In the very early seventies, when Australian music was finding its way beyond the hit single ‘pop scene’ days, when it was torn between ‘head’ and bubblegum bands, when it was discovering the joys of rock festivals and albums inventive and conceptual, Country Radio - inspired by the Byrds, Burritos, Poco, Eagles, Nashville Dylan, The Band cosmic country explosion stateside -  headed up a small but impressive Australian country-rock community. Easily the most accomplished act of the genre, they scored hit singles, sold records in reasonable quantity, were all over the ABC’s GTK, appeared at the major outdoor events of the day (including Sunbury ’73 and Mulwala) and were seen on bills with Creedence, Elton John, Santana and Fairport Convention. The band grew out of what was essentially a folk trio put together by Go-Set journalist and former teacher Greg Quill to record a singer-songwriter album for EMI’s Harvest label in 1970, which was set up by music publisher Gus McNeil.  With guitarist Orlando Agostino, harmonica player Chris Blanchflower, Quill (who also ran folk haunt The Shack in the Sydney beachside suburb of Narrabeen and was active on the folk circuit) recorded Fleetwood Plain, a stark and impressive collection of personal songs which drew strong reviews – particularly for his powerful lyrical grasp - and gave Quill a base to move boldly into electric country rock. By the time the band had signed with Festival Records’ in-house Infinity label in 1972, there was a brand new Country Radio, comprising Blackfeather pianist John A. Bird, drummer Tony Bolton, bassist John Bois, Chris Blanchflower and  multi-instrumentalist, Kerryn Tolhurst. It was the latter connection which would provide a pivotal relationship and eventually result in the album you are now holding. 

In August 1972 the band broke through into the radio mainstream with the shimmering Quill-Tolhurst penned ‘Gypsy Queen’. On the heels of this irresistible outing came an album, Country Radio Live, recorded before an invited audience at TCS Studios in Melbourne. It was an all-original work, with the exception of two songs by Americana singer-songwriter John Stewart. A single lifted from the LP, ‘Wintersong’ (also co-written by Tolhurst & Bois) became a minor hit in April 1973.  “Country Radio was the first real recording band, that I was in. It was a pivotal moment.” says Kerryn, who would go on to pen Way Out West and most of The Dingoes first album . “Greg encouraged me and gave me the confidence to be a songwriter myself”.The highlight of Country Radio’s short span may well have been the Sunbury festival where, as a gentle contrast to the “suck more piss” bombast of Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs, Country Radio shone so very brightly. The live album was the peak of the major line-up of Country Radio before it disintegrated early in 1973. Kerryn regrets to this day that the band “was never captured properly, never able to demonstrate just what it was capable of.” Kerryn soon left to form The Dingoes (which John Bois would soon join ) with Broderick Smith of Carson and Chris Stockley of Axiom, Greg put together a new quartet version of the band for dates and recorded a handful of tracks (‘I Need Women’ and covers of ‘Bound For South Australia’ and ‘Singing The Blues’ with Renee Geyer. It was a directionless burst, over in six months. These cuts and other single sides, album tracks and general leftovers were mopped up by the album Gypsy Queen, which was as close to a Country Radio studio album that we would get.

During 1974 Quill recorded the slick and accomplished John Sayers-produced solo album The Outlaw’s Reply, with the musical assistance of former Country Radio members and crack players Terry Walker, Peter Jones, Chris Neal and Barry Leaf, Russell Johnson and Kerryn Tolhurst. Despite it being launched with a pioneering country-rock concert at Sydney Opera House with the Dingoes and Richard Clapton in support, it was not received with any great consumer enthusiasm and by 1975 Greg, having landed a Council for the Arts grant, was working extensively in Canada, which proved somewhat more responsive to his music called Southern Cross, which took him through to 1978 when he toured Australia, released the Elektra single ‘Been So Long’ (the hard rocking flipside of which, ‘I Wonder Why’, landed solid Canadian radio airplay). He then signed as a solo entity with Canada’s Attic Records and disappeared from the lives of Australians.

By 1980 the imperatives of making a living and raising a family saw Greg walk away from making music for a couple of decades.   Apart from Go-Set, he had worked, post-band, as a general feature writer for the Sunday Telegraph, so music journalism loomed as a logical second career. He edited some magazines, such as Music Express and Graffiti before taking up the long-running role as music critic for Canada’s leading newspaper The Toronto Star. But Greg had not able to easily walk away from his past.

Back in Melbourne in 1999, an impromptu gig with Kerryn Tolhurst and Chris Stockley led him back to music performance. Back home in Toronto and within relatively easy reach of a New York-residing Tolhurst, they began creating again, linking up with Garth Hudson of The Band, and eventually recording the 2003 album So Rudely Interrupted for Canada’s True North label. Once he tasted his old life again, Greg became active on Canada’s roots music scene, performing widely with a loose collective of similarly-minded players. With fellow countryman Terry Wilkins of the Flying Circus he also formed a band called Ironbark which delved into traditional bush music. He also remained active on television and satellite radio, presenting roots music programs.  We lost Greg on the fifth of May in 2013, from a combination of pneumonia and sleep apnea. He was just 66 years of age. It cut deep among those who’d known and loved him as both a creative force and as a particularly engaging human being.

The genesis of this project came out of a tribute concert at a new location of  The Shack at Narrabeen in September 2013, organised by Blanchflower and admirer Rhonda Wawer and featured Kerryn Tolhurst, Mike McClellan, Glenn Cardier, Kevin Bennett of The Flood, Jim Pike and a range of others who had been part of the annals of The Shack’s history. Kerryn came away with a belief that a recorded tribute needed to be mounted.     It’s a case of rubbing your eyes with a certain disbelief as you contemplate the participants. The vocalists interpreting Greg’s songs form a large portion of the upper echelon of Australia’s vocalists and singer-songwriters of that heady era. The roster includes both his contemporaries and those who have come to recognise his importance and, over the years, been entranced by his work.   And it isn’t just the stellar cast of headliners to marvel at but the key players who you’ll find in the fine print, notables, apart from Tolhurst, it features The Pigram Brothers, Sam See, Daddy Cool’s Ross Hannaford, and Procol Harum’s Chris Copping, Garrett Costigan and the ethereal and eternal Chris Blanchflower – every one of them contributing with great passion. Perhaps because he spent so many years out of the country, a set of tributes of this calibre is necessary to elevate Greg Quill’s song craftsmanship in public perception.

This is a powerful undertaking on the part of figures of extraordinary background; legends who have come to define our perception of Australian music. One suspects that this will not be the last time that Quill’s catalog of superb songs is given an airing by fellow craftsmen who understand the artistry involved. As Blanchflower sees it, this stellar crew of interpreters have found elements and possibilities in Quill’s words that may have actually escaped him and his comrades at the time.It’s a rich vein, to be sure. 

Glenn A. Baker