BEYOND THE BLACK STUMP –
In art as in life, sometimes even the most offhand of projects take on a mysterious momentum of their own accord.By Steve Bell, RHYTHMS MAGAZINE
When The Whitlams’ founder and frontman Tim Freedman decided, virtually on a whim, to give some of his band’s alt-rock songs the country treatment to see how they’d fly, little did he know that the endeavour would take on a life of its own in no time flat.
After the humblest of beginnings, his new project The Whitlams Black Stump – also featuring The Whitlams’ long-term drummer Terepai Richmond and a hand- picked team of country stalwarts – are on the verge of releasing their debut album in early March and celebrating the birth by spending Easter spreading the word at Byron Bay Bluesfest.
“lt was just a shot in the dark, an experiment,” Freedman recalls of the band’s formation. “I was doing a lot of solo shows in 2021 and touring in the country regions, so I rang Matt Fell who’s produced so many great country albums and said, ‘Let’s put a band together and have some fun!’
“So, May ‘21 was the first time I met Rod McCormack, our banjo player and acoustic guitarist, and Ollie Thorpe our pedal steel player, and since then we‘ve just been putting one foot in front of the other.
“We all had a good time doing the album, we booked a big studio for four days, so it was a good old-fashioned session where you work up the tunes together. It was the basement of Sony in East Sydney, which sadly is gone now like so many good studios.
“But the fellas enjoyed it and I heard them say, ‘This would be fun to play live’, so I booked a tour and it’s gone from there.”
Freedman attests that not only was the band’s initial run of touring earlier this year a lot of fun, but he got a crash course in authentic country music to boot.
“I’ve had an urban relationship with country music,” he smiles.”The Whitlams in ’92 was an acoustic guitar and a double-bass, and with Stevie Plunder, my late colleague, we played quite a bit of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline as we went up and down the coast.
“I always loved The Band and Bob Dylan’s ’60s records, and artists like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. So, I didn‘t come from a classic country background but I do love my roots music.
“And, of late, Rod knows so many of the great bluegrass musicians in America, and having him, Ollie and Matt play DJ in the Kia Carnival as we drive up the coast has given me a wonderful education, I’m learning a hell of a lot.
“I’m really enjoying playing music where we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re just trying to enjoy a genre and add our touches, so I don’t feel the same pressure to stake out my own territory which sometimes happens in so called ’indie music’.”
Freedman seems slightly bemused at the traction that The Whitlams Black Stump has gathered in such a short period of time.
“I’m really pleased with the way it’s going two years after its scrappy genesis,” he chuckles. “We debuted at Tamworth in 2022 and went back there this year as well and we’ve done Deni Ute Muster, and Bluesfest of course is a famous and auspicious show to do, so I’m counting my lucky stars.
“I’m just trying to respect the opportunity and work hard and stay in shape, and just become a better singer with these fellas that I’m lucky enough to play with. The Whitlams four-piece played Bluesfest once and I really enjoyed it. I’ve attended the festival a lot more as a punter than I’ve played at it.
“The Whitlams have a very strong history with the Northern Rivers, our first shows out of Sydney were at the Railway Hotel and we used to play The Great Northern quite often, but we sort of paddled our own canoe a lot.
“We were never really part of a festival circuit, so this is only the second time I’ve ever got to play at Bluesfest even though our band’s got a 30 year history with the Northern Rivers, so I’m just very pleased to be able to do it.”
And with only a finite cache of The Whitlams songs at this disposal to countrify, Freedman admits that a new approach may be required moving forward.
“When we’ve been selecting songs for Black Stump, I make suggestions to Matt Fell – he’s producing the records – and we’ll just run through on the mandolin and the piano and decide how it would be treated in this genre,” he explains. “Ninety percent of them have worked. I think I’m probably reaching the end of the most suitable songs from The Whitlams repertoire, so now it’s time to write some new songs just for the project.
“There’s one co-write on the new album between Perry Keyes, Matt Fell and I that I’m excited about, and I’d like to continue to do that as the project moves towards the second album inevitably.”