Colin James Wilson was born in St Kilda, Dunedin, on 11 October 1922, the third of five children of Robert Moffat Wilson, a motorman, and his wife, Louisa Elizabeth Lemon. Known as Cole, he attended Mornington School and when he was 12 bought a guitar, which he was to play for the rest of his life. He had discovered country and western music at an early age, and especially liked the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. He also showed an interest in jazz guitarists Django Reinhardt and Slim Gaillard. A fine ear musician, he was largely self-taught, although he took instruction from Dunedin music teacher Sol Stokes and could read music.
Wilson’s early jobs included delivering milk and working on a sheep station in Central Otago’s Ida Valley. He was also an accomplished junior cyclist. He joined the army in 1943 and then transferred to the Royal New Zealand Air Force, serving at Guadalcanal and Bougainville. After the war he lived briefly in Gisborne before returning to Dunedin, where he would remain.
The Tumbleweeds, the group that would bring Cole Wilson his fame, were formed by bass player Bill Ditchfield in March 1949. Steel guitarist Colin McCrorie and vocalist Nola Hewitt completed the initial lineup, with Nola’s sister Myra joining shortly after. The Tumbleweeds soon went into the Wellington studios of the TANZA (To Assist New Zealand Artists) label and cut six 78 rpm records, the second of which, ‘Maple on the hill’, reputedly became New Zealand’s biggest-selling single, at around 80,000 copies.
After making 16 records for TANZA, from 1957 they recorded eight albums on the Viking label. The group became well known throughout Australasia, although they toured infrequently outside their strong southern New Zealand base, possibly because they insisted on managing themselves. They made just two national tours (1951–52 and 1954) and never went to Australia, where Cole’s younger brother Les, ‘The Otago Rambler’, had gone and found success.
On 1 March 1952, in a double wedding at First Church, Dunedin, Cole Wilson married Tumbleweeds singer Myra Daphne Wembley Hewitt, while Colin McCrorie married her sister Nola. The group’s talented soundman, Leao Padman, built a tape recorder to record the occasion (he would later record the Tumbleweeds’ Viking releases with another self-made machine in the McCrories’ lounge in Signal Hill Road). Wilson held many jobs during his life, spending a number of years with New Zealand Railways, but on his marriage certificate he described himself as a professional entertainer.
The Tumbleweeds toured the South Island in 1973 with Canadian country performer Hank Snow, and by the late 1980s they had been playing almost without a break for nearly 40 years. Wilson rarely performed alone, although he made two solo records for Viking. The group also made one later album for the Music World label in 1982. In 1985 they won the New Zealand Country Music Pioneer Award and three years later they entered the New Zealand Country Music Association Hall of Fame.
Cole Wilson had a commanding stage presence. An excellent guitarist, he was a fine interpreter of Hank Williams, his main influence, and a very good yodeller. He had Williams’s ability to wring every emotion from a lyric, and on songs like ‘Little buddy’ he often brought tears from the audience. He was also a talented songwriter, and his compositions included ‘I’ve wandered too long’ (written for Myra), ‘The outlaw’, ‘Violets blue’, ‘She lies alone’, ‘Land of bamboo’, and the instrumentals ‘Tumbleweed boogie’ and ‘Yodel boogie’.
Off-stage Wilson was a good story-teller with a laconic sense of humour who could make up songs at will at parties. He became well-read: anthropology and tribal histories were favourites. According to Myra, he believed in God, but was not particularly religious; he often told her his church was at the top of Dunedin’s Botanic Gardens, where he spent many hours sitting in quiet contemplation. He was a single-minded man who could be, in the western parlance he loved, ‘ornery’, and he clashed with other members of the band on a number of occasions. An outstanding pioneer of New Zealand country music, Cole Wilson died on 6 January 1993 in Dunedin; he was survived by Myra and their son, Wesley.