Sitting across from iconic, country music legend, Graeme Connors, it is hard not to be spell-bound by the friendly, good-humoured Mackay local.
He paints a picture of his life, bursting with colour, dripping with emotion, and charmingly down-to-earth. And just like sitting back on your veranda or driving in your car while listening to 'Let the Cane Fields Burn', you are taken along for the ride - inquisitively curious for the next chapter of his lavish life's tale.
From his Sugar City childhood, to his life on the road, touring alongside international superstars, to his home life with his childhood sweetheart Lyn and their five boys, Mr Connors' tales are as artful tapestries as those of his famous and beloved lyrics.
With 14 Golden Guitar awards under his belt, 19 albums, and a bevvy of awards lining his walls and mantel, his five-decade-long career has taken him places most of us can only dream of.
But he has never forgotten where it all began. And for the 67-year-old songwriter, it's the North that not only remains his true home, but also the region that helped catapult his career to the top.
"Around about 13-14, that's when I picked up a guitar. My life had purpose, and my understanding of relationships and all that sort of stuff really kicked in," Mr Connors said, peering out behind dark sunglasses beneath his hat, locals greeting him with a smile or a brief chat as they pass.
"Before that, I have images, faces, I have recollections, because I grew up in (Mackay).
"My domain up until 10 years of age extended from Scanlan St to Goldsmith St, from Goldsmith St down to Shakespeare St and to the...town beach.
"You really explored (that little world) deeply and a lot of kids these days really don't get that opportunity to explore the colours, to have time in the hammock, to have time to let your little thoughts congeal and work out what you really want out of life."
Creative to his core, he also had a love for architecture.
"I used to draw on weekends; imaginary gardens and houses...TV wasn't around in those years...only when I was 13 or 14, and that was black and white and it was only on from midday to 10pm," he said.
"And (I loved) fishing...When you think of Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer, I feel that was sort of our life back then.
"There was a real, deep, rich love for the tropics too...sand flies, fireflies, the wet season...the Metho Man, who turned up in one of my songs - he was the ultimate bogey man for us...he lived in the mangroves.
"I spent a lot of my years trying to get out of the small town but I loved it dearly at the same time."
The Connors brood was raised in South Mackay, by a railway-working father and a doting mother, who had a penchant for healthy living.
His affection for his mother was at the root of a lifelong camaraderie and respect for women.
"I always got along well with women," he said.
And while his family "wasn't wealthy by any stretch", they had everything they needed.
"South Mackay was the working class suburb but everyone was even. Everyone knew everyone, everyone had the same - a house with a roof over your head," Mr Connors said.
"Mum decided not only is yoga happening, she's going to get into vegetarianism. The house of cards was about to collapse. Every Sunday was a roast dinner and veg. She decided she would maintain a healthy lifestyle...and when dad was at work, us kids could join in if we wanted to.
"We went to a Seventh Day Adventist evening...where they're showing us the results of being a meat eater.
"You see this cow and a bolt is put to its head and the poor thing collapses. I was probably 10-11 years of age and I'm like 'I'll never eat meat again in my life'.
"The one that really blew me out of the water was the chooks. They had these poor battery hens and they'd have cancers and feathers missing and when their life was over, off with their head, cut off the bad parts, and we eat the rest...I've never been able to face a chicken ever since."
While his aversion to the fowll has stuck with him, he admitted that a fan in Tamworth's introduction to free range poultry struck a chord.
"It's just a totally different flavour...they're plumper, they've got more flavour," he said.
"I still have a bit of meat but I don't do sausage or things like that. My sister-in-law is Polish...and every year they make their own sausage so my brother has become the Sausage King."
While he is careful with excess, Mr Connors still has a taste for the finer things in life.
He admits to enjoying his vices, but not letting them get away from him - a fine balance that he has carried with him throughout his career and one that has kept him on the straight and narrow, where other artists may have toppled off course.
His maturity, from even a young age, kept him humble in an industry that can so easily go to your head.
"When I was in the band at 14, everyone was 22, 23, 24...I spent my whole childhood wanting to be an adult. I wanted to be free of this childhood b******t," he said.
"Because I'm a sommelier for The Dispensary (family business), I have the absolute justification to trying something every day. I don't drink to excess. Nothing that I do, apart from music, is excessive.
"I have so many diverse interests, whether it be self education, reading, all the good things in life that you can't afford to overdo, whether it be food, wine, spirits, tobacco, whatever you enjoy...I always say 'I'm in it for the long haul and I want to be that guy that gets to 99 with all his vices intact and not having a single regret'.
"If you want to sit down and have a nice Cognac, or have three or four beers, do it, but...I have this cut off switch."
And working within an industry that indulges the effluent, Mr Connors has had a first-hand glimpse into the troubles of excess - coming up close and personal with it while partying with Kris Kristofferson during his early opening days.
