Years ago on National Radio I would occasionally hear a country singer from Gisborne named Camille Te Nahu. She was a class act – a singer whose sophisticated style transcended mainstream New Zealand country music, which seemed to have been at a standstill since the 1960s. Then I stopped hearing her, and wondered what had happened.
Well, it turns out she went to Australia and married a guitarist from Tasmania named Stuie French. They perform together as – who would have thought? – Camille Te Nahu and Stuie French. I heard them yesterday afternoon at the inaugural Clareville Country Music Festival in the Wairarapa and can report that Camille is an even classier singer now than she was when Nat Rad was playing her back in the 1990s.
What’s more, she chose her husband well. The name “Stuie” doesn’t sound too promising – a bit Ocker for my taste. Great country guitar players have names like Chet and Merle. But forget the name: Stuie is a prodigious guitarist who coaxes mellow tones and jazz-tinged licks out of his magnificent orange Chet Atkins model Gretsch that the master himself would applaud.
It’s a terrible cliché, I know, but these two make beautiful music together. A week or so ago I wrote here about the special quality of sibling harmonies, but maybe there’s something about couples too. These two have the same musical compatibility that make Gillian Welch and David Rawlings so irresistible.
It's hard to pin them down in terms of genre, because they cross boundaries, but they're at the soft, melodic end of the country spectrum rather than the hard and raunchy.
They can write, too. Two highlights yesterday were the evocative Things Change – a wistful song about how life happens faster than you can keep up with it – and Pretty Katalina, a tribute to Te Nahu’s Samoan grandmother. It’s hard to select other songs from a set that was hard to fault, but two that stood out were All I Ever Need Is You (a hit for Sonny and Cher in the 1960s, but much recorded by others) and a charming version of Anne Murray's Snowbird.
On top of all that, they had a nice line in patter and seemed to be enjoying themselves, even as the clouds gathered menacingly overhead and the Wairarapa north-westerly rocked the stage.
Te Nahu and French were worth the price of admission for an afternoon that was otherwise often drearily predictable, confirming that there’s a school of New Zealand country music still firmly mired in the past.
All country music springs from the same American roots, but at some point several decades ago we took a wrong turning onto a branch line in New Zealand – as they did in Australia – and we’re still stuck there. It’s a dead end and the tracks have long been covered by weeds, but the mainstream Kiwi country music train remains stranded - not going anywhere, but occasionally emitting a burst of steam and a feeble, plaintive whistle just to let us know it’s still around.
In the meantime, a plethora of new acts – I’m thinking of people like Marlon Williams and Delaney Davidson – is converting a new generation to country. They are more authentic in every sense, drawing on country music’s rich heritage but putting their own distinctive spin on it.This is not to say all the acts yesterday were bad, merely that they were derivative. Some of the younger performers have real talent and the slick backing band, Midnite Special (formed by the son and daughter of Kiwi country stalwart the late Rusty Greaves), never put a foot wrong. Perhaps the real problem lies with the ageing group of country fans who feel they’ve been cheated if they don’t hear Pub With No Beer and She Taught Me to Yodel.