Tamworth Country Music Festival: Grand lady Joy McKean celebrates 90th birthday

CELEBRATION: The grand lady of country music Joy McKean at Town Hall where she won the first Golden Guitar. Photo: Peter Hardin 210120PHE041
CELEBRATION: The grand lady of country music Joy McKean at Town Hall where she won the first Golden Guitar. Photo: Peter Hardin 210120PHE041

When Joy McKean met Slim Dusty, he thought she was a stuck-up city slicker and she thought he had tickets on himself.

It wasn't until a little later, squashed into a car with a spare tyre strapped on the back that the pair really got to know each other.

McKean and her sister Heather had risen to fame as the yodelling McKean Sisters. After a chance meeting on a Sydney Harbour showboat they were sent on a three-week tour with the late Slim Dusty.

"I discovered Slim was a very kind person and a very decent man," she said.

"When we were on tour, the shoe for my polio foot broke and I didn't have a spare.

"So Slim sat me in the back seat of the car, took my shoe and walked until he found a bootmaker, brought it back and did it up.

"I thought, 'You're not half the lair you make out you are'."

And 12 months later they were married.

Known as the "grand lady" of country music, McKean is one of Australia's most prolific songwriters and wrote some of Slim Dusty's most popular songs.

At Tamworth Town Hall in 1973, she won the first ever Golden Guitar Award for Lights on the Hill.

"We were driving a loaded station wagon up over the Moonbi's to Guyra, it was winter in June, pouring rain and freezing," McKean said.

CELEBRATION: Joy McKean will celebrate her 90th birthday with a Concert for Joy headlined by Paul Kelly. Photo: Peter Hardin 210120PHE024

CELEBRATION: Joy McKean will celebrate her 90th birthday with a Concert for Joy headlined by Paul Kelly. Photo: Peter Hardin 210120PHE024

"I wrote Lights on the Hill thinking about that, how long it would be until someone found me if I went over.

"I always think a good song has to have heart, I can't believe in making a hook - you have to say something."

This week, she's back where it all began with a special concert headlined by Paul Kelly to celebrate her 90th birthday.

Sat in the gallery of Tamworth Town Hall looking back at the stage she once commanded, McKean remembers her youth with fondness, but not through rose-coloured glasses.

It was all part of the big adventure, McKean said.

"I don't regret any of it, I think I might have told myself to toughen up a bit quicker," she said.

"But I met characters of all sorts, I've dealt with drunks out the front of shows and put them out when they wanted to knock me on the head.

"You get the characters you had to laugh about.

"It was an education in life, the stories - you can't get away from that.

"That's what keeps you going, your love for music - music always."

A Concert for Joy features Paul Kelly, Cold Chisel's Don Walker, Beccy Cole, Troy Cassar-Daley and more with their own versions of McKean's compositions at TRECC, January 22 at 1:30pm.

This story It wasn't exactly love at first sight for Joy McKean and Slim Dusty first appeared on The Northern Daily Leader.