Garth Porter came from pop to become one of Australian country's greatest but quietest stars. Debbie Kruger reports.
Country music is out of the wilderness, but its liberator is no wild west hero.
He is a mild mannered former pop star whose desire to be inconspicuous is as fervent as his dedication to his craft.
Rarely does one shop for music according to the production credit, but if considering a foray into the so-called "new" Australian country music, your most reliable indicator will be the name Garth Porter on the CD's back cover.
As a producer and songwriter with an ever growing roll call of artists, Porter has masterminded the resurgence of Australian country music with a style that extends way beyond the studio. His psychological approach a painstaking process of thought, preparation and personality analysis before the songs are even considered is unique in the recording industry and the country music fraternity can't stop singing his praises.
They talk of Porter's ability to infuse country with a popular, contemporary, sophisticated sound. They talk of his commercial sensibility. They say he has an unbelievably good grasp of the fundamentals of country music. He is a friend, a mentor, a real angel.
Getting Porter himself to talk about it is another thing. Garth is a wallflower on this particular subject, says industry insider Dave Saunders. "Im amazed you got him to agree to taIk to you."
The country music press are envious. Porter has only done one interview prior to this, in the Tamworth-based paper Capital News, and even they can't remember it, because it is a well known fact that Garth Porter doesn't do media.
"He's always being asked to talk about himself, go on television, all that," says Gina Jeffreys, Australia's highest profile female country singer, currently working with Porter on her second album. "He turns them all down." Fortunately she and the other musicians on Porter's "A team" are happy to wax lyrical. Jeffreys happily gives Porter most of the credit for making her debut album, The Flame, so popular.
"I would actually attribute to Garth almost totally the current rencaissance of country music in Australia," says Jeff Chandler, whose management company looks after three Kernaghan siblings Lee, Tania and Fiona, the first two of whom are Porter's clients.
At the Country Music Awards in Tamworth last January, Porter picked up his fourth Producer of the year award and three other award winning recordings carried his production credit. On collecting his Golden Guitar, Porter, a model of modesty, looked uncomfortable on the podium and remarked that he was not used to being in the limelight.
Strange, that. Twenty years ago, a catchy pop song called "Howzat" shot to the top of the Australian charts, the biggest ever hit for Sherbet, Australia's most commercially successful and unfailingly pretty pop group of the 1970s. Porter, as Sherbet's keyboard player and creative backbone, had co-penned the song, as he did virtually all of Sherbet's hits throughout the decade. Platinum record sales, awards, sell-out tours, hysterical teenage fans and a centrefold in Cleo Porter lived it all.
In the recent book Glad All Over, music journalist Peter Wilmoth wrote of "Gods like Garth Porter whose hair had more movement than a scenic railway. While Daryl Braithwaite was the official spunk, Porter was a creditable second-in-command. A truer god never massaged the keys of a synthesiser."
An appraisal that would no doubt cause Porter to cringe. I bring references to the Sherbet days into our conversation cautiously. He is not as loath to discuss that period of his career as I expect, but if history has not judged Sherbet favourably, Porter is not complaining. He has referred to himself then as "a shocking lyric writer." He does not like the records they made, and certainly never listens to them. Although he confesses to having indulged in the excesses of pop's high life, he did not enjoy the adulation, and if people still recognise him today, he doesn't want to know.
Sherbet was a frustrating experience for Porter. The quintessential mainstream musical endeavour, it was never critically accepted in the way a band like Skyhooks was. Sherbet was not cool. Interestingly now Porter is working in a genre that has traditionally been unfashionable, and he is making it very cool.
Country music has always been underrated in Australia. The Country Music Association of Australia cites a Saulwick poll which reveals 17% of Australians name country music as their favourite genre, slightly behind classical and ahead of pop. Australia's top selling recording artist, Slim Dusty, has sold more than 4.3 million units in Australia. The "new wave" of young country artists achieve profiles akin to their rock and pop contemporaries. "I truly believe that Garth has changed the face of Australian country music," says Lee Kernaghan, whose three Porter-produced albums have sold in excess of a quarter of a million units. "He has brought Australian country music to the mainstream. There are people who never thought they'd like country music that like the sound of these records that Garth is making."
The transition from pop idol to country music's most significant creative force was unplanned. After Sherbet was finally laid to rest in 1984, Porter wanted to concentrate on songwriting, chiefly as a lyricist. "Country music wasn't even in the realm of thoughts," he says. A solo performing career was a vague option but never pursued ("I'm a shocker of a singer, says the man who took lead vocal on three Sherbet hits), and even writing on his own was a struggle. ''The credentials of having been in Sherbet at that time were...well, it was kind of likehaving the plague really."
He teamed up with a country writer, Reece Kirk. The form suited him. "I like the disciplines of country music. You write a good song and it's got to be sound from top to bottom. You can't use studio tricks to make it work." He and Kirk made numerous demos, and when the singers came calling, they wanted Porter to produce. That had not been on his agenda, but he unassumingly consented. He had garnered much production experience on the Sherbet albums, and he knew exactly what he did not want to do.
"The Sherbet thing was just going so fast all the time, and we'd stop and then have six weeks to write a new album, so I'd just shut myself off and clutch at straws, whatever I could to piece together the ingredients for an album," he recalls. "And as soon as that was finished we were on the road again. There was really no time to think about yourself, or put yourself in any position to recharge the batteries to get re-enthused about anything."
So his new approach in both writing and producing had to be one of time and effort, getting to know the artists inside and out. The result has been, without exception, a whole new breed of country music stars.
"The first things that I look for when I get interested in an artist is do they have talent, are they an interesting person, and do I think that I can draw something from the character of that person and their talent and make it their own record," Porter says. The objective for me is that any record that I make could only have been made by that artist. There is no-one else in the world who could have made that record."
