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INTERVIEW: A different country (Sydney Morning Herald)

[ 0 ] January 11, 2012 |

Kurt Wagner will be wearing more than one hat at the Sydney Festival, writes BERNARD ZUEL.

The dolorous voice of Kurt Wagner, the erstwhile leader of country soul band Lambchop, will be so prominent at Sydney’s leading arts festival this month that he is virtually an artist in residence.

As well as the languidly poignant music of Lambchop, Wagner will be performing as one half of the old-school country duo Kort alongside Cortney Tidwell, as well as in a solo show.

”Yeah, that’s kind of a bit embarrassing,” Wagner says with a rheumy chuckle. ”I’m going to be pretty busy. The only thing I’m not doing, I guess, is having a show of my paintings.”

But we shouldn’t rule out Wagner appearing in a piece of theatre while in town. After all, while majoring in the arts at college in the early 1980s, the future floor layer wrote a play for a documentary drama class.

”Luckily, no one knows about that until now, so we didn’t have to put that one on [in Sydney] as well,” Wagner says, much to the amusement of Tidwell, who finally gets to hear exactly what that play was about – a Montana man obsessed with pulling ticks out of people’s hair and then running away. It was called The Tick Picker of Great Falls and it’s not a stretch to imagine it taking off in Sydney during the summer tick season. Nor is it difficult to see a typical Lambchop protagonist in the lead as their songs are quiet character studies in miniature.

So is Kurt Wagner a method musician, needing to get into a different head space for each of his incarnations?

”It is a little work on the brain to change from night to night but since we are going in one direction, it’s OK,” he says. ”I have found that I definitely have to wear a different hat.”

When Wagner talks about wearing a different hat, the phrase has literal meaning. He proudly wore the kind of trucker’s cap once associated with poor white trash long before urban hipsters discovered the headwear’s ”irony”. He is semi-joking when he says that after an early Kort gig didn’t feel quite right he realised it was because he was wearing the trucker’s cap instead of a more appropriate white cowboy hat.

More than the onstage outfits (”I have more choices,” Tidwell laughs), Kort is the result of two people who have known each other for years tapping into a shared heritage: the songs recorded in her family’s record studio for their label, Chart, which he grew up listening to in the 1960s and ’70s. ”It became a lot of fun because we were finding a different part of our personalities,” says Wagner, to which Tidwell adds: ”It was like picking up an old photo album after all these years”.

”I grew up as a kid having music always in the background, specifically country music,” Tidwell says. ”I tried to distance myself from the genre as much as I could, because it was so much a part of my life and I was sick of it.

”But as I get older I find myself realising how much I love the city and I’ve gone back to my roots and I’m really into country more than I’ve ever been.”

Yet, for all the historical and personal connections, Tidwell and Wagner approached the songs with respect but not a slavish attempt to replicate. Their duets sound like yesterday and today.

”We were just being ourselves and I think we had a sort of comfort level knowing each other as musicians and working in each other’s bands,” he says.

”And why change that? What we did was be ourselves and react to these songs.”

Of course, most people hearing these songs today aren’t coming with the baggage of familiarity and expectation, as might happen with someone, say, covering the Motown catalogue.

”That was to our advantage,” Wagner says. ”Everyone apart from Cortney were going, ‘Wow, what are these things?”’

Kort play at the Famous Spiegeltent on January 19 and City Recital Hall on January 20. Lambchop play at City Recital Hall on January 21. Kurt Wagner plays at the Famous Spiegeltent on January 22. See

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