The Music Mix, on Radio New Zealand National after the 11 o’clock news tonight, features New Zealand duo Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams. Never heard of them? Neither had I, until a couple of weeks ago. But I saw them at Aratoi in Masterton on Sunday night and they are seriously good. In fact I’d go so far as to say that in 40 years of listening to live music here and overseas, I can remember only a handful of performances that were as satisfying as this one. What’s more, my wife, a far more exacting critic than I, agrees.How to describe them? This gets harder with every passing year as musical genres mutate and overlap, but the best way I can put it is that their repertoire seamlessly blends classic country with a grittier contemporary style. On Sunday they paid homage to one or two old country standards that have almost been forgotten – notably Cool Water, written in 1936 by Bob Nolan of the Sons of the Pioneers. Some of us are old enough to recall Cool Water being a staple on radio request shows in the 1950s, but I would guess many in the audience at Aratoi were hearing it for the first time.
What impressed me is that while Delaney and Marlon's treatment of songs like Cool Water and the Cox Family’s I Am Weary – Let Me Rest (from the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is respectful, they make them entirely their own. Williams’ tenor voice is so thrillingly pure and sweet that it might cause atheists to wonder whether there really is a god. It put me in mind of the angelic-sounding Louvin Brothers, whose ballad Knoxville Girl wound up the set on Sunday night (a shame that a muddy sound system made it hard for many to hear the words – or perhaps not, since the story is pretty gruesome).Though they don’t normally perform together – Davidson usually tours solo and Williams has his own Christchurch-based group, the wonderfully named Unfaithful Ways –they are a natural fit in a yin-and-yang kind of way. Williams provides the light while Davidson, with his harsher vocal styling and biting guitar, serves as the shade. They even manage to look like an Antipodean reincarnation of something from 1930s Kentucky, having adopted an appearance best described as hillbilly gangster. Davidson wouldn’t look out of place in a Depression-era “Wanted” poster.
Where these extraordinarily talented, original and authentic-sounding country acts spring from is a mystery, especially when you consider that for decades country music in New Zealand subsisted deep underground where no radio programmers go. Perhaps there’s something in the artesian water down Canterbury way, where many of them seem to originate.Another impressive act new to me was Miss Ebony Lamb from Wellington, who opened for Delaney and Marlon at Aratoi. A singer-songwriter in the Gillian Welch mould, she presented an impressive original set, flawlessly accompanied by Wairarapa guitarist Bob Cooper-Grundy and a female accordionist and fiddler whose name I missed (along with most of the words in Miss Ebony’s songs – that sound system again).
By coincidence, on RNZ in the early hours of last Saturday morning I heard an episode of Chris Bourke’s fascinating and sadly under-promoted series Blue Smoke, based on his book tracing the development of popular music in New Zealand. It happened to include a song by Rex and Noelene Franklin, stalwarts of New Zealand country music in the 1960s and 70s.Fifty years ago in Central Hawkes Bay, Rex taught my brother Paul and I to play guitar (the first song we learned was May I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister). Rex has lived through an era when country music seemed in terminal decline. I don’t know where he lives now, but I bet he’s thrilled by its unexpected resurgence.