It’s hard to believe it now, but arguably the most enduring team in Australian music history — the 52-year partnership between country greats Slim Dusty and Joy McKean — was far from a sure thing when they first met.
McKean, who had already blazed a trail as part of successful country music act The McKean Sisters with her younger sibling Heather, had first seen the man born David Gordon Kirkpatrick, on the artwork of one his early singles as Slim Dusty. The problem was, the image on the cover artwork had been printed in reverse, and the results were far from flattering. When they actually met face-to-face, preparing to go on the road she thought “he was a bit full of himself, a bit cheeky”.
Dusty, the son of a cattle farmer from Nulla Nulla Creek, thought the university-educated McKean, who had her own radio show in Sydney, was a “stuck-up city piece”, despite the fact that she’d been born and bred in rural Singleton and had only recently moved to the big smoke.
So, we both got the wrong impression from that,” says McKean with a laugh of their first meeting. “I will say that I was able to see that he wasn’t left-handed, he looked to be younger than 40 and he was not fat.”
But what would become a great Australian love story, beautifully recounted in the new documentary Slim & I, first grew from mutual musical admiration. As the pair travelled around as part of a country music roadshow squashed into the back of the car, they grew to respect each other’s songwriting and singing — although Dusty was mightily miffed when McKean refused to let him record her song My Hometown — and McKean began to realise her future husband wasn’t quite the lair he sometimes made out to be.
In the documentary, directed by Kriv Stenders of Red Dog fame, the now 90-year-old McKean recounts one of the incidents that changed her mind. A childhood bout of polio had left one of her legs paralysed and on one stop of their first tour together, the calliper that allowed her to walk broke free from her shoe. Dusty told her to wait where she was while he scoured the town until he found a shoemaker, then patiently and gently refitted the device.
“I thought ‘you are very, very different aren’t you? You are not half of what you are making out you are’, recalls McKean. “And that was really a part of the Slim and a side of Slim that people often didn’t see. He was a very kind person and could be a very gentle person. She adds with a chuckle: “He could also be a pain in the neck.”
Stenders already had experience with music documentaries, having directed the acclaimed The Go-Betweens: Right Here, but admits he wasn’t particularly a country music fan prior to taking on Slim & I at the behest of producer Chris Brown and McKean’s grandson James Arneman. But the deeper he dug into the career of Dusty, propelled by McKean’s organisational ability, drive and songwriting talent in timeless classics such as Lights On the Hill and The Biggest Disