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The Broken Hillbillies at the Old Bar

The Broken Hillbillies are a new Australian band with a stranger origin story than most.

Back in September 2020, during the depths of the COVID winter, a ragtag group of artists set out from a country town called Maitland bound for Tibooburra, far Western New South Wales. The purpose of the road trip was to create art, music, play a couple of gigs – including at the iconic Palace Hotel in Broken Hill – and film a documentary about life on the road. As gigs were cancelled across Australia, the road trip became a joyous affirmation of creativity and the value of the arts during a global pandemic.

The road trip was organised by musician Julien Poulson, of The Cambodian Space Project fame, and Helen Hopcroft, an artist who once spent a year dressed as Marie Antoinette. Onboard the bus was ten creative professionals: rockstar Steve Kilbey (The Church), Rachel Poh, Julien Poulson, actor Lou Chapman, Helen Hopcroft, film producer Michael Cody, and musicians Justin Frew, Tony Jozef, Reuben Alexander and Lisa de Angelis.

The bus pulled away from Maitland Regional Art Gallery on the 1st of September, stopping at Parkes, Trundle, Cobar, Broken Hill, Packsaddle and Tibooburra. It was an intense eight-day trip, with the creatives on board writing new music, poetry, performing music, making art and exchanging ideas. Kilbey played a barnstorming concert at the Palace Hotel, supported by rising alt-country star de Angelis. Walking through the streets of Broken Hill with Jack Marx (writer of a notable biography of Aussie rock legend Stevie Wright), Poulson and Kilbey joked about forming a band called The Broken Hillbillies.

The following night Kilbey – one of Australia’s finest musicians and songwriters – found himself on the porch of the Family Hotel in Tibooburra, playing under buzzing fluorescent lights with a dodgy PA among a cloud of moths. The Family Hotel is famous for the murals painted on its walls during the late 1960s by artists who later became household names in Australia: Clifton Pugh, Russell Drysdale and Rick Amor. Long fascinated by the potential of artists to alter the destiny of regional towns – such as David Bowie shooting his Let’s Dance video in Carinda – visiting these murals was one of the reasons Poulson chose Tibooburra as the final destination.

the broken hillbillies at the old bar

After arriving back in Maitland, the artists disembarked and reluctantly returned to their hometowns. Poulson and actor Lou Chapman spoke half-jokingly, half-seriously about turning the road trip into a play. Months passed and it was an idea that Poulson couldn’t get out of his mind; he and Chapman began meeting with members of the Newcastle theatre community, looking for ways to make the dream into a reality. When Newcastle Theatre Company offered to host a limited run of the as yet unwritten musical, Poulson and the rest of the production crew bunkered down in a remote cottage where he wrote the initial script in a three day period, only coming out of his room for food and coffee. Each morning, Poulson would ring Kilbey and give him a brief for a song, and each night Kilbey would send through a video of the new song or songs that he’d penned. It was an amazingly creative period for both men.

As the deadline for the launch of The Road to Tibooburra loomed, Poulson quickly formed a band to play Kilbey’s brilliant clutch of twelve new songs. During the Newcastle production, The Broken Hillbillies featured band leader Julien Poulson (vocals and guitar), Peter Fenton (vocals and guitar), Maddison Lamb (vocals), Guilherme Noronha (vocals), Justin Frew (vocals and guitar), Lisa Wood (guitar and vocals), Teg Brazier (keyboard), Julitha Ryan (keyboards), Matt Houston (bass), Tony Jozef (bass), Phoebe Carter Swain (drums) and Vincent O’Malley (drums). Poulson joked that it was a ‘Noah’s Ark’ of a band, with two of everything.

Now The Broken Hillbillies are touring as a stand-alone entity, playing Kilbey’s original score alongside a vivid live mix of storytelling, poetry and spoken word. Kilbey has described the Hillbillies as ‘a bunch of great musicians, they’ve got some real rock stars in that band… I’m completely endorsing this band’. The band is currently recording Kilbey’s songs at RMIT’s Carlton studio, thanks to Vocational Design and Social Contact program coordinator John Phillips, staff members Loki Lockwood and Mark Kelson, with students Laing Mclelland, Angus Hough and Jeremy Spalding, as well as the Hillbillies’ resident sound guy, James Carter.

the broken hillbillies at the old bar

After their first Melbourne gig at the George Lane bar, the Broken Hillbillies will now step onto the stage at The Old Bar in Fitzroy at 8 pm on Sunday 18th April. With a national tour planned for The Road to Tibooburra later in 2021/2022, this is a rare chance to see the results of the peculiar alchemy of a road trip into the desert, a veteran songwriter and a half-wild pack of talented musicians and poets.

Helen Hopcroft

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