"I just saw him on YouTube this morning at Willie Nelsons' 90th birthday and he was singing with...Norah Jones, he's not looking well at all. (Norah) sang with him..it was so beautiful to watch. They sang -" he cuts himself off, choking up.
"Sorry I got a bit upset about it...(they sang) 'Help Me Make It Through The Night'. It was just beautiful but it was bittersweet because Kris was such a force of nature, a handsome man.
"But even then, the insecurity..."
The leading man in the original 'A Star Is Born' film would drink half a bottle of tequila with tomato juice during the morning, following it with a bottle of bourbon from lunch until the end of the show.
"Plus whatever else...those guys lived hard," Mr Connors said.
But as fast as the times were, Mr Connors remembered the tact and class of his famous colleague, even at the height of his fame.
"His wife Rita Coolidge travelled with him, they'd just had a new baby and she was getting a little testy at the fact he was finishing a show, going and partying and coming home late," he said.
"I was sitting and talking with him (after the show in Adelaide), and up comes this particularly gorgeous model-looking girl and she lays it on the line; 'You and me, baby, we're meant to be, there's absolutely no doubt about it'.
"He looked at her with this lovely smile and he said 'well that's the most beautiful idea. It's just gorgeous but I have to say though, my wife would kill you first and then she'd kill me. So it's just not going to happen, is it?'. And she took it really nicely.
"I thought 'what a line to get extra cake for yourself from the dilemma'. Kris was wonderful."
From the very start of his career, Mr Connors had tasted the highs and lows of the music industry.
"My early years in the industry were a struggle. I had the longest apprenticeship in the world. It's a wonder I stuck it out. I have to be either dogged or dumb - I think I'll go with the first," he said with a grin.
Before he plucked away at the strings of his first guitar as a teenager, he was struck with the rush of performing after singing his father's favourite song 'Danny Boy' at his 40th birthday.
"The crowd went wild, and I can remember thinking 'this is it. It doesn't get any better. Do this, buddy'," he said.
At 17, with his own band and a honed knack for the guitar and vocals, Mr Connors was performing three nights a week around Mackay - at functions, weddings, and cabarets.
"That confidence that comes from being a big pin in a little town went from 'we can do this, man, the world is our oyster, and we're ready to go," he said.
One night, his band opened for Sherbet at The Parish Hall - diagonally across the street from the family's Wood Street restaurant.
Sherbet, featuring the Aussie icon Daryl Braithwaite, was "the hottest pop band of the time".
"They needed an opening act and two gentlemen from Radio 4MK...had recorded our little band just to show us what we sounded like. It was novel, man," he said.
"A guy was in the audience. I've got the review still at home, saying 'new artist opened the show, keep an eye out for Gary Connors'.
"We get this gig, thanks to them. They told the promoter and the promoter was impressed enough with me to say 'when you finish school, if you want to pursue your career, here's my card'.
"One second later, I was like 'I want to do this'."
Mr Connors' feet were itchy. He was raring to go.
"We were a big deal in town...we worked at the Whitsunday Hotel...I also won a Hoadley's Battle of the Sounds heat in Mackay which took me to Brisbane," he said.
"I didn't win nationally, but I got as far as the final. I was a bit full of myself.
"I thought 'I'm a smart kid...I'm going to be a star'."
But while the humble Mr Connors looks back now with a sheepish smile, he was definitely onto something. Call it the confidence of youth, but he knew it then - he was going to be big.
"I got on a plane and flew down to Sydney and opened the show for Sherbet at the Capitol Theatre for their Christmas special in 1973."
From then on - there was no turning back.
Fifty years behind a microphone, Mr Connors has remained relevant - a constant force within a working world that is so often fickle and flighty.
"My accountant tells me most people last about 18 months in a job before changing," he said.
"I've done 50 years...talk about spoilt, really. You've got the day to yourself, you do an hour, two hours' work, you travel the countryside, and people are actually interested in your story."
Freshly signed by Festival Records after his Sherbet opening act, Mr Connors spent an "amazing few years" opening shows for performers like Del Shannon, Patrick O'Hagan, Peter Allen, Liza Minelli, Bill Cosby, Dave Allen, Marcia Hines, Jon English, and of course - Kris Kristofferson.
"Kris was the most amazingly generous man, because at the end of the tour he produced four songs for me for my album. He didn't need to do that. I'm inclined to think rather that I impressed him, he saw in me the burning desire to be better," he said.
"I was writing my own songs and...in hindsight, they weren't stunning songs, they were lovey-dovey songs..what all 17 years olds are going through like 'how do I tell her I love her without her knowing' or something equally banal.
"So (Kris) took me in and he produced four songs for me. One was one of his songs called 'Rock and Roll Time', another was from his piano player called 'You're Going To Love Yourself In The Morning', another one by a friend of his Larry Murray called 'Dakota The Dancing bear', and...a second of Kris', an old song of his that he'd never recorded himself, that I knew about.
