IN 1992 a young musician by the name of Lee Kernaghan signed a record deal with ABC Music and released an album called Outback Club.
This article was first published in 4x4 Australia's July 2012 issue.
The song Boys from the Bush was the first single from that ARIA Award-winning album and would launch Lee on a stellar career. It would also lead to honours including being awarded an Order Of Australia medal in 2004, and being named Australian of the Year in 2008.
Lee says he likes two kinds of music, country and western, and with his rural background, who can blame him? “I grew up in the Riverina. My dad was a truck driver on the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
My grandparents were dairy farmers on my mum’s side, and on my dad’s side they were a droving family – a third-generation family of drovers – so my childhood years were filled up with those sorts of experiences, just being a normal kid growing up in the bush.” So what drove Lee to music?
“My dad used to sing and do the odd gig at the Boomerang Hotel in Albury,” he says. “Later on in the ’70s he started his own record label and distribution company, and started making his own records, and as a teenager I started playing in his band and learning the ropes from my dad.”
Like many country lads, Lee is passionate about Toyotas and has a strong association with the manufacturer. “[My association] initially came about thanks to Toyota’s support of country music, and then later on Toyota became the driving force behind the fundraising tours, and a couple of million dollars was raised out in the bush in communities across Australia for various causes, from drought relief to buying medical equipment for outback hospitals.
“It’s good to be able to perform, put on shows and put on concerts. If they can be fundraisers and you can help the people who need it the most, then it’s probably one of the most rewarding parts of what the job’s all about. “I probably spend six months of the year on the road travelling and there’s some pretty far-flung places that I’ve performed at over the years.
There’s just nothing like it, the feeling you get when you’re heading west. It seems as though whenever you go outback the weight just comes off your shoulders.” So what’s Lee’s current rig of choice?
“I’m currently driving the 200 Series LandCruiser, and I’ve also got an 80 Series Cruiser – a Sahara – that’s become a part of the family and I don’t think I could ever sell it. She’s stock standard, she’s got about 300,000 kays on her and I haven’t had to do a thing to it.
“I remember crossing a flooded causeway years ago, when [the 80 Series] was new and I got caught in a flood and water came over the bonnet and she stopped. And that’s when you really start to ponder the situation that you’ve got yourself into and the capabilities of your vehicle.
Anyway, I hit the ignition again and the old Cruiser, she started right up and drove me straight out of it. How can you ever let a friend like that go?” Lee has seen a lot of outback Australia, touring over the years. “I like a lot of the outback communities,” he says.
“I love western Queensland and South Australia and up around Birdsville. I had one great trip; we left Brisbane, went to Goondiwindi, St George, Cunumulla, headed down to Dirranbandi, and then up to Thargomindah, and we camped at the waterhole at Noccundra.
We also had a camp out at Innamincka on the banks of the Cooper, and we headed out through the Stony Desert up to Birdsville and sort of came back through western Queensland through some of the little towns that I’ve played in over the years, like Yaraka.
“A lot of the time I’m travelling when I’m doing shows and a lot of the time it’s when I’m doing song-writing trips. I get a lot of inspiration from just being out and driving and being out on the road and talking to people. Often it’s just the odd turn of phrase here and there or little town that you drive through, like Texas in Queensland, that inspire the songs.”
There is one place that Lee has yet to visit, and he’s keen as mustard to get there. “Cape York. That’s definitely on my bucket list.” How did Lee react to becoming 2008 Australian of the Year? “Well, it was an absolute shock, but as it sunk in I realised what an honour it was and what a privilege,” he says.
“That was a tough year in country Australia; so many communities in the bush were going through extreme drought, and they’d been going through drought for several years, so I had the opportunity to go out and visit a lot of those people and listen to their stories and try and help wherever possible, but it was a heartbreaking time for many people in the bush.”
It’s 20 years since Lee’s first album. Did he ever think his career would go so far? “No, no!” he insists. “I was lucky in the first place to get a record deal. I’d been knocked back by every record label in Australia, and finally ABC Music said ‘We’ll sign you, we’ll make an album, and if it sells more than 3000 records, you can make a second record [laughs].
It’s now Triple Platinum, a couple of hundred thousand of the Outback Club. And somewhere around two million records have been sold over the last 20 years.” What’s next for Lee Kernaghan? “I’m recording a new album in June that I hope to launch at the Deni Ute Muster this year.
I actually did the first Ute Muster and it was incredible to see so many utes in the one place. I felt right at home… “The one vehicle that I became the most attached to was my 78 Series LandCruiser ute, but after the arrival of my second son, Rock, I couldn’t fit four people across the bench seat, so I had to sell it.
She was fully optioned up, it was just the sort of vehicle you fall in love with. “A young bloke from Kilcoy [Qld] bought it and I remember the day he came to pick it up and he drove it out my driveway… I don’t think there were any tears, but my lip was quivering. I guess my dream vehicle would be a 70 Series dual-cab trayback.”
Favourite place in Australia? “Broome, where the outback meets the sea. I love it so much, that’s where I had my honeymoon. If I could go back once a year, I’d do it.
It’s one of the few places in Australia where you get your four-wheel drive down on to the beach, get out the esky and the fold-out chairs and look out at that big Indian Ocean and have a swim… and for me I don’t think there’s anything better in the whole country.”