Local Identities

Bountiful Fruit

Geoff Helisma

Paul Commerford, 61, who could be described as The Family Tree’s patriarch, recites a poem on the group’s second collection of songs, The Benefits are Bountiful.

Simply titled Family, it sets the tone for the six songs that follow – two original tunes, two traditional songs, an Aussie bush music song that tells the story of Ned Kelly set to the theme music from The Beverly Hillbillies, and a cover of Bill Withers’ Lean on Me.

In part, Paul recites: Family is a loving word / It feels good just to say it / It’s a kind of team that we’re all in / And anyone can play it.

The Family Tree is Paul and his wife Anne, their daughter and son-in-law, Amy and Rob Imeson, and Amy and Paul’s three children, Joel, 12, Molly, 10, and Charlie, 8.

Paul thinks for a moment, remembering when The Family Tree first started. “June 2005,” he says.

“I reckon Joel was about three when he started standing up with you and me strumming his ukulele and singing with us,” says Rob.

“About nine years ago Paul and I started playing duo stuff together, at the Harwood Hotel mainly. We branched off every now and then and started playing the odd gig in Grafton, and brought the kids along.”
“Rob and I were always getting on good together. We used to twist Amy’s arm to get up and sing the odd song,” Paul says. 

But the story begins “way before that, I reckon”, says Rob, who remembers watching Amy sing when he first met her. At this point Rob was 21 and still playing his guitar in his bedroom because he never wanted “to let anyone hear”.

“I used to play a bit at uni, but very rarely; and only to three or four close friends, if that. I used to go on the internet and get folders and folders of songs that I thought I could play, but then I found out that [the chord] B minor was hard, F was hard, too, and I used to give up. Then I remember coming back and seeing Amy and Cummo playing at the Seafood Expo at the marina in Yamba.”

“I found it in my Year 12 diary the other day,” says Amy. “It said, ‘playing flute with Dad at the seafood expo’.”

“It was 1998,” says Rob.

“I met Amy at Christmas time. All of her family would come together and have a jam at least three times every Christmas holidays. They’d sit in a circle and sing songs and it was great”.

“Then Amy played Wonderful Tonight to me, the Eric Clapton song, I’ll never forget that, she finger picked it really nice. Then we just started mucking around playing together. It would have been five years later when Cummo and I did our first gig.”

“Cummo was doing gigs all around with John Peppercorn and Trevor Day and he let us get up and play one day at the [Yamba Shores] tavern on Australia Day. We’d just got back from being married, so I reckon it was 2002, just before Joel was born.”

There’s a song, Road Kill, on the Family Tree’s first album, written by Joel when he was five.

“I can’t really remember the first year they started wanting me to play, but I can remember getting up and playing more, probably when we [Rob, Amy, Joel, Molly and Charlie] went around Australia in a caravan”.

“When I sing it, I tell people that we kept on seeing dead things on the side of the road, so we thought we’d write a song about road kill, but that’s not really why we wrote it. I was getting home-schooled, I’d just started kindergarten, and the teacher sent me some English work.”

“It was like, rhyme these words ‘flat’ and ‘splat’ in a sentence, and we made a song out of that.”

Cane toad is flat, the road train went splat / now he’s there lying on the road / blinded by the lights of that road train that night / no more jumping for that old cane toad.

“I had cane toads, kangaroos and cows in the song.”

“What about all the [dead] cows on the road to Darwin?” says Rob.

“From Camooweal to Darwin there were all of these dead cows. It looked like someone had hit them with a pin and they’d lost all of their air. They looked disgusting; that’s when we started having those ideas.”

Image : Amy and Rob 

It was on this journey in 2009 that thoughts of further developing his craft entered Rob’s mind.

“I saw something I wanted to do … go to the Australian Academy of Country Music in Tamworth. I was looking for song writing workshops on the internet and that came up. It was $3,000 and we couldn’t afford it, so I applied to the John Butler seed fund.”

Rob got the grant, went to the two-week course, where, as a result, he wrote Woman Waiting (“about the HMAS Sydney and the tragedy that happened on the WA coast”), and subsequently recorded his debut solo album, There’s a Woman Waiting.

“Before that I’d written a silly song about Wicked Campervans, really silly.”

