Johnny Cash and a Train Ride across the American South Shaped Darren Hanlon
Australian singer-songwriter Darren Hanlon has finally come clean.
“The Sydney Entertainment Center used to be ridiculously easy to sneak into,” he says. “We were broke musicians, but I think we did it for the adrenaline. We’d often go down there not even knowing what was on. I saw KISS, Neil Diamond, the Eurythmics, Fleetwood Mac, and many others.”
Hanlon also “was lucky enough to stumble into a Highwaymen show once — without any planning” — in the ’90s.
“One night, we saw something was on there and just waltzed in a side door and got a good seat. It turned out to be the Highwaymen! At one point in the show, the other three members left the stage so Johnny Cash could do a solo number. He said, ‘I’d like to dedicate this one to my wife June Carter.’ She was sitting in the front row, stood up and bowed to the audience regally. He then sung ‘Bird on a Wire,’ and you coulda heard a pin drop. Ten thousand or so people in complete silence. He made that giant concrete stadium seem like a little intimate club. That’s some kinda power!”
Hanlon, whose fifth studio album, Where Did You Come From?, was released on Yep Roc Records in 2015, says that was the best concert he attended “for no other reason than it’s vividly stuck in my head ever since.” He also has released a mini album and an album of B sides.
“You had all those legendary songwriters on one stage, doing all their hits and covers,” Hanlon says. “They sung Woody Guthrie’s ‘Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).’ It was a master class in the history of American country music. And those solo Johnny Cash numbers, it gives me chills to think back on them.”
The concerts that most influenced him as a musician, though, were those of Jonathan Richman — particularly one at the ANU Bar in Canberra in the mid-1990s.
“Every time I’ve seen Jonathan Richman live is a reminder to delight in all the right reasons to be involved in music. There’s no hype or false pretenses surrounding him. No matter how big or small the crowd, he just does his thing. In fact, a small show doesn’t seem to faze him at all, whereas other bands might get upset and take it personally. I’ve seen that happen, too, and it’s uncomfortable to be an audience member.
“We once went to see Jonathan play a show in Canberra that almost got cancelled due to lack of attendance,” Hanlon says. “About 25 of us lay around on the floor to watch. We’d watched many shows on that tour, but that one was the best. He seemed relaxed and talked a lot more, explaining the songs. It was like he wanted to reward the few people who did come to see him. You felt like you were part of something special.”
The sparsely attended performance made Hanlon “realize that all the stress and business bluster is never as important as the actual music.”
Until the Richman show, “I was constantly concerned by aspects of the business side, especially because I’ve always been independent and had to partially run things myself. I was worried about promotion and getting people to the shows. I was young and naive. But, luckily, that night a penny dropped, and I started to realize I should focus more on how good my singing is instead.”
Making the music and the singing the top priority is what Hanlon’s Where Did You Come From? is all about. It features a unique cast of musicians and was recorded in one-off sessions in Memphis; Muscle Shoals, Alabama; New Orleans; Clarksdale, Mississippi; and Nashville.
Hanlon, who played in various Australian bands before going solo, recorded the album during an unplanned trek through the southern USA. His words when the album was released best paint the picture.
“For lack of any real purpose, I went on an exploratory adventure of the American Southern states, and the whole thing grew up around me like rogue lantana. I spent about 20 nights sleeping on different Amtrak trains with my jumper rolled up for a pillow.
“When I hopped off the Amtrak, I just walked around and met buskers, tap dancers, preachers, drunks, and drug dealers, all of whom had something worth learning about. I started having compulsive notions that whoever I met should somehow contribute to the album. Let fate play into it. One guy tried to break into a car I was sitting in, and even he ended up playing bass on a song.”
Some well-known names also contributed. David Hood and Spooner Oldham sat in on a song in Muscle Shoals’ legendary Fame Studios, and Howard Grimes, Al Green’s longtime drummer, played on the Memphis session. Hood, the father of the Drive-by Truckers’ Patterson Hood, played bass on albums by Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Boz Scaggs, Traffic, John Hiatt, and many other greats.
Hanlon, who played in Australian bands the Lucksmiths, the Simpletons, and the Deerhunters, said his moments with Grimes were “a strange and beautiful collaboration. I don’t think Howard had played with anyone as straight and Queensland as me before. He said I was taking him back to school.”
The Aussie songwriter tells me that Where Did You Come From? is so different from other releases in his catalog because he truly had no recording plans “other than travel around in the Southern states of the U.S. and just see what happens.
“I wanted it to be a learning experience for me,” he says. “It ended up being recorded in five different studios with a long cast of musicians. And I wrote it as I went. I only had two songs finished when I first set out, and both weren’t used.”
Hanlon, who is currently writing songs for a new album, finds it somewhat difficult to classify his music.
“I really don’t know where it fits,” He says. “It’s got connections to what’s known as folk music, and people have said ‘urban folk.’ But then I spend equal amounts of time in the country. No matter how much I try to economize, there are always lots of lyrics. So I’d say urban and regional nontraditional, wordy folk music.”
What songwriters and musicians does Hanlon most admire? He cites Michael Hurley, Jonathan Richman, Courtney Barnett, Jeffrey Lewis, Guy Clark, Laura Jean, Dick Diver, and a new discovery, Big Thief.
“It’s mostly about the continuing quality of their work,” he says. “I just love the songs — however the hell they write ’em! — and their singular vision. They carve their own paths outside of any music industry.”