One of the more unexpected movements in recent years within the country/Americana side of the music world has been the proliferation of Australian acts on American radio waves.
On the mainstream side of things, you have acts like Keith Urban (“Blue Ain’t Your Color”) and Morgan Evans (“Kiss Somebody”) battling for positions at the top of the Country Airplay charts, embracing the pop stylings that many artists find themselves in debt to for today’s country audiences.
On the Americana side of the dial, you’ll find that many Australian acts have leaned into the stories and settings that would have been right at home on a Merle Haggard album 40 years ago. Dubbed “Australiana” by some, the songs found within deal with the heartbreaks and setbacks that grown people must face at random points in life, where every moment isn’t a party by the lake.
Take Ruby Boots, for instance. The Australian singer-songwriter found herself with few options upon leaving a conflicted home at the age of 14 in the town of Perth in Western Australia. She found grueling work upon pearling boats, using the experiences she found there and in other locations to anchor the songs that she writes and performs in her current home of Nashville.
We spoke with Boots, now 36, before her May 21 show at Raleigh’s Pour House Music Hall about the hardscrabble beginnings of her artistic life, as well as the kinship found between the country landscapes of the two continents that she has called home.
Q: As a native Australian now living in Nashville, maybe you can help explain to me how or why Americana either has become or always has been so popular there?
A: I certainly don’t feel like I have a solid explanation for it, but I do feel that it has seemed to create a home for a lot of musicians who wrote within the roots music banner at home that were finding it hard to see if their music did have an audience.
Any form of Americana scene was ever so small just five years ago, but has grown and is still growing, with alt-country artists finding that they have a home outside of Tamworth (the “Country Music Capital of Australia”) — where they are not “Tamworth enough” anyway. Rock ‘n’ roll that isn’t straight up indie Triple J (a government funded, nationally broadcast radio station in Australia, marketed toward listeners between the ages of 18 and 34) rock finds itself a home under the Americana blanket.
I guess my point is, a lot of artists who may have felt homeless in Australia don’t feel as homeless anymore.
Q: The Americana band The Texas Gentlemen is the backing band on your new album. How did this collaborative relationship come about?
A: It was all very organic and kismet in some ways. I had been coming over to Nashville for many years before I relocated to write the album (“Don’t Talk About It”). They were doing a warm up show running through all of Kris Kristofferson’s songs before backing him at Newport Folk Fest in 2016, and I was one of the guest singers for it.
That’s when we first started talking about what I was doing in Nashville, which led to many more conversations about the songs I was writing and what they were all up to, and eventually to us together on the album. I was really excited about the prospect of having such an incredible group of musicians, who all have so much trust in each other as a group, being on the album, as that kind of built in chemistry cannot be faked or bought.
Q: I realize you’ve been asked this a million times before, but what was working on a pearling boat like at the age of 14? Was that the plan all along when you left home at that age, or was it just the best you could find at 14?
A: I left home early and managed to stay in Perth and finish high school, but just year 10 (which roughly translates to sophomore year of high school in America, with junior year being the first year of college prep classes). I stayed in the city for a few more years working before realizing I had to leave and make a drastic change, if life was ever going to make any kind of sense to me, because the one I was living back then didn’t make an ounce of sense.
So I hitched on a truck up to the top end of Western Australia, which took 32 hours straight; that’s in one state just to give you an idea of how big (Western Australia) is. After working in a bar, eventually I landed a job working out at sea.
It was repetitive and backbreaking work. We would lift flat cages that were full of pearl shell out of the water all day and run them through a high-pressure cleaner, use a chisel to chip away at small oysters that might cause them to die and put them back in the water. Most days I was lifting over 300 panels of shell, whilst cleaning all the ropes with a hand chain and chipping away at countless amounts of pearl shell.
It was heavy work, but I worked in an amazing environment where I could see whales and swim with little gummy sharks. We had a wild eagle we tamed who would fly past and come and take the food from our hands at smoko (smoko is Australian for morning or afternoon tea breaks at work), and I could jump into the pristine Indian Ocean anytime I wanted. It had its perks for sure. I was out at sea for three years before I moved on. It taught me to get my ass out of bed at 5 a.m. and not to be afraid of an 11-hour work day.
Q: How long were you in Nashville before the competitiveness of the music business there really became evident?
A: I have approached Nashville as a place where there are artists that I respect and look up to. I see that as inspiring, and take every opportunity I can to work with them. My friends that are working as artists are my heroes on the ground there, and I am always in awe of the kind of artistry that is coming out of the city, and it’s an exceptional community to be a part of.
That said, I do feel as an Australian landing in Nashville I haven’t spent the time in America that most of my friends have, so it’s been an adjustment for me overall. Sometimes I really miss the community that I built over 10 years in Australia, because that kind of connection with people just takes time.
Ruby Boots with Blue Cactus
When: 8 p.m. May 21
Where: Pour House Music Hall, 224 S. Blount St., Raleigh
Cost: $10 in advance, $12 day of show
Info: 919-821-1120 or ThePourHouseMusicHall.com