Roger Knox: Stranger in My Land (Bloodshot, 2013)
Though country music is most typically associated with the Southern United States, its impact has been felt all around the world. In addition to Nashville and Texas exports, a strong but little-known strain developed among Australian aboriginals in the second half of the twentieth century. American songs were repurposed to tell stories of harsh conditions in the outback, and lyrics of country-to-city migration, drinking and prison all found resonance in the freewheeling down-under. But Australians also stretched the genre with localized stories, locations and slang, and dark themes of social injustice that had more in common with America’s folk, blues and outlaw movements than country’s mainstream.
Roger Knox, known as both the Koori King of Country and the Black Elvis (check out his early work on Best of Koori Classic), has been an Australian favorite for more than 30 years, but like so many from outside Nashville, his music has always been too country for country. His parallels to other outspoken artists are many, but none more so than Johnny Cash, whose sympathies for the repressed, downtrodden and imprisoned are mirrored in Knox’s work. On this first new record in nine years, Knox revisits the history of aboriginal country music, reworking his own contributions and covering classics of the genre. He’s backed seamlessly by Jon Langford’s Pine Valley Cosmonauts, with guest appearances by Dave Alvin, Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, Bonnie Prince Billie, The Sadies and Charlie Louvin. The latter, heard on “Ticket to Nowhere,” is thought to have been making his last recorded performance.
The selections profile rough-and-ready cowboys from a frontier that lasted decades longer than the American West, natives imprisoned and stripped of their cultural practices, prejudice expressed openly and in misguided assimilation programs, and homesick emigrants whose delicate memories are like sensory poems. The devastating effects of forced social alienation – broken families, alcoholism, arrest and prison – play similarly to those essayed by Johnny Cash of Native Americans, but amid the privation and heartache are threads of optimism, expressed both in response to hardships and in positive exclamations of place and pride. This is a truly moving collection of songs and performances, and a good introduction to a pocket of country music likely to be unfamiliar to even the most adventurous listener.