Graham Reid | | 5 min read
Although separated by four decades the two Jodies – Jodi Vaughan and Jody Direen – have at least one thing in common, they are in that broad landscape that is New Zealand country music.
Of course those decades – Vaughan born in Australia in 1950 and moving to New Zealand in her mid 20s, Direen from Wanaka and only now in her in her mid 20s – would suggest they have considerable musical distance between them.
Vaughan laughs when asked what song she would have sung the most in her career: it is is Tammy Wynette's 1968 classic Stand By Your Man (“there a note there I always think, 'Am I going to make it?” but I do”) and Direen readily concedes she's at the contemporary rock and pop-influence end of country music: Shania Twain is her “all-time number one idol”.
But Vaughan – who has toured regularly with her peers Gray Bartlett and Brendan Dugan – needs no prompting to say how much she loves some of the contemporary country artists and quickly namechecks Big and Rich, Zac Brown and turns me on to former frontman Darius Rucker's version of Wagon Wheel, in part written by Bob Dylan during the Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid soundtrack sessions.
And Vaughan (right) also admits she didn't much like country music as a kid in the Sixties – “Australian country was fairly hokey”, she laughs and doesn't need to mention the dentally-challenged Chad Morgan or Tex Morton – so when she first got up the nerve to get on stage in coastal New South Wales it wasn't a country song she sang.
“I'm having a biography written but here's that story for you. In 1966 I was sweet 16 and was allowed to go out on my first date and it was in a dancehall, it was all chaperoned and there was a band there.”
Vaughan didn't rate the singer and reckoned she could do it better, she was dared to prove it so asked the band if she could sing and was invited up. She sang the then-popular hit He's Got the Whole World in His Hands (“I was shaking like a leaf, I just stood still”) and was subsequently invited to join the band.
It was quite some band too, they were the Tornados who had backed, and still back, Johnny Devlin. For years she sang the hits of the day – Sandi Shaw and so on – and it wasn't until she moved to New Zealand that she tuned in to American country music and was taken by the harmonies and stories.
And since then, after being spotted by Bartlett, she has been a singer with American country making up the majority of her repertoire, which has been good to her: in '82 she was named Most Promising Female Vocalist of the Year and a decade ago was awarded a Scroll of Honour by the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand.
But it is in the heart of country audiences – which she acknowledges are very conservative, hence Stand By Your Man – that she is most rewarded.
Ironically then, Jody Direen echoes something of Vaughan's story and sentiments: she too has grown up on American country music and also finds audiences here conservative, largely because of their lack of exposure to the pop-rock end of country which she works: “A lot of people would love it but they don't hear it. People like Carrie Underwood aren't played on mainstream radio.”
Her recent single Loud – which went to number four on the Australian country charts – is pure pop-rock country with a fiddle part and namecheck's Bruce Springsteen.
Direen right) says she feels right at home in the contemporary US country music scene because that's what she grew up on – and she'd had some up-close experience of it in the past year.
Direen's big story was when she was singing in the Lone Star bar in Wanaka and was spotted by management from Bear Grylls' team when the outdoorsman was in the South Island filming for his television show.
They loved what she did and invited her to the States and she worked with Bear Grylls Ventures – the only singer signed to management company – for six months until earlier this year.
“It was a huge benefit and an amazing experience being associated with a company like that which was managing an international celebrity. But in the end it was proving too difficult because I didn't have a Green Card and I was on the ground in New Zealand and Australia and they were trying to manage me from LA.
“Also they are in the TV business and I'm in the music business so we mutually decided after six months things weren't quite right.”
Since then however she has been back and forth to Nashville to record and write and currently has 13 songs in the final stage if mixing for a forthcoming album which she expects to present on a summer tour around New Zealand..
What she learned by her American experience – during which she met with the management companies of Jennifer Lopez and Carrie Underwood, and met Vince Gill – was invaluable however.
“I learn it was really tough,” she laughs. “I spent a few months living in Nashville and it's extremely competitive. You walk into a small honky tonk dive and there are these amazingly talented 35-year old singers just working away. I saw one lady better than Tina Turner vocally, and there she was in a club.
“I learned also a lot of [success] is based on luck and persistence. I believe you make your own luck, but the music business may be the exception!”
Being from New Zealand (which American's thought “exotic, they love the accent”) is her point of difference and that has inspired her.
“That makes me more hopeful and excited by the prospects, and I still have an international vision . . . but I need to have all my ducks lined up and my new music finished before I showcase to industry people over there.”
The Grylls people had a vision of how to tailor her for the US market “and I'm totally open to that kind of thing, I'm not too far from what's happening over there because that's the music I've been brought up with. It's new country which is flirting with pop and rock, but it's still country.”
Direen says one of her missions is to get that new style in front of New Zealander and she hopes the new double CD compilation album Godzone Country; The Very Best of New Zealand Country Music can do that.
This chronological account of local country artists – from Tex Morton, Cole Wilson and Rusty Greaves in the Forties and Fifties through Maria Dallas, Peter Posa, Eddie Low and the Hamilton County Blue Grass Band and on to Patsy Rigger, The Warratahs, Al Hunter and more recent names like Glen Moffatt, Kevin Greaves, Donna Dean, Aly Cook and Tami Neilson among others – puts artists like these two Jodies into the larger and longer context of Kiwi country.
Certainly this music is profoundly influenced by American country – our reggae is similarly influenced by Jamaica, no? – but it comes in a Kiwi accent for the most part and that could, as Direen says, sound “exotic” to outsiders.
Jody Direen – whose new single Tattoo was recorded in Nashville, see below – has been nominated for Female Country Artist of the year (to be chosen next week) and Jodi Vaughan just keeps doing what she has always done, get out there and play for the people.
If Jodi Vaughan has one small regret it is something Jody Direen might pay heed to.
“I regret I never went back and did it in Australia, I concentrated on New Zealand,” she says.
“But that's water under the bridge.”
The double CD Godzone Country: The Very Best of New Zealand Country Music is available now through Sony Music.