Legendary country band The Warratahs are taking to the road to celebrate 30 years since they released their debut album The Only Game In Town. Trevor Reekie spoke to Barry Saunders about how to group got to where they are today.
The Warratahs' career began in 1986 at well-known Wellington pub and music venue, The Cricketers Arms. They held a residency there for two years, carving out a niche with their unique style of country-rock.
Since then they've had many successes including a New Zealand Music Award for Best Country Album; opening for huge international acts such as Billie Joel and country music supergroup The Highwaymen; and in 2016, being inducted into the prestigious Gold Guitar’s Hands of Fame.
This year The Warratahs celebrate 30 years since the release of their debut album, The Only Game In Town. To mark the occasion, they've released Driving Wheel, a special edition compilation CD, which features new single 'Fast Train'. They're also taking the show on the road with an extensive nationwide tour.
RNZ Music's Trevor Reekie sat down and had a chat with Warratahs frontman Barry Saunders about his journey over the last 30 years.
Barry Saunders grew up in Taranaki, before moving to Christchurch with his family as a teenager. Once there, he only attended high school for a couple of years before his father suggested he leave to pursue a career in music. This was a big deal in 1960s New Zealand, when many people thought artists were just ‘dole bludgers'.
Barry took his father's advice and found himself bouncing between playing music and working at the railways.
Eventually, Barry moved to the London and began playing in an Irish country band: "It was formative because my ancestry on both sides is Irish, it was genetically in me. I didn’t know the music but it was like a computer chip in me that knew what it was. It was like plugging in. All those Irish songs have a sense of place and belonging.”
At the same time he had an entry level job at record label WEA, sending out records for Derek Taylor – promo man for The Beatles. One week he forgot to send out Rod Stewart’s 'Sailing', which resulted in radio stations not being able to play it for weeks. That's where Barry's record label career ended.
He describes his time in London as like “being thrown in a washing machine of alcohol with a bit of music added in”. Regardless, he says it was an important part of his musical development.
Barry knew what he wanted the Warratahs to sound like, even before the band was formed: “It happened when I was trying to get a band together in Sydney.” He was after a softer drum sound and more prominent vocals - quite different to the sound that was popular at the time.
“We recorded some demos and I remember hearing them and thinking, 'This is what I like.’" When Barry returned to New Zealand, "that feeling was still there”.
Barry finally formed The Waratahs in 1986. They spent their first two years playing Wellington’s Cricketers Arms with the original line up of Barry on guitar and vocals, Nik Brown on fiddle and mandolin, Wayne Mason on keyboard and accordion, John Donoghue on bass and Marty Jorgensen on drums.
In 1987 the band scored a record deal after ex-RNZ Music boss John Pilley, who was running a record store at the time, heard them play. He told Trevor Reekie's Pagan Records to give them a go.
The first song they recorded was the still popular ‘Driving Wheel’. Used to playing punchy, live music they recorded it in the exact same way: hitting the ‘on’ button and just playing the song.
The album The Only Game In Town was released in February 1988, and was very much a no-frills record. The first single ‘Hands Of My Heart’ was targeted to student radio stations and TVNZ played the video between programmes, but it never charted.
During these early “pre-Americana” years, Barry says the band were playing "rootsy" music but with “sort of poppy songs”. That unique sound that Barry had lusted after all those years ago was finally coming to life: “It was different to what people were doing at the time.”
The album had a high strike rate of popular songs including ‘Hands Of My Heart’, ‘Maureen’ and ‘The Only Game In Town’, which are all still on the band’s setlist: “They’re part of our fabric now.”
Barry’s music is heavily influenced by his upbringing on his family’s Taranaki farm, which had a train running through the back of it. He was raised on country music including Jimmy Rogers, Hank Snow and even the likes of English skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan.
He says of his songwriting, “The most important thing is to just do it. The second most important thing is trying to finish something. The world is full of people with half-filled songs and if you don't finish something you lose the kind of spirit or thread to it. You’ve got to keep hold of that, you’ve got to follow it and that's important to me.”
Genre-wise, The Warratahs are often described as a country band, but their early live performances came across more like a folk band playing dance music.
“We’re a real mish-mash. I was probably singing like a cowboy back then and we did a lot of country covers. But songs like ‘Maureen’ were written more like a soul thing. It just came out like that once the instrumentation of the band was there, especially with the violin. Then we had a sound. I think the fact that we had a sound was part of our success. You can tell who it is when we start playing, it’s a good thing to have on your side.”
In 1990 Barry was asked to record the vocals for a TV commercial for The Interislander Ferry. The whole band ended up joining in and they recorded and starred in what would become an iconic Kiwi ad.
"We'd been offered ads before but this one worked because we toured a lot, the ferry was part of our highway and it all tied together. And there was the Cook Strait with all its beauty and craziness, it was a part of us and we were a part of it.”
A highlight of The Warratah’s career was meeting and opening for country legends, The Highwaymen, a super-group consisting of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
Performing with the group across New Zealand, Barry says they were genuinely nice people. June Carter Cash was also on the tour and was the reason the Warratahs ended up recording a cover of ‘Ring of Fire’ on the album Runaway Days.
Barry spoke to June in Christchurch where she told him the song was originally a ballad and so, alongside singer and drummer, Caroline Easther, they covered it as a ballad. He says it really brought out the drama of the song.
The last couple of years have been busy for Barry, playing alongside Tami Neilson, Marlon Williams and Delaney Davidson on the Church Tours and being part of The Band's Last Waltz 40th Anniversary tour. He says after all these years he still feels the same panic, excitement and love for music he always has.
Saunders has also recorded an album with Delaney Davidson which is scheduled for release in 2019.
“The only thing I’ve learnt from the last 30 years is to get ready for anything.”
- Sept 21 Upper Hutt | Cosmopolitan Club
- Sept 23 Paekakariki | St Peters Hall
- Sept 28 Whanganui | Lucky Bar
- Sept 29 Eltham | Town Hall
- Oct 6 Wellington | Meow (with Reb Fountain)
- Oct 12 Christchurch | Blue Smoke
- Oct 13 Dunedin | Captain Cook Hotel
- Oct 20 Napier | Paisley Stage
- Oct 26 Queenstown | Sherwood
- Oct 27 Invercargill | Ascot Park Ballroom