Bill Jackson Taps into Roots Down Under
Australian singer-songwriter Bill Jackson didn’t set out to have a career in music, at least not at first. But it kept calling to him. And once he got the right guitar and the right people in his life, he answered that call and hasn’t looked back.
Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business and when and why?
Bill Jackson: My older sister had a very cheap guitar which she never picked up and so I started fooling around on it because a few of my friends were starting to play. We had a lot of old country records around the house, mostly greatest hits collections — Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Johnny Horton, etc. A friend of mine started showing me a few chords and I was off and running. When I heard “Like a Rolling Stone,” my life changed and I suddenly realised the power of words and music. It got me started on an expedition tracking Dylan and his contemporaries like Donovan, Phil Ochs, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, etc. back to their roots to Woody Guthrie and beyond. I always had an interest in history and research from a young age and music gave me the perfect vehicle to participate and feed my hunger for “lost” knowledge outside of the mainstream.
What have you done since then?
I did the usual thing — played in bands all through high school. When I got to university, I was suddenly on my own and really started exploring the folk music/coffeehouse scene but never really connected in a playing “live” sense. I was just a bedroom player. I joined a few country bands in my late 20s and fooled around with some of my early songwriting efforts in those outfits. Marriage and family and work took over and the music just simmered along in the background. Looking back on it now, from the moment I invested in that Martin D28 on my first trip to the US back in ’78, I should have known it was more than a whim. Nashville was inspiring then and it still is.
It wasn’t until I met my partner and musician Ruth Hazleton in 2007 that things started ramping up. It coincided with the release of my first solo record Diggin’ the Roots and she really inspired me as to the possibilities. I got introduced to the folk festival circuit through Ruth and it powerfully reconnected me to my roots. I had also started writing with my older brother Ross about then and things started to get really interesting musically. The brilliant multi-instrumentalist Pete Fidler also came into my life at about the same time and we struck up a musical conversation which has endured. Fast forward to 2016 and I have just released my sixth solo record, The Wayside Ballads Vol 2, recorded and produced in Nashville by Thomm Jutz. Pete and I have now made four trips to the US. This has been made possible by Nashville-based manager Mary Sack, who took a chance on us back in 2008 and who has been a mentor to me ever since.
What do you do now and how do you describe your business?
I write songs, somewhat obsessively, constantly. Whatever I am doing I am never far away from that next idea, of being able to express the obvious, the banal, the story in a way that will engage me first and hopefully the people who hear the end result.
How did you get into roots music?
Probably all of the old country albums that were lying around my house as a child. My dad was into all of the old country singers like Jimmie Rodgers. When these three-chord heroes connected with the “now” in me through folks like Dylan and Donovan, then it suddenly became a very cool thing to do in my eyes.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre and what artists define Americana music for you?
Most of my favorite artists would fall under and define the Americana banner: People like John Prine, Bob Dylan, David Olney, Steve Earle, Mary Gauthier, Guy Clark, Willis Alan Ramsay, Steve Young, Gillian Welch, Otis Gibbs, Patty Griffin, Will Kimbrough, Darrell Scott, Shane Howard, Nanci Griffith, just to name a few!
How do you define what Americana music is? What does it mean to you?
The term and industry that has been coined as “Americana” has been important in that it has given a lot of artists somewhere to hitch their wagon within the broad church of roots music. Folk, blues, singer-songwriter, country, etc. have been able to abandon their niches and connect the dots with like-minded and passionate creative souls. In particular, to me it also screams out new songs.
If I had to choose one artist, then I would have to say David Olney sums up my definition of Americana music. Whatever musical vehicle he has used throughout his career to express himself, there has always been an honesty and dedication to the lyric that is about connecting to real people. David’s approach to songwriting is genre agnostic, somewhat quirky and playful, yet always intelligent and direct. That is what I aspire to.
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
Well Americana radio seems to be growing exponentially and definitely in the online space. The challenge is going to be in creating viable revenue streams for the musicians who are creating and providing the content for this growth. Having said this, songs and songwriters will continue to endure and do what they do because they can’t help it.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
I really like what Willie Sugarcapps are doing because it’s just great playing and has no boundaries. Otis Gibbs most recent record, Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth, was a classic. The list is endless, really, and mostly songwriter-based and around folks who write for the right reasons.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests or anything else you wish to share?
I like to hang around guitar shops, go to gigs and play football (Aussie rules) with my six-year-old son, Charlie. When it happens and time permits, I really enjoy playing music with my partner Ruth Hazleton, who is a brilliant music (clawhammer banjo/guitar/vocals) in her own right.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
The next idea for a song or a project that seems interesting and worthwhile.
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
Taking our songs to the US has always been a most exciting experience – we get educated and hope that we do some educating as well! Having David Olney record our song “Something in Blue” on his most recent release, When The Deal Goes Down, was the biggest thrill and some small affirmation that we had got it right, at least once anyway. Watching him perform it live at the 5Spot in Nashville was amazing.