[22 March 2013]
If there are a lot of potent sentiments to be found on the well-titled Stranger In My Land, it’s because the album represents quite a story. Roger Knox is a black Australian who’s had a full career as a much-beloved singer and community spokesman. In yet another chapter of the startling influence of American music on the world in the 20th century, oppressed Aboriginals adopted country & western as a conduit both to celebrate the heritage of their people and express the plight of a population caught in rapidly changing times. Knox plays the role of chronicler in tracing the music he’s been an integral part of for so many years, using the work of his bygone peers as a guiding light and relying on the help of the Mekons’ Jon Langford to cull an impressive crew of collaborators. By covering material that resonates the strongest with the tale he wishes to tell, and playing with head-turning names like Dave Alvin, Charlie Louvin, and Will Oldham—to name a few of those who show up to augment Langford’s Pine Valley Cosmonauts—Roger Knox and co. have created what is quite possibly the ultimate statement of this subculture for audiences who are outside looking in.
Listen and you’ll hear talk of “the taste of porcupine”, “blue gum trees”, and “didgeridoos droning in the night”, creating a very different kind of portrait across a familiar sonic landscape. Not unlike the so-called “Meat pie Western”, which sets that most American of genres in the Australian outback, Stranger In My Land‘s use of the country form underscores the similarities that exist between the two nations’ histories. That such a music was adopted in this case by the land’s native population represents an extraordinary turning of the tables that in and of itself requires some listener recalibration before the album can reach full impact. Despite song titles like “Took the Children Away” and “Warrior In Chains”, which adequately capture the stakes at play throughout much of the record, the sound is so downright polished and tuneful that the mighty words initially risk getting lost, or at the very least standing at odds with their musical backdrop. One suspects that the sheen is due to the fact that this a considered collaboration borne out of reverence, and so lacks some of the raw bite that may have been originally present in these songs’ first incarnations.
It’s a testament to the commanding directness of Roger Knox’s voice, however, that at no point do the many themes of alienation and subjugation slip into the woodwork. You’d have to be practically asleep not to be stirred by the harrowing tales gracefully told by the man and then wonder about the back story, which the liner notes supply in the form of colorful descriptions of the cast of phantom musicians and activists whose material is revived here. There’s quite a variety in these compositions, which range from hometown love songs to hungover laments, capturing a romanticized lifestyle while also decrying the arrival of those who stole it away. The best moment is also the most pointed in terms of addressing both sides of the coin—in just a couple quick minutes, it captures the Aboriginals’ way of life, what they stood to lose, and how they lost it to the white man’s “wayward scheming dreams”. Yet, given the song’s beautifully wistful tone, might the “Wayward Dreams” of the title also belong to those who, as Knox says, “would like to be on equal terms and believe in democracy too”?
It’s really something to trace the origins of the music on Stranger In My Land, from Nashville to the U.S. soldiers who brought it to Australia in World War II, and then back into the hands of those who themselves discovered it anew in the indie awakening of the ‘80s—some of whom expertly back Roger Knox up on this fine record. With the benefit of context and repeated spins, it emerges as a fascinating artifact that transcends logistics, above all rooting itself in universal folk traditions inherent in any group of people struggling to make their way. Roger Knox sings that “legends told of long ago were always to be heard”, and this fine set stands as proud evidence.