The early recording industry promoted many local country singers: they were simple to record, and their discs sold. Among the prominent artists of the 1940s and 1950s were Jack Christie, Jack Riggir (father of country star Patsy Riggir), Johnny Hamblyn, and Johnny Granger, a dairy farmer from Whitford. Women country singers of the period include Phyl Mounce, Fay Doell, Jean Calder, and the Canadian Sisters – Violet and Irene Tomblin, born in Christchurch, but raised in Saskatchewan.
By night Jack Christie performed as one of New Zealand’s yodelling, singing cowboys. His day job was working to help set up the pioneering TANZA recording studios. (TANZA stood for To Assist New Zealand Artists.) Christie’s 1949 single ‘Overlander trail’ was TANZA’s third release. It followed Ruru Karaitiana’s ‘Blue smoke’, sung by Pixie Williams, and Ken Avery’s ‘Paekakariki’.
Johnny Cooper became known as the Māori cowboy when he began recording for HMV in 1955. With his band, the Range Riders, he covered songs by Hank Williams and Hank Snow. His biggest hit was Kitty Wells’s ‘One by one’. The Cooper original on the B-side, ‘Look what you done’, became a party favourite throughout the country. Rex Franklin, from Hawke’s Bay, wrote many of his own songs. With his wife Noelene, Franklin recorded originals such as ‘Rocky mountain lullaby’, ‘On the Takapau Plains’ and ‘A real New Zealand cowboy song’.
Country music hits the big time, 1960s–1980s
New Zealand country music came of age in the 1960s, with radio play for artists such as Garner Wayne, Paul Walden, Peter Posa and Maria Dallas. In 1968–69 The country touch was a very popular local television series. Hosted by Tex Morton, the show featured many acts, with the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band enjoying the highest profile. Mosgiel entrepreneur Joe Brown released numerous albums by country singers such as John Hore and Eddie Low, promoting them on package tours.
Garner Wayne was a Canterbury country singer and songwriter who wrote more than 300 songs and recorded over 100. Wayne’s songs often expressed his love of New Zealand, but his most popular number was ‘Love in a fowl house’, describing a romance between a rooster and a hen:
‘Eerr Eroo! Oh won't you be my wife?’
‘Buk Buk Buk Buk Buk!’ she replied
I’ll be yours and I’ll be true
And I’ll lay lots of eggs for you
I’ll be yours for the rest of my life.1
New Zealand’s most prominent country music event is the Gold Guitars Awards, held in Gore since 1974. It attracts nearly 600 entries in many categories, reflecting the ongoing enthusiasm for country music in dozens of clubs throughout New Zealand.
Another television series, That’s country, screened in prime time from 1976 to 1983. Hosted by Ray Columbus, it gave wide exposure to mainstream acts such as Patsy Riggir, Suzanne Prentice, Brendan Dugan, Gray Bartlett and Jodi Vaughan. It also provided the television debut of perhaps New Zealand’s most original country act, the Topp Twins. Jools and Linda Topp – lesbian twins from Waikato – emerged as accomplished yodellers, comedians and songwriters.
Country rock and alt country
The 1970s and 1980s saw New Zealanders responding to the country-rock genre, including Al Hunter, Ritchie Pickett, the Red Hot Peppers and the Warratahs. The Renderers began playing alternative country, combining country and alternative rock influences, in 1989. In the 2000s they were joined by such ‘alt country’ acts as the Eastern, the Unfaithful Ways and Bernie Griffen and the Grifters. Increasingly, artists performed original material. In the 2000s singer-songwriters including Tami Neilsen, Jackie Bristow, Kylie Harris, Miriam Clancy and Delaney Davidson have followed in the footsteps of Tex Morton, Garner Wayne, Barry Saunders, Wayne Mason and Dusty Spittle in their quest to create a uniquely New Zealand country music.