A life in music acknowledged – Warren H Williams

29 May 2012 Artery

The Australia Council’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board is proud to present this year’s Red Ochre Award to Western Aranda country music singer and songwriter Warren H Williams for his outstanding contribution to the music industry.

After learning of his award Warren was ‘in disbelief’. He said it was incredible to be considered in the company of big names like Jimmy Chi, Bob Maza and Uncle Jimmy Little.

‘Now I feel like I’m right in the middle of the country music scene – I’m inside looking out,’ Warren says. ‘It’s a great achievement to receive this award. I hope it helps make it easier for the younger people from the bush to follow in my footsteps.’

Warren has been a professional musician for the past 20 years but says his whole life has been all about music. His first musical experiences were with his parents living in the Ntaria community (formerly Hermannsburg) in the Northern Territory, where the whole family would sing.

‘We used to go to a sing-song in the Palm Valley in the Finke River Bed with the community, and mum and dad would sing for the tourists. I must have been about four or five years old,’ Warren said.

Warren’s father was his biggest inspiration when it came to his music, and he feels a lingering sadness from his dad’s passing in 2010. In the late 60s and early 70s, his dad was in a band called the Western Aranda Band, with some of the local men. They would tour through the communities and influenced many others to form their own community bands.

Warren was only six years old when he started learning the guitar and, with his dad’s encouragement, learnt all the band’s instruments. Later, if some of the members of his dad’s band didn’t turn up, Warren would step in and play the missing instruments.

To date, Warren has released eight albums. His latest offering is a move away from country music to a language album Winanjjara, or ‘song man’ in Warumungu language. It was recorded with the song men of Tennant Creek and sung in two of his maternal ancestor’s languages: Warumungu and Western Aranda. The project saw him work with family members from Tennant Creek.

His first solo album, Western Wind, was released in 1995. It was followed by Country Friends and Me (1996), Where My Heart Is (2001), Places in Between (2002), Be Like Home (2005), Looking Out (2009) and Urna Marra (2011).

Many of his songs are about his Western Aranda country, west of Alice Springs in Central Australia.

‘I love my country, because that’s where I’m from and who I am. I feel really, really free when I’m on country,’ said Warren. And it loves him back. His favourite song is ‘Western Wind’, from his first album of the same name. It’s the first song he ever wrote.

‘When I finished that song, I thought, “I can actually write a song”. It was my first attempt because I’d played music all the time and had a lot of tunes. Then someone said “why don’t you put words to your instrumentals?” So I went out bush and was sitting at home and the country inspired me to write about it,’ Warren said.

Now he writes easily because he’s always playing music. He will write a whole album in a day and each song will sound different, creating a natural ebb and flow that’s so vital for a story and an album. The best environment is usually at home, with the whole family around, or sometimes on the road where he sees new things all the time.

The turning point for Warren’s success came when he sang country music singer-songwriter John Williamson’s ‘Raining On The Rock’.

‘Suddenly it took me from just being an Aboriginal in a community to being a singer who people know and now recognise.’

He met John while broadcasting remotely at Ntaria, through the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) in Alice Springs. At the time he used to play all the country music artists from mixed-track cassette tapes.

Graham Archer, a fellow worker from CAAMA, asked him if he’d like to cover John’s song ‘Raining On The Rock’. Warren’s first reaction was to reject the offer but, as he sang it, he started to identify with the track.

‘It was written about my country. The rock is black people’s country.’

The relationship with John was formed, and the pair remains the only act to receive a standing ovation at the Tamworth Country Music Festival awards. Their duet became an anthem for reconciliation across Australia.

After that, Warren’s career took off and some of his best experiences were on tour. In the late 90s he borrowed his dad’s 4WD champagne-coloured Pajero, attached a trailer, and took his three cousins on a round trip from Alice Springs to Cape York, via Cairns, Doomadgee, Arakoon, Bamaga and Hopevale. He didn’t think the little car would make it, with a split petrol tank held together by a belt for most of the trip home.

‘People accepted us up that way. They really enjoyed us playing music for them. It was just so good to be on the road and meeting so many people.’ He says he didn’t realise he had so many followers until a US tour to St Louis and Springfield in 2000. ‘It was amazing that the American people were so interested in me and my culture,’ he said.

With his Red Ochre prize money, Warren plans to go to the country music capital of Nashville (USA) to create an album. He hopes to meet some of the people who have inspired his music — people such as Ronnie Milsap, Dolly Parton and George Straitand —connect with industry friends he has met over the years.

‘Country music is about singing about home or a place,’ Warren said. ‘It’s not about loss or losing anything as some people say. It’s about gaining your love for a place.’

Image Credit: Karen Steains