"He was really impressed that I knew his catalogue. It was called 'I'd Rather Be Sorry'."
While he had hoped that his 1976 debut album, 'And When The Morning Comes', would be the catalyst for stardom, Mr Connors said he found a different learning curve after making his first independent mark on the music scene.
"I had a bit of the dark years where...I had this album...it didn't set the world on fire," he said.
"Most people start at the bottom and work their way up...but I went from playing in Mackay, flew to Sydney, was straight on stage at the Capitol Theatre with Sherbet, and from there I'd be on the plane with Dave Allen to do a show...staying in 5-star hotels...I thought this is too good to be true, and it was.
"I didn't have 'that song' said 'Graeme Connors'. That's what you need."
And while he was undoubtedly talented and popular, he had yet to find that signature hook - that unique voice that was his own.
However, advice from an unlikely source would be just the thing to turn this on its head.
"I was doing comedy.. Singing 'A Pub With No Beer' as a fun send up... and Bill Cosby pulled me aside," Mr Connors said.
"He said 'you know, Graeme, you've got a great voice, I know you're keen to make this all happen, but you need to write your own songs. You've got to be the person who generates your voice because you're doing other people's songs and that's all fine, but that's a limiting factor. Eventually you need to be the person in control of your voice. Whatever you write has got to be true and honest to yourself'.
"What a great lesson."
Addressing Mr Cosby's downfall, Mr Connors is still disappointed.
"God knows why. He was a magnet. Three or four women after a show just hanging off him. I thought 'why would you do that?' It's just crazy - I don't understand," he said, shaking his head.
"It had to be something that sadly was a weakness in him where he couldn't see it was wrong."
But there was truth within the disgraced comedian's advice.
"I started then seriously trying to write songs. I had been writing all the time but everything I was writing was trying to catch the market after it was gone...not writing for Graeme Connors, I was writing for the market," he said.
"I had a bit of success. I co-wrote a song for Jon English called 'Hot Town'...which was a top 10 hit. I wrote songs for Slim Dusty and people like that.
"One song I wrote for Slim was called 'Diseline Dreams', which was a transported experience of my childhood with my dad...it was sort of a breakthrough for me because I realised I could use my own experience to generate a song that had wider appeal."
While he was continuing to produce hits for other artists, his own career was taking "a slow downwards slide".
"The record company was losing interest and I didn't blame them...I took a job in music publishing (with Rondor Music) for about three years, that was amazing. That was another learning experience," he said.
"That gave me the real understanding that it's not a big market. It's a market of genres...if you're in a specific genre, you can make a really good living, whether it's jazz or blues, rock or pop...country...there's enough people to support your habit.
"If you are true to yourself and your music is a certain sort of music, you can generally find a market for it...you get out there and tour and build your audience step by step. I knew the theory but I still didn't quite get it."
It's a song that every Aussie knows by heart. But for Mr Connors, it would be the crux of him stepping away from the music industry for a time - disenchanted by the industry he had long loved.
"I had a light bulb moment or a transition," he said.
"Although it's contradicted in the film at the moment, and it will stay that way, I actually presented 'You're The Voice' to John Farnham's producer, Ross Fraser. Everyone's claimed it since because it's like, who wouldn't?
"But the truth is, Stuart Hornell came from his London office with two reels of tape and the second song...was 'You're The Voice' and you'd have to be a mug not to send it to John Farnham because it's such a perfect high song, anthemic song...I made a little cassette tape...and the rest is history.
"Once it became a hit, everyone wanted to sort of (say) 'I did that, I was a part of this'. I was a bit miffed by the whole (thing)...(I was a) bit disappointed. I thought 'this is all about ego, everyone's just grabbing their share, maybe I'm in the wrong game'."
He stepped away from the publishing world, with a sour taste in his mouth.
"Stuart Hornell...he was the only person who went 'thank you so much for doing this'...in America they say 'good on you, but they'll stab you in the back'...(and in Australia), we're very competitive," he said.
"I think it's the British. It's sort of like 'if you get too much higher than me, I need to bring you down a little bit or I need to get above you'. It's a funny thing, and it's sort of sad, but I think it's maybe changing with this younger generation.
"I think they're accepting that it's everyone's turn some time. It's not forever, so you've really got to enjoy your time and support each other."
While he has hopes for the future, he admits that the industry is a forever changing beast for the latest cohort of talented musicians.
"COVID and streaming have decimated the industry we once knew. It's nothing like the game I grew up in," he said.
"We were selling CDs, pulling $5-$6 per CD royalty...you could make a really good livelihood.
"Now, young players today are on streaming and they get $0.00013 of a cent for a full stream. It's just absolutely ridiculous."
