Troy Cassar-Daley’s new record, Things I Carry Around, and the book of the same name are artistic triumphs that transcend commercial or industry-based rewards, of which there are many: four Arias, 32 Golden Guitars, two APRA Country Song of the Year Awards, nine Deadlys and four CMAA Entertainer of the Year awards, along with the 450,000 records he has sold since his recording career began in the 1990s.
Writing the book with critically acclaimed author Tom Gilling, Cassar-Daley tells the story of his life, from birth to the release of his second album in 1997, True Believer. The book served as a blueprint in unexpected ways. “This record wouldn’t have happened without the book,” Cassar-Daely says.
“It was a wrangle tangle record compared to most that I’ve done. I found a lot of old songs that I started with some of my favourite writers and went ahead and revisited them. I didn’t think at the time that I was making anything different.”
After listening to some of Cassar-Daley’s back catalogue, this record appeals on several unexpected levels: it’s exploration of country music sub genres, it presents as a complete album, theme-wise, and, significantly, there’s a lack of commercial ‘polish’ applied to the finished ‘product’.
The musicianship is first rate, as would be expected on a Cassar-Daley record, but there’s a big investment of humanity to be found, too, the kind that shines through and connects with a listener’s heart – and a refreshing naiveté and reinvention from a 46-year-old man who has previously released 11 albums.
First Night Alone sits in the traditional country music pocket, whereas My Gumbaynggirr Skies is propelled by an English folk song motif. Running features a riff that wouldn’t be out of place on a Rick Springfield record; Down the Road is a gospel swing number and Halfway Creek Timber Cutting Man is a bluesy/swampy paean to Cassar-Daley’s life at Halfway Creek and his prowess (or not) at cutting timber posts with a chainsaw.
Then there are several musical interludes – the Neil Young tinged A Cold Walk Home, the banjo and Aboriginal clap sticks-driven This River is My Soul –, and something Cassar-Daley has never done before: Blue Lights Poem, is spoken atonally over an echoey, slightly out of tune guitar, seemingly performed late at night during a time of reflection and, perhaps, a reference to a head-on collision in his HQ Holden: ‘There’s blue light flashing in the rain, in the rain/quarter to one out on the highway, quarter to one/they say that a man lays bleeding in the rain, in the rain/what have I done out on the highway, what have I done?’
Making the record, Cassar-Daley “looked at all of the stories and all of the different bands” that he’d played with, including Little Eagle, his covers band that was prominent on the NSW north coast circuit during his teenage years. “We were playing a lot of stuff that wasn’t necessarily country,” he says. “We were trying to keep people dancing and playing a lot of Eagles and a bit of Neil Young, and we’d branch out and play some Johnny Cash. I really think this record is a reflection of all of the things that I’ve played since I was a kid.”
Five of the songs on the record were co-written with another of Grafton’s favourite musical sons, Don Walker of Cold Chisel fame. “I first met Don when I was about 25 and I was living down in Sydney. I’d go over and show him an idea that I had and we’d half finish them.”
Walker recorded demos and, years later, “knew exactly where to find them”, says Cassar-Daley. “He forehanded the [demos] onto me saying, ‘I’ve always thought this was a beautiful song, why don’t we try and finish it?’ That was how a lot of the co-writing happened with Don, via the internet. If My Heart Was a Town was a poem that I sent to Don, and he came back and really, really loved it. I just thought about my first absolute heartbreak as a kid. I thought about the South Grafton drive in and all of the places that I used to go to that have closed down. If My Heart Was a Town is a desolate, broken down place.
But it’s the spare and heartfelt When My Daddy Played that speaks loudest. I used to visit my Dad on the holidays, I couldn’t wait to get out of that car and see his smiling face / Even though he and Mum couldn’t work it out, I always felt comfortable in his little place … He’d get out his guitar and every fear I had was gone … Every song he played left me wanting more … when my Daddy played.
So why is this album such a grass roots production from a man who sits atop the Australian country music heap? “I mostly have control over all that stuff; and I really do explain to them, ‘Look I’m not making this for American radio.’ Making songs for American radio or pop radio in Australia, it’s really compressed and in your face, and I just don’t want that.”
Cassar-Daley is a humble man, his humility has always been his greatest strength, his point of difference, but that doesn’t mean he is compliant – right down to the order of the tracks. “It just has to flow like a show would. I want people to feel like they’re sitting at a show. But I’ve never done little motifs like I’ve done in-between the songs like this, the little things that I wanted to add, little things to take people on a journey before we get to the next adventure.”