Mates Hugh Watson and Philip Williams were sitting on the couch at Hugh’s Hall home.
Hugh was playing the Neil Young classic Helpless on guitar and Philip started playing along on blues harp. “You sound really good,” Philip’s partner said, “you should be in a band.”
That was back in 1994, and since then, they have been in a band – first named West Texas Crude, “Because I spent so much time listening to the stock market report,” said Hugh, and later, Willie and The Correspondents. The name ‘Willie’ was a tribute to Willie Nelson, and ‘The Correspondents’, because most members of the band had a connection to the Canberra Press Gallery – and real estate: Hugh (rhythm guitar and vocals) as former private secretary to Senator Susan Ryan, Philip Williams (blues harp and vocals), long-serving ABC TV chief foreign correspondent and Greg Turnbull (drums) press secretary to Paul Keating. They’re joined by real estate agent Matthew Herbert (lead guitar and vocals) and IT expert Peter MacDonald (bass).
Already a close-knit group, banded together by their love of the country/rock music genre, Peter’s two daughters married Matthew’s two sons. “So he can never leave the band now, he’s married to it – literally,” Hugh said.
Since joining their musical forces back in 1994, the band in its different guises has performed mainly in Canberra and the South Coast, everywhere from folk festivals to pubs and clubs.
For many years, they played lots of covers, but Hugh said more recently, he and Matthew started talking about songwriting themselves.
“Matthew lives a few doors down from me at Hall,” Hugh said. “He’s got a studio in his garage where we’ve been practising since about 2020. I’d written a lot of songs and he and I started talking about doing some more songwriting.
“It’s worked out really well. I write lyrics and he does the music or sometimes we do both.
“I’ll come down the street waving lyrics at him … and he’ll say, ‘Oh no, not more …’
“Then we’ll have a fun time playing around with it.”
The band has laid down two albums – “and we have about 50 songs for a third one”.
Hugh says there’s a real joy in what the band does. “It’s wonderful to still be writing and playing at our age,” he said. “And that people come and like our music – we even have a bit of a following down in Tathra.”
The players are heading down to Tathra this weekend for a Sunday afternoon gig at the hotel. Originally, they’d booked and organised a tour of the United States in 2020, but their timing was out. The planned overseas tour coincided with the outbreak of COVID-19. So they’ve settled for a smaller “tour” – one that doesn’t involve jetlag.
They’re playing their two favourite venues, Smith’s Alternative in Civic this Friday night, 25 November and Tathra on Sunday 27 November, at 3 pm.
“These venues are great,” Hugh said, “because the audiences there love hearing original material. They’re the sort of places where people come to listen to the music – not just go to the pub.”
Hugh reckons the band works because they’ve been mates for so long and because three of them, at least, know what it’s like to work in high-pressure jobs and the need to ease such pressure. “We’re all good friends, we don’t have temperamental break-ups like some bands do. Matthew and I just keep churning out songs. The other members suggest things, maybe how to sing or play something, we’re always experimenting which is I guess why it works.
“And most of us have a little more time than we used to,” he joked.
It is also a band with a social conscience. They have played more than 150 gigs in their three-decade history, many for charity, including at the National Folk Festival in Canberra, Majors Creek Festival, Kiama Folk Festival, Tathra Bushfire Relief Concert, Hayrunners Ball for drought relief and many local events for volunteer firefighters, raising more than $300,000 since they first took to the stage. The band has also had its song, Sons of the Somme, accepted in the National Collection of the Australia War Memorial in 2012.
For tickets to the Smith’s gig, go to the website.
Tickets for the Tathra Hotel show will be available at the door.