Then came the penultimate - the second act. The stroke of good luck, of fate, that would really change things for the young up-and-comer and get him right back to where he was meant to be.
"I decided I was going to call it quits in the music industry and around that same time... we had four of our five sons," Mr Connors said.
"I started telling them bedtime stories, it started out as standard nursery rhymes, they said I've heard all that before so I started to tell them stories of my childhood. Well and truly embellished, by the way.
"I created these characters like Willy Kaneck who was a great South Sea Islander who enforced justice in the world...and Lenny Lagoon and the disappearing lagoons, where you go in one point and come out somewhere else in the world."
The family was living in Sydney at the time, and planned to move back to North Queensland, where Mr Connors hoped to satiate his lyrical longing with gigs on the Whitsunday islands.
But before that - one last crack. With a phone book full of music contacts, Mr Connors was inspired by his bedtime yarns to make one last record.
"I wanted to tell the story of my life for my children...the first song I did was 'Mango Shade', which was clearly about Mackay...about Mango Avenue at Eimeo," he said.
"'The Metho Man', who was a big part of our lives...and 'Let the Cane Fields Burn'...I never thought it was going to be the success it was...I just wanted to capture my life and what I went through."
The $6000 album was cut in just one week - financed by Mr Connors' own savings, a $2000 loan, and a $2000 publishing advance.
The then Head of ABC, Diana Manson, heard the potential in the album and jumped at the opportunity to cut Mr Connors' one of the sweetest deals in Australian music history.
"I shall forever be grateful that she walked on this earth...I'd been working with her on other projects," he said.
"She said (the album was) 'absolutely wonderful, this is what I want to release on ABC Music'. I thought...'this is all my dreams come true in one go'."
Cutting Mr Connors a $10,000 cheque, and allowing him ownership of the product with licensing to ABC, Mr Connors was still in control of his gold mine album.
"That's probably the first time in Australia that an artist owned their own product," he said.
"She did two film clips, which was an investment of about $30,000...and put it on prior to the news on ABC TV. Boom! The records just walked out the door.
"It was the first time the tropics of Australia had been presented in songs and images...and people really took to it all over Australia.
"It happened to coincide with the first northward movement of people in the '80s...I was receiving 10 letters or more a week.
"(One letter saying) 'I'm living in Tasmania and we're packing up and moving to Queensland. Your song 'A Little Further North' has become the soundtrack to my life...we're coming north'... It was a pretty big deal."
Mr Connors had done it - he had found that voice, that unique edge that made him a household name.
"I'd tapped into the zeitgeist without planning to...I was the right person at the time, with the right stories to make it happen. We had a platinum record in 12 months...that's 70,000 units," he said.
From there - the road was calling. And while the family settled back into life in Mackay, Mr Connors' hit album 'North' spring-boarded him into the life of touring.
"We toured for six weeks. We did six shows a week...it just snowballed," he said.
"The late '80s, and into the '90s were my golden (years). There were Golden Guitars, Aria awards...we couldn't put a foot wrong, and I was writing like a demon.
"I didn't know my gift and my job was to write about who we are as Australians.
"I got out west and I was writing what I was seeing. So I had things like 'The Great Australian Dream', 'The Ringer and the Princess'. The stories unfolded as my travel plans expanded."
In 2000, Mr Connors released a 'Best Of' album, collating his biggest hits over 10 albums.
"I thought 'I need a change in direction. I've been doing this for 10 years and I want to try something new'. So I really boldly lashed out with an album called 'This is Life', that explored new musical territory. It was extremely satisfying," he said.
"We recorded it in Nashville as well because I was wanting to do something that had an international sense about it. It was a wonderful album...and there were songs on it that introduced young people to me.
"And then I just sort of kept moving, trying to find new things to do. Every now and then you'd get an album that'd be an award winner...and every now and then you do a couple of records and only the fans would really get it.
"I pinch myself and think 'how fortunate am I?'"
With a new album in the works, and a recently released book of lyrics, 'My Lyrical Life', Mr Connors shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
"In that book...there are 215-216 songs...Not only my versions but songs other people have recorded of mine."
Spanning from the '80s, during his "dark period", to now, Mr Connors marvels at the thread of his own growth that is laid out in lyrical progression.
"You see the growth. When I'm writing well, I get up at 5.30am and I work with whatever's on my mind...there's a mystery and a magic in that," he said.
"There's a theme running through them."
While fans can get an inside look into the mind of Mr Connors in his new lyrical book, 'My Lyrical Life', they can also pay homage to the country legend's career when he revisits western Queensland in celebration of his 50 year milestone.
"I actually built my career in regional Australia."
Mr Connors will perform his 'My Lyrical Life' tour at Capitol Theatre on January 21 at 7pm and on January 26 at 3pm - his favourite time slot, in front of his favourite audience at Tamworth Town Hall.
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