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Heartstrings and elk guts 

Chuck's Wagon makes Australia safe for alt-country

Australian singer-songwriter Chuck Stokes learned to love American country-rock the old fashioned way, by taking up with a Wyoming highway construction worker who earned extra money skinning and gutting animals.

"When I met her, she had half an elk in the bathtub," he recalls. "It was hard not to fall in love with that."

It turned out to be a short-lived affair, but long enough for her brother to turn Stokes on to bands like the Flying Burrito Brothers and Pure Prairie League, whose music never really reached the shores of Australia.

From there, it was a natural progression to more contemporary alt-country acts like Steve Earle and Son Volt, both of whom have had a strong influence on Stokes and his Sydney-based band, Chuck's Wagon.

Actually, says Stokes, places like Wyoming and Texas have always reminded him of back home.

"We've got cities that are 1,000 kilometers apart," he says. "And, you know, we've got a mountain range that runs all the way down the east coast called the Great Dividing Range, which is infamous in Aboriginal indigenous circles as the 'great serpent.' There's an incredible amount of country, and so the country music and folk scenes are pretty big, really, and quite diverse."

Still, traditional Australian country music owes more to Irish folk music and the kangaroo classic "Waltzing Matilda" (the tale of "a swagman camped in the billabong under the shade of a Coolibah tree") than it does to what we consider country music here in the States.

"There's an Australiana style, guys like John Williamson, who sing in a very Australian voice," explains Stokes. "The fellow that recorded our first record was his soundman for 25 years and really tried to give me a bit more of an Australian twang. But I don't sing that way, I don't hear music that way."

Heartbreak highway

Stokes, whose mother once played in a Maroubra women's banjo club, was exposed to equal amounts of Kiss and Gene Autry in his formative years.

His voice — an expressive baritone that evokes Dave Alvin and Bruce Springsteen at their lonesome best — perfectly suits well-crafted songs that come across as deeply personal.

"I'm one of those guys, I think, that's got a good heart and a confused head," says the former steel fabricator, when talking about the first song that made him feel like a real songwriter. "I was married and living with this wonderful French woman up in the mountains, but she made music a battleground, which was one she was never gonna win."

"Black Road," which is included on the latest Chuck's Wagon album Lipstick and Sin, finds Stokes out on the highway at 4 in the morning:

"Sixty miles of black road between two blankets of red," he sings, "It can seem closer or farther depending on your head."

Those lines beg for some explanation, which Stokes willingly provides.

"I was literally driving between two relationships that had exactly the same red blanket on the bed," he recalls. "A lot of times as a songwriter, you can take things that are quite painful to others and try to make them funny or trite, and there's nothing trite or funny about that song.

"I remember sitting in front of that wife and telling her I had to leave. And I remember trying to get the mattress in the back of an old car I had. There's no way you can make that sound cool, and if you can, you're probably a sociopath."

The resulting song came from, as Stokes puts it, "the part of me that listens to Steve Earle or Townes Van Zandt or early Springsteen. I remember trying to work my way through that period, and unfortunately it's on that record."

Walk the line

Out on the road, where Stokes is currently working with a five-piece version of his band (including the rhythm section from San Antonio's Lil Bit & the Customatics), he finds himself walking the line that separates highly personal songs like "Chew Like Hell" and "On the Ground" from crowd-pleasing early Elvis and Johnny Cash classics.

"If you're an entertainer, you've gotta entertain," he figures. "So when we walking into a room and everyone's having a good time and wanting to dance, you're not gonna play five heartbreaking ballads in a row.

"I think the trick to performing is knowing when to throw one of those in, when you think you can calm a room down for a second. Because there will always be one or two people in that room that something's just happened to that day. And that song's gonna have an effect on them."

bill@csindy.com

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