It comes as quite a surprise to learn that the Aborigines, the native people of Australia, have been listening to American country music ever since Jimmie Rodgers invented it in the 1930s. Furthermore, they've been playing it, forsaking traditional didgeridoos and gum leaves for acoustic guitars, pedal steel guitars and banjos.
And they've been dressing the part as well, favoring the frilly sleeves and spangled jackets of Roy Rogers movies.
This curious cultural phenomenon is expansively documented by Clinton Walker in "Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music" (Pluto Press), a comprehensive package that includes a 45-song double CD, a 323-page softcover book and a 75-minute video. The songs span half a century, beginning in the late '40s.
Walker, an Australian rock historian who wrote a biography of AC/DC's lead singer, the late Bon Scott, dives headfirst into this labor of love. He has captured the essence of the performers and the significance of their most popular songs, many of which reflect the poverty and apparent hopelessness of Australia's suppressed indigenous culture.
In that respect, Aboriginal country is more like American blues. Listen, for example, to Bob Randall's "Brown Skin Baby," a protest song with a haunted howl for a chorus; it details the state-sanctioned practice of forcibly taking infants and young children from Aboriginal reservations and resettling them at schools hundreds of miles away, a practice that continued until the 1970s.
Walker himself was unfamiliar with this music until 1983, when the Warumpi Band, Coloured Stone and Roger Knox "somehow penetrated [Sydney's] inner sanctum of indy rock," he writes, and found a bit of radio airplay. Until then the music was, with a few exceptions, self-sustaining, largely unknown or ignored by Australia's mainstream. Walker doesn't say how the Aborigines came to discover American country music in the first place, but it clearly became more than just a form of entertainment.
Disc 1 begins with an early, exceptional success: 1963's pop-country "Royal Telephone" by Jimmy Little. The song, about a telephone with a direct connection to Jesus, sold 70,000 copies, reached No. 3 on the domestic pop chart and brought Little national acclaim -- he even appeared on television, unheard of for an Aborigine at the time. Dougie Young's "Cut a Rug," George Bracken's "Blue Jean Rock," Wilma Reading's jazzy "That's How I Go for You," Lionel Rose's "Jackson's Track" (he sounds like Tom T. Hall with a Down Under accent) and Auriel Andrew's "Truck Driving Woman" make a case for the raw talent that's hidden in the Outback.
Disc 2 includes "Old Aboriginal Stockman," a song with warm steel-guitar tones in which Gus Williams sounds like Burl Ives on a Johnny Cash jag. Also by Williams is "Streets of Tamworth," in which the singer longs to "hear the didgeridoo droning in the night / For gum trees and the taste of porcupine."
Roger Knox's "Goulburn Jail" sports a sinister Fender guitar vibrato and a jagged Merle Haggard take on life; the Country Shades' "Home-Made Didgeridoo" has a catchy melody played on some sort of springy jew's-harp; and the Mills Sisters' "Arafura Pearl," about "a multicultural beauty," should have been covered by Tammy Wynette.
The "Buried Country" video includes archival footage and contemporary interviews with many of the performers represented on the discs. The easily consumed book is a veritable encyclopedia of a lost culture that has been rediscovered. Many of these performers live in remote regions of Australia; in the video, several seem dumbfounded that Walker, a white guy from the city, bothered to track them down to verify their musical contributions.
Aboriginal country music was "dented in the 1980s," Walker writes in the book, "by the advent of black rock and is now swamped in the broader marketplace by a myriad of multicultural styles." In other words, Aboriginal country music's heyday is behind it; thankfully, Walker bothered to uncover it for posterity.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8181 and 8182.)