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Various Artists

Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music – 2000 (Larrikin)

Reviewed by Sophie Best

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"Down at Banjo Bore you'll find me sittin'

With a friend who plays the country-style guitar

We'll sing some Charley Pride and share a bottle

When the doors are closed at the Kimberley Hotel Bar

There are many of my people who are sufferin'

Like me beneath the trees at Banjo Bore" - Kevin Gunn, Down By Banjo Bore

The suffering of Australia's indigenous peoples is manifold and runs deep in the traditions of Aboriginal country music - traditions that have been largely hidden and ignored in mainstream musical history. Hence the title of "Buried Country," a trailblazing compilation of Aboriginal country music artists from the 1950s' to the 1990's.

This is an astonishing social document, a testament to the richness and diversity of indigenous country music. Many of the songs have never previously seen the light of day and might have been lost forever were it not for journalist Clinton Walker's painstaking odyssey to document this music with the CD release, its accompanying documentary film and full-color coffee table book.

Walker spent five years traveling Australia, uncovering rare recordings and interviewing Aboriginal artists. The result reveals an abundant generational tradition of bush ballads, stringbands, country-soul, rockabilly, gospel, blues, minstelry and protest music from the outback to the pubs and clubs of inner-city Sydney and Melbourne.

Country music's roots may be in white America, but as a genre it has had a particular resonance for black Australians. For many Aboriginals growing up in remote communities, radio was the only source of music; and in rural Australia, that music was almost exclusively country up to the 1970's.

The Aboriginal songwriters Walker interviewed spoke of their memories of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers crackling through outback transistor radios. Those songs of poverty, struggle, heartache, drinking, prison and loneliness struck a chord for many indigenous musicians.

Stories of hardship, loss, alienation and discrimination emerge from the margins of the songs here. Two tracks from Vic Simms' 1977 album "The Loner," recorded live while he was an inmate in the infamous maximum-security Bathurst Jail, are extraordinary prison songs. The buoyant arrangements and horn sections do not dilute the acid bite of Simms' lyrics: "If you're brown, stick round/If you're white, it's alright/ And if you're black, you get back/Into the shadows."The tragedy of the "stolen generation" - Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families as part of Australia's shameful assimilation policies - is articulated with great potency in songs like Bob Randall's "Brown Skin Baby," which predates Archie Roach's "Took The Children Away" (also included) by almost two decades. Walker describes the song as "the flower in a corner of the dustbin of history" and its power as a lament, with Randall's mournful yodels and deeply affecting lyrics, is undiminished today.

Yet, there is joy in these songs, too. Dougie Young's "Cut A Rug" raucously documents a drinking and dancing spree - no matter that the participants ended up "in the clink" (prison); Tiddas' "In My Kitchen" is an ode to friendship's creature comforts, sung in gorgeous three-part gospel harmonies; and Wilma Reading gets sultry and sexy in the jazz-calypso number "That's How I Go For You."

Australia's best-known Aboriginal singer, Jimmy Little, recently enjoyed a career renaissance, and two of his hits are included. Also featured is former world boxing title-holder Lionel Rose, who recorded two country albums after his retirement from the ring in 1970. The title cut from his autobiographical concept album,"Jackson's Track," is a terrific country raveup, a love song to a country town by a homesick city boy with rollicking fiddle and pedal steel backing.

"Buried Country" is a release of enormous scope and integrity; most importantly, it's consistently great listening