They paid me some money, and when we got back from the trip I had enough to buy the guitar and the amplifier and PA that we use now. “

“I had a little bit of; not confidence, I don’t know. It felt like, ‘Oh well, if John Butler thought it was okay.’ I had the college to look forward to, and I had this song: there was a little bit of momentum building and I thought I could continue doing it as something a little bit more than a habit or a bit of a thing to do in the bedroom.”

Amy remembers when she first caught the music bug.

“I’d take a pillow and a sleeping bag and hide in the back of Dad’s car when he’d go to band practice. I’d just lie on the floor and watch, I just loved it.”

“She knew all of the words to any song I was singing,” says Paul.

The Family Tree has sold out two pressings (1000 cds) of the first album, most of them in the Norfolk Bistro at the Yamba Bowling Club over the past three years.

But they didn’t put a price on them; instead they just asked people to pay what they thought they were worth.

“Some people put three dollars in and others put in a $100; we’ve had a couple of blokes put a $100 in,” says Paul.

“We have a regular gig on Monday nights,” says Rob.

“I reckon every week people come up and are stoked at watching the family. Some people have been coming for ages.”

“Some people have come back three years in a row when they are on holidays,” says Amy, “every Monday night, every week. Some Victorians stay at the caravan park for four to six weeks.”

“Some of them have tears in their eyes,” says Paul.

Amy: “How about that guy last Monday night, he walked in the door and I thought, ‘I know his face.’

I just smiled and said hello, and he asks, ‘Do you know me?’ I say, ‘I just know your face.’

He says, ‘I was here 18 months ago, I’m from Wales and I came through to visit my daughter and I just happened to be here on a Monday night and I loved it.’

He goes, ‘I rocked into town yesterday and we’re only here for two nights and this was the first place I came to see if the little family band was playing.’

“He said he’d been playing his little family tree CD on his way, driving here,” says Paul.

“Every week there are people who come up and be really nice about the show,” says Rob.

Amy: “Some people cry.”

Rob: “We probably get a bit blasé with it all, but it’s nice to be able to do that for people.”

Paul: “Even the locals; and the waitresses still seem to dig it.”

Rob: “They know the words to the songs and sing along. There’re a couple of backpackers who have rocked in over the years who have written us letters, saying how much they miss being there on a Monday. They’re young; and we think we cater for the older people?”

The Family Tree (l-r) – Rob Imeson, Molly Imeson, Paul Commerford, Joel Imeson, Charlie Imeson, Amy Imeson and Anne Commerford.

The group’s just-released album, The Benefits are Bountiful, was produced and engineered by Roger Corbett at his Blue Mountains recording studio.

Corbett has been a member of the still-going and award-winning group, The Bushwackers, since 1980.

“We had a great time at Roger’s, he’s been so good for us,” says Rob.

“He was really patient. Every morning he’d grab the kids and take them and give them a half-hour tutorial: mandolin, violin playing, how to strum a ukulele properly. He got Joel to play a baritone uke instead of a normal one because it’s similar to a guitar, so it will transfer better when he wants to play the guitar. He was just great at teaching them different tricks.”

The Imeson family set off on another caravanning adventure at the end of February 2015.

“We’re going north to do a bit of work,” says Rob.

“We got the bug last time. We did it when Charlie was one when we left. Now she’s eight and Joel’s 12 and Molly is 10. If we don’t do it now we might not get the chance to do it again. We’ll be home schooling them and seeing Australia.”

Any plans for performing? “We’ll probably stay at a lot of caravan parks and play at the happy hour and things like that, where we don’t have to go to a venue. And [this time] we’ve got something to sell,” Rob says.

“I think the music will benefit from the trip,’ says Paul.

“When they come home I reckon they’ll have improved out of sight and the family will be matured. I‘ll be crying when they leave and while they are away; but I’m really proud of them, it’s a small town thing I suppose, but it’s my pride and joy”.

“It’s just great to see Rob go hard with the music and get so good at it. Then the kids come along one at a time and, as they get older, join in. And then, in the end, my wife Anne, who would never come to gigs, all of sudden she started coming to gigs. She got caught up in the osmosis of it all and joined, too.”

“’Come on Granny Annie’, we said, ‘why don’t you start playing something?’” says Amy.

“One of us got her a piano accordion: ‘You can play piano so why don’t you play that?’ She just practiced and practiced and worked it all out.”

Molly explains why her family lives, loves and plays together.

“I like being able to play my violin in front of heaps of people,” she says, purely and simply.