Folk ’n’ Hell, it's Paul Wookey!
Fifty-two year old blues and folk guitarist Paul Wookey describes his life as a full-time musician to Brianna Summers.
The clink of glasses occasionally pierces the muffled roar of conversation in the Stratford Town Hall. Beards are plentiful, blue singlets are not uncommon and a combination of dirt and wool clippings carpets the floor. On stage, a lone guitarist strums a sensitive ballad, with heart-felt lyrics that fall upon deaf ears. In fact, his tune is almost obliterated by the crowds as his PA, consisting of two tiny wooden speaker boxes that were from somebody’s stereo, strains to amplify the music. For the third time that night, a bulky man strides purposefully across the stage towards the guitarist, who is still struggling to be heard. ‘Excuse me mate,’ he offers, grabbing the microphone mid-song, ‘Ahh has anyone seen Kevin Rigg’s shears? Nah? No? Ahh good on ya mate, thanks.’ He returns the mic and wades back into the sea of beer, wool and revelry. "And this kind stuff was happening to me all night…It was just horrendous," laughs Paul Wookey, who was that lone musician.
"I left the gig and I was shellshocked when it was all over, I just couldn’t believe it," a now grey-bearded Wookey recalls. After playing to this ambivalent mob of sweating sheep-shearers, he had then received some bad news upon reaching his motel for the night. ‘Aww look mate, ahh we’ve had this problem, the pilot that brought John Williamson to play tomorrow, didn’t have anywhere to sleep, ahh so we put him in your room.’ "So I’m in this room, with the only thing in town that I could find to eat, which was a McCain’s pizza, [it] was just awful. They had heated [it] up at the local garage," Wookey laughs, which lights up his face, eyes popping behind spectacles. "And I’m sharing the room with this guy who just stank, of alcohol, and just snored like a pig, all night long."
Although he admits that the Stratford Shearing Competition is not the highlight of his musical life, Wookey appears a little bemused as to why I am interested in his musical career. "I don’t really see myself as a guitar player," he explains, but "just an old guy who’s written a few songs". These are modest sentiments from a man who began his career at seminal Melbourne folk club Frank Traynors, has released two successful solo albums and who once supported Mick Jagger during his 1988 solo tour of Australia.
Wookey slid into his career like blues guitarist Ry Cooder slides up the neck of his guitar: slowly and with feeling. Wookey never consciously decided to pursue music, but "it kinda just happened." Although born in Melbourne, he spent most of his teenage years in Wonthaggi in South Eastern Victoria. After leaving school at the age of 18, he worked in an Iron Foundry by day and practised Eric Clapton songs by night. Wookey is a self-taught singer/guitarist/songwriter. "I was never given access to music teachers and all that kinda stuff, so the guitar was kinda a natural thing for me, I just sort of fell into it really. Some guys had girls, I had a guitar," he laughs, "that was about it."
But perhaps this folk n’ blues guitarist’s musical destiny was etched earlier in his childhood, when he used to scratch out Three Blind Mice "and god knows what" on a miniaturised tin toy violin. "Even then I dreamt that one day I’d play music, and that’s what I’d do…even though I probably wasn’t aware, people actually did it for a living," he muses.
In 1968 the explosive combination of Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce produced arguably the world’s first rock super group: Cream. Cream was the first band to really inspire Wookey. In the same year he left school, Wookey began playing bass guitar in his first three-piece band, which had a repertoire of three songs. However, even playing in front of close friends terrified him. "I wouldn’t say boo to a goose when I was young," he explains, "I was much to shy to [show off at parties]."
Wookey played in two other pub-rock covers bands, before he realised he was destined to fly solo. "I lost interest in being in a band because I discovered other things, I discovered acoustic blues guitar and Bob Dylan." He prefers solo performance because he can maintain some level of control, without having to rely on others. "In spite of the fact that I’m an utter bastard, I actually get along with myself quite ok," he quips.
In his early days as a solo artist, Wookey’s motivation flowed from other musician’s performances. "I remember going to Frank Traynors, which was the early Melbourne folk club." He was inspired by renditions of Bob Dylan’s folk anthems, especially the individual twist each musician brought to the music. "It was the first time I’d been able to encounter professional musicians." Significantly, Wookey himself performed at Traynors sporadically in the year before it closed.
Throughout his career, Wookey has performed at numerous music festivals, including the Port Fairy Folk Music Festival and the Wandong Country Music Festival (where he played to an audience of 20,000). In 1981 he won the prestigious award for Best New Talent at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, although he hates to admit it. Wookey has played with folk and blues icons such as Eric Bogle (Scotland), Harry Manx (Canada), and Jimmy Witherspoon (an American who once sang for Charlie Parker’s band). He has also recorded his fair share of jingles. His latest was for the Beechworth Bakery but he assures me he only provided the music, "not the dancing, or the rolling of bread," he chuckles.
Perhaps the most bizarre twist in his career happened in 1996, when Wookey found himself decked out in pantomime-style cowboy attire, onstage in a Taiwanese theme park. He had been strumming a few tunes at a party, when a friend approached him saying, "I’d forgotten that you could play bluegrass, do you want to go to Taiwan?" Wookey leapt at the opportunity, which for him was a chance to finally get his childhood out of his system. "I would spend the whole day walking around dressed up as Gary Cooper or Roy Rogers and pretending that I was a cowboy." The band played to crowds of "three or four hundred bemused, bewildered Chinese faces, who couldn’t understand a word we were singing and could hardly understand anything we were saying, but they smiled and clapped and loved it all the same." After 12 months in ‘Wild West World’ at the LeoFoo Theme Park, Wookey was glad to return to Australia.
I asked Wookey if music continues to be his main focus in life. "Do you want me to be honest? Music is a way of picking up chicks," he says, bursting into laughter. However, he concedes that music is still his primary aim. "I don’t really like saying that, because to me it sounds a bit pretentious, like something a rock n’ roll singer would say." He describes his love/hate relationship with playing for a living, warning of its unpredictability. "Every time I step on stage, for me, it’s a battle …and sometimes I don’t win," he admits. So, why does Wookey continue to fight the nerves, the clammy palms of pre-gig stress and the prospect of unstable income? Because sometimes, he wins. The possibility of a good gig, of self-satisfaction and a cheering audience, continues to draw him to the stage.
Wookey has stuck with music, although his career has not always been smooth sailing. "As a musician you never know from week to week…[there’s] very little security. It has become tougher and tougher over the years. Its much harder now to make a living out of playing music than any time that I’ve ever witnessed."
Wookey sees a decline in demand for live music a result of drinking laws, pokie machines and videos. "As a result of the drink laws…a lot of pubs [which would have had live music four or five nights a week] have gone by the wayside." He reminisces about Melbourne’s vibrant music scene of the 1970s, prior to the pokies invasion. "All through Carlton…there was hardly a pub that didn’t have…music two or three nights a week, and sometimes more." Wookey worries that today, "its easier to just work on your first heart-attack and go down and buy a block of chocolate, grab a video from the video store, go home and watch Arnold Schwarzenegger do his thing again," a crime of which he admits to also being guilty.
Wookey is planning another solo album, still loves performing and has recently commenced teaching guitar and Irish fiddle in his current hometown. On the future, he tells me that he can’t really imagine a time when he’ll stop playing. "I just can’t imagine a time, when somebody wouldn’t ring me up and say ‘Hey, you want to do this gig down at the pub?’ And I’d go ‘Yeah, that sounds like fun,’ and I’d grab my walking frame and down I’d go."
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