The Bushwackers are one of the great live folk-rock bands to emerge in the global folk renaissance of the early ‘70s. They used fiddles, accordions, guitars, harmonicas, concertinas, lagerphones, tin whistles, 5-string banjos, bodhráns, bones, spoons, electric bass and drums.
Formed at La Trobe University in Melbourne in 1971, with guitarist Dave Isom, tea-chest bass player Jan ‘Yarn’ Wositzky and lagerphonist Bert Kahanoff, they were joined by Mick Slocum on accordion and Davey Kidd on fiddle in 1972. It became a serious full-time concern when Dobe Newton joined in 1973.
Dobe Newton was playing drums in a soul-blues band in Sydney when he met his future wife Sally at a New Year’s Eve party and followed her to Perth. While training to be a teacher, he joined an Irish folk group playing tin whistle and lagerphone.
On a trip to the East Coast, the engine in their panel van blew up, so they set up benefit shows to raise money for a new one. Among the acts playing were The Bushwackers. They hit it off, and offered Dobe a gig. He insisted on returning to Perth to finish his Uni course before joining them, a few months before the first of their four UK/European tours.
They initially couldn’t get a gig in an Australian folk club. They were run by UK expats who only wanted to recreate music from ye olde country. It’s only apt that this Desk Tape was recorded at the Dan O’Connell in Carlton, Melbourne. It was one of their spiritual homes, where they played wild shows to a fervent crowd where sweat poured down walls. Three to five encores a night was the norm, but the record amount of encores, eight, was at the Embankment club near Dublin when the publican had to turn the lights off for ten minutes before the crowd stopped braying for even more.
The Bushwackers early setlist of Australian folk songs, some which drew back 100 years, pricked up the ears of audiences who identified. They were about anti-authority larrikins like “The Ryebuck Shearer”, “Flash Jack from Gundagai” from 1905, Banjo Patterson’s 1892 poem The Man from Ironbark, “The Wild Colonial Boy” and “Lachlan Tigers” about sheep shearers from a specific part of NSW.
There were dreams about a new life (“The Shores of Botany Bay”, “Ten Thousand Miles Away”, “Bound for South Australia”) and places like “Augathella Station”, a town in Queensland where cattle drovers headed, “The Road To Gundagai”, and life on the road (“Billy The Tea”). The Bushwackers’ rendition of “Waltzing Matilda” is actually the Queensland version which varies tune-wise, and not the better known original tune Banjo Patterson composed the music to.
After the arrival of Roger Corbett in 1980, he and Newton became a strong songwriting team, with socially conscious songs as “Beneath The Southern Cross” and “When Britannia Ruled The Waves” fitting in between the traditional material. Newton wrote “I Am Australian” with The Seekers’ Bruce Woodley, regarded as the unofficial national anthem and which won The Bushwackers a Golden Guitar country award.
Musically The Bushwackers had always been far more imaginative than their peers, with more complicated multi-tempo instrumental passages. This was partly for the benefit of their rock audiences, and partly because they themselves were excited by what British folk-rock bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span were doing on the albums they found in Melbourne import record stores.
They were eager to get to the British Isles to be part of this movement, so headed to London. They starved for the first three months. Clubs and festival gigs began to roll in through the UK and Europe, and they stayed for almost a year. When they returned to Australia with a more electric sound, purist crowds at folk festivals were outraged. A show at the Melbourne Town Hall was met with resounding booing, and someone took a swing at Rutledge. At the 1987 National Folk Festival in Melbourne chairs were thrown at the stage.
Michael Rutledge got into music through a love for audio. He was interning at a recording studio when a friend in The Bushwackers asked him to do sound on a Victorian tour for a few weeks. He ended up staying with them for five years. In between he got a day job at Armstrong Studios while at night he mixed live sound and helped big acts build home studios. He started his own production company in 1978. Work piled up, and when he and wife Sandy started a family, he quit The Bushwackers before their second overseas tour.
The Bushwackers, meantime, were home to 95 members over 50 years. Tommy Emmanuel, Pete Farndon of The Pretenders, Freddie Strauks of Skyhooks, Little River Band’s Steve Housden, Phil Emmanuel, Redgum’s Hugh McDonald and Jimmy & The Boys’ Michael Vidale were among those who passed through the ranks. As part of their 50th anniversary, they were inducted into the Country Music Roll of Renown as part of the country music awards.