals on the track are superb, as is Hogan’s harmonizing, and Sadie Dallas Good’s Hammond B3 adds just the right touch of achiness.

Tawny Newsome takes the high-quality lead on the Mills Sisters’ composition “Arafura Pearl,” and as the track progresses it gives off a pleasant South Pacific vibe. “Brisbane Blacks” is next, originally recorded by the excellently named Mop and the Drop-outs, and it’s given a solid spit-shine by Knox and The Sadies.

What becomes impressive as Stranger in My Land’s songs accumulate is an avoidance of flash and an emphasis on getting the job done through dynamic simplicity, a once-common feature in country music that can now only be found on the fringes, practiced by individuals the czars of county-pop wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot stick.

Even during the heyday of Outlaw country, they wouldn’t have had anything to do with “Wayward Dreams”—writer Bobby McLeod either. Try this on for size; in 1974 he entered the Department of Aboriginal Affairs with a gun and took four workers hostage for an hour. Don’t worry, his weapon wasn’t loaded. McLeod didn’t want to shoot anybody; he just wanted to prove a point about the anger of the indigenous population.

Again, McLeod’s country-folk original is hard to top, but the treatment here more than holds its own. And “Scobie’s Dream,” another tune from Dougie Young, finds Knox in the company of Bonnie Prince Billie and a rack of boisterous voices on the chorus, the whole crew delivering a too-brief bit of good-time storytelling gusto.

“Ticket to Nowhere,” a cover of the sole single from Jimmy Ridgeway, detours into honky-tonk territory, though Knox’s voice also manages to recall the work of Jim Reeves, one of the fist globally popular country artists (he was big in the UK, India, and simply huge in South Africa). Roger sings first and Charlie Louvin steps up later, an appearance that’s likely the last recorded performance from the truly essential country architect. Langford and Newsome handle the chorus with confidence.

“Warrior in Chains” wasn’t written by an Aussie but by Canadian Daniel Beatty, Roger meeting him while playing in prisons and detention centers in remote parts of that country. The version here is a very attractive piece of contemporary Americana, and “Streets of Tamworth,” adapted from Harry Williams’ “Streets of Fizroy” is another strong slice of honky-tonkin’ via Knox, Newsome and The Sadies.

“Home in the Valley” finds Knox in a duet with Sally Timms, and while they don’t exceed the intensity of Maisie Kelly’s a cappella original, they (rather smartly) don’t really try, shooting instead for a fragile beauty that brings the album to an excellent close.

The one aspect somewhat hindering Stranger in My Land relates to the tough circumstances Langford faced in getting it completed (for one instance, Knox was denied a US visa in ’09). Some songs here feature parts recorded on different continents, and it can sorta feel that way at times. The occasional lack of full-on firepower doesn’t do any great harm to the proceedings however (actually, it serves to enlighten Langford’s dedication to the project), but it can’t help but make this listener pine for a live set from Knox recorded in front of rowdy Brisbane crowd.

For any real C&W musician can knock them sideways in the club, and it’s clear from Stranger in My Land that Roger Knox is indeed the bona fide goods. So get the man on stage and press the record button, please. Until then, folks with a hunger for music history will find this album quite rewarding. Along the way there’s also some very good listening.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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