John Williamson is an Australian music treasure. From Old Man Emu to True Blue and everything between and beyond, Williamson delves into what his life will look like after that last chord has been strummed (though when that is even he’s not sure).
In 2020 I’ll be hitting 50 years in show business. To me, my music has always been about that connection with the land. I was brought up as a wheat grower’s son in northern Victoria, but it wasn’t until I was 23 that I wrote my first song, Old Man Emu.
At that point, Australians didn’t really think about being songwriters. There was The Hillbillies and the Slim Dusty and that, but it just wasn’t the thing to do.
I went on New Faces with Old Man Emu and that went number one and I thought, “Maybe this is what I should be doing.” But it took me 16 years to come up with a hit album and that was Mallee Boy. And it remains my biggest selling album to this day.
As time’s gone on, albums don’t sell as much now anyway, with the way things have changed in the recording industry. We’ve gone from LPs, to cassettes, to CDs, and now even those are starting to get rare.
If ever I can’t do my best on stage and I can see that I’m not doing my best, well that would certainly be the time to get out. But at the moment, people are still going crazy at the end of my shows so they must be happy.
The next section of my life would be retiring in the bush – going back to the beginning, because that’s what I crave more than anything. I’ve got land up in the mountains in Springbrook in Southeast Queensland. That’s where I’d love to spend the rest of my life as much as I can.
I imagine spending my time painting, growing vegetables, having a chook garden, and just developing my shed and making it more interesting for when people come up and visit. I do shows in my shed there once a year, in June, which only seem to be getting more popular than ever.
The thing about my age is – I was just talking to my daughter about it yesterday – I talk about these things I want to do up there and Georgie said, “Dad, that’s something you would do when you’re my age,” sort of thing. She thinks I’m starting things too late. But I think that’s how you keep young – is to keep challenges.
She thinks I’m starting things too late. But I think that’s how you keep young – is to keep challenges.
I saw my dad leave the farm well before he was my age and I don’t think he enjoyed his life ever since he left the land. I think it’s good to have challenges as you grow older, even if you can’t do them as well as you would like to – or as you would have when you were young. I don’t think that should stop you at all.
I’ve just turned 74. I think we all think a lot younger at this age than we might have, say, a generation ago.
In the old days, I remember looking at a picture of my grandma, and if I could look at it now (in it she is younger than me) it seems she looks really old. It’s like people just, once they got to 60, started to think of themselves as being old – and they even dressed old. But I think we have a different attitude towards ageing now. Yes, people do live longer now, but 70 feels more like the 50s to me.
Part of the key to staying and feeling young is about keeping fit, in my eyes. My dad used to say, “You should get out of breath once a day.” And I think those things are important.
My dad used to say, “You should get out of breath once a day.”
I tend to think – because I’ve got challenges ahead of me – I want to keep fit. I think when people retire and they’re not looking forward to what they’re doing in the next week or so, it’s easy to let the laziness set in. That’s what kills you.
I’m staying fit because I’ve got so many things I want to do that I’m really looking forward to. That’s for sure.
In fact, it’s crazy. When I’m getting 600 or 700 people a night and standing ovations, I should be happy with that but I’ve been doing it 49 years and it’s not easy. I’ve got to be careful I don’t lose my energy when I’m this age. Every show I do, I do about 2 hours 20 minutes and I really can’t do more than three in a row – but I don’t think even the young ones do anyway.
But just because it works doesn’t mean it’s everything you want to do – money’s not everything, fame’s not everything and popularity’s not everything. There are other things to do too.
I believe if I go to Springbrook I’ll live longer. My theory is that every day I spend up there will probably give me another day in my life, at the end of my life. The air will be cleaner, I’ll be active, and I’ll be up every morning and chopping wood.
I’m putting money where my mouth is and preserving some beautiful rainforest country there too. I’m one of the first to support Rich Heritage Fund, which buys back stations and properties with rare species of flora and fauna, and allows it to go back to what it was. And we’ve been getting experts to tell us what rare species there are on our land so we can encourage them to grow too.
It’s what I’ve always fought for and encouraged people to realise – just how beautiful Australia is. The old natural bush is where the old spirit of the country is – I’m talking about what was here before even the Aborigines. To go out in a bush that hasn’t been touched, that’s a real privilege I think.
The amazing diversity of the Australian bush and the characters that creates – that truly inspires me.
I still love performing. It’s a great job sending people away happy. And I do sing with some big messages in there. But people go away saying, “Don’t change. Thanks for making us feel proud to be Aussies.”
Being an Aussie is about being proud of this country itself and caring for her. That’s what I consider a true, blue Aussie. It doesn’t matter where you come from. I have written the odd song inspired by the city, but no one ever requests them. That’s horses to courses.
I’ll leave that up to Paul Kelly to sing about living in the suburbs.