Graham Toole pays homage to the unforgettable John Denver in his tribute show, Just a Country Boy.
See Graham perform at the Glasshouse this month and rekindle fabulous memories – and melodies – from the ’70s.
How did you become interested in performing, Graham?
It started when I was 6-years-old, in a little town called Oberon. I was in a Catholic school, and the nuns taught me there. They put me through the eisteddfods in the Bathurst district, and by the time I was 14, I’d won quite a few sections in that area. That was a wonderful start to music at a very young age.
Then I joined bands and went in talent quests. I think at Lithgow I won a talent quest and got on John Williamson’s Travellin’ Out West show in Newcastle, and I’ve been involved in music ever since.
Why did you decide to play tribute to John Denver, particularly?
I was working in the ’70s, 6 nights a week when I was singing on the Gold Coast, and John was the flavour of that era. He had so many hits in the ’70s. I played a few of his songs, and I’ve always been singing them throughout my life.
What is it about John Denver that you find particularly inspiring?
I really do believe – and as people who know John Denver would say – he really was an advocate for the environment. He was always up on the latest issues about what was going on, and he did win countless awards for many environmental causes.
You hear it in his songs too – Calypso, Rocky Mountain High … he was always talking about how we should save all these things.
How did you actually develop your show Just a Country Boy – and how long have you been touring with it?
It’s been an idea for some time in my mind. I spent some time with Marty Rhone. Marty’s been around for years, and he’d done a lot of shows. I went to Marty with the idea, and we refined the show. I think this is the start of the second year now.
What songs will you be covering in your show?
We’ve got something like 22 songs in the show. It’s a good cross section … of course there are some songs we’ve had to leave out, which people will know if they’re real John Denver fans, but we keep looking at refining this.
I know I’m digressing here for a moment, but my favourite song is definitely The Eagle and the Hawk!
Yes – we do that in the show!
What’s your favourite John Denver song?
I’d say my favourite song – and I think it’s only because it’s my Mum’s favourite – is Perhaps Love. He did that with Placido Domingo. He just wrote wonderful melodies and wonderful harmonies. I just love doing the show, and I know the guys who play with me enjoy it too. It’s just really good music.
Some of John Denver’s melodies are particularly challenging, and his vocal range was phenomenal. What song do you feel was the most difficult for you to learn?
It was interesting when I was learning them, when I really started to realise I needed to learn them properly. It was the songs that I hadn’t put a lot of thought into, that made me go, “Wow – that’s a lot more difficult than I thought.”
One of these was Calypso. But now I’ve got my head around it, it’s fine. But in the initial stages … yes, he’s a very difficult singer to emulate. It’s a great challenge.
So what are audience reactions and feedback to your shows typically like?
I did a show recently at Evoka Theatre, and I actually had a couple of people come forward, and one couple – Lloyd and Mary – they wrote down that the Evoka concert was “A great nostalgic experience and lots of fun”. Another bloke – Chris – he said, “I saw the real John Denver … and this bloke, he’s even better!”
(Laughs). Now I have a swelled head – I can’t even put my crash helmet on!
You’ve touched on this already, but many of John’s songs do relate to the beauty of the natural world. Do you think this is one of the reasons his music has been so popular and it’s still so timeless?
I think his songs appeal right across the board. Everybody can associate so easily with his music. It touches people’s emotions; that’s my opinion of his wide appeal.
How do you want the audience to feel after they leave one of your shows?
My Evoka audience came out uplifted. They were taken on a journey of a wonderful past. I think all of these people have something that they remember from that era. When they hear that song, it just takes them back to a place …
I went out at half time into the audience, into the foyer, and chatted to the people, and it seemed they were really enjoying the ride.
I understand you have a band backing your performance?
We’ve got a 7-piece band, and that’s guitars, bass drums and piano – a whole broad spectrum of an orchestra. It’s interesting … if we were to combine our ages and our time involved in music, it’s something like 300 years of playing music.
They’re all professional musicians; they teach music, they play music, and they tour. I’m so grateful to have these musicians with me, because they are such good musicians.
What do you believe is the legacy that John Denver has left the world – and obviously the legacy you’re hoping to promote through your show?
Without a doubt – and I quote the show: “His ability to communicate the joy and the happiness he found in living and what was so about his life.”
I’m a fairly ‘up’ person myself, and I can really associate with that. We’ve just got to look for the positives – and particularly at this time in the world, when we’ve got so many disasters and things changing. We’ve still got to have hope and faith that humans will always find a way.
You’re performing at the Glasshouse this month. Have you performed up this way before?
I haven’t – no. It’s the first time I’m going right through. On the Friday night we’re doing the MEC [Manning Entertainment Centre] at Taree, and on Saturday we’ll be at the Glasshouse in Port Macquarie.
Are you looking forward to visiting the area?
Yes – of course. Absolutely. It’s a beautiful area.
Thank you Graham – and best of luck with your shows.
Graham will be appearing at the Glasshouse on Saturday, April 9, at 8pm.
Tickets cost adults $37, concession $35, groups of 10 or more $33.
Contact the Glasshouse Box Office on 6581 8888 or visit www.glasshouse.org.au for details.
Interview by Jo Atkins.