"A lot of producers are glorified engineers," says Jeff Chandler. "In some ways a lot of pop albums work that way, but with Garth he gets right inside the artist's head, fixes up songs, identifies an audience."
Chandler was working with promoter and manager Kevin Jacobsen in 1987 when he had a call from Porter, looking for some material for a young up and coming singer called James Blundell. Rob Walker, then artist and repertoire manager for EMI, was seeking to invigorate his country roster with artists who would appeal to a younger, broader audience. "I took James on the proviso that Garth produce," he says.
"I had a meeting with James and he was a lovely man," says Porter affectionately. "I really liked him and he's an incredible lyricist. When he writes about his Australia it's very very real." Blundell's meteoric rise to national prominence in the late 1980s related directly to Porter's production of his first three albums. "Things haven't gone well for him in recent years, but he's a great guy," Porter adds sadly. Porter won't outright say it, nor will Blundell's former manager, Chandler country music people are far too nice but when Blundell became hip with the mainstream rock music crowd, he changed producer and management, compromised his country origins, and his popularity waned.
Not so with Lee Kernaghan, who had sung some of Porter's demos in 1986, and made a lasting impression. The son of country legend Ray Kernaghan, he had won the Star Maker quest in 1982 but had since been performing with little recognition. In 1991 at Porter's invitation he left his home town of Albury bound for Sydney, and unfurled his swag of songs. Porter rejected most of them.
"Lee's influences at that time were all American, and I thought, this is not relevant to here. How can I expect this to move people or for people to take it into their hearts when it doesn't even sound like it's written for them in a way that Australian people understand and live their lives? Affected by the poetry of Henry Lawson, which he saw as "really potent, brilliantly written, emotional, romantic," Porter wanted his new artist to make the connection.
Relates Kernaghan, "He said, Lee, I really think you need to get in touch with your heritage, as an Australian. I would suggest you delve back into the works of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson, and have a look at yourself and where you come from, how you grew up.' And the idea for Boys From the Bush came from that. It was a real turning point for me with my songwriting and in my thinking."
The Porter-Kernaghan song became the new anthem for country music. It might not have sold as many copies as "A Pub With No Beer," but it was more relevant to the 1990s, celebrating the modern Australian rural spirit.
"If it wasn't for Garth there would be no 'Boys From the Bush'," says guitarist Rod McCormack, who has played on every Porter-produced album over the past five years, including that of his own band, The Wheel. "Lee would probably still be singing Hank Williams Junior songs in Australia, trying to make that work."
Relevance is key, according to Porter. "I felt that country music had become irrelevant to the new generation of Australian people, that it was the same ideals and standards and images which were just getting recycled from the '50s. Anyone who had attempted to modernise it had simply gone the American way, they didn't believe that they could take Australian images and put them in a contemporary musical setting. And what I felt was that the Australian country music tradition has a very rich heritage and should be acknowledged and embraced by anybody going into country music. I don't think that you can waIk in there without recognising what it's been, in order to become a traveller on its roads. You've got to know where that road has come from to give you some bearing of where you're headed to. And it seemed to me that it was a very simple thing to embrace the lyrical tradition and even to an extent the musical tradition, but to do it so it sounded like it was done this year, instead of something that was recycled from 20 or 30 years ago."
His philosophy was best articulated on Kernaghan's latest album, 1959, which drew thematically on the simplicity and values of the past but presented them in a thoroughly contemporary form.
Porter credits his childhood in rural New Zealand as giving him an inherent sense of country values. He has spent the last 30 or so years in Sydney, but points out that most of Australia's successful country artists are based in the city, including Slim Dusty and John Williamson. "I think it's because to succeed in country music you can't just be the local yokel. You have to be a very experienced and talented entertainer as well, and it requires a proficiency that somebody living out in the bush would find it hard to achieve."
Gina Jeffreys grew up in the city, but her musical influences were mainly country. After hearing Kernaghan's first album, she knew she wanted Porter to produce her. Between their first meeting and actually going into the studio, there were months of drinking coffee together. "He really had to get to know me first as a person so that every song was going to reflect me, the music was going to reflect my taste, and it was really something from me, not just a bunch of songs that sounded like they'd be hits.
Porter's pop background was clearly an apprenticeship for greater things. "Garth came into the country music industry bringing that pop thing, which is how to make the song hooky, and how to make it popular, broadly appealing," says Jeffreys, "That's why everything he touches in the country music industry becomes successful." McCormack admires Porter's "pop sensibility." Kernaghan talks of the "Garth factor."
And then there is the sheer technical virtuosity. "The technical side of recording country music is very critical," says Porter. "It might sound very ordinary, but to make it without tricks it just comes down to fundamental ability at being very good at recording." Porter works closely with his engineer, Ted Howard, on all his projects. "We've gone in pursuit of the sonic side of recording country music, the idea being that if somebody plays something great and has got a great instrument, why does it have to sound really shitty when it comes out on a record? And why did Australian country records sound particularly bad up against international records?"
For all his contributions to the country music scene, trying to pinpoint the Garth Porter "sound" is difficult. Porter denies there is one, and his artists offer numerous explanations which say more about his influence than his style. If there is a Garth Porter sound, it is the sound of each artist's individual truth.
And needless to day, their reverence for the man even encompasses his past work. They are far less derisive of his early output than Porter himself. Kernaghan thinks "Howzat" was "an absolute killer," and that the Sherbet catalogue contains some great songs.
"You should try and grab hold of that shot of Garth with Sherbet where they've all got their clothes off," he suggests, and then adds, "Don't mention I said that."
Gina Jeffreys's new disc is released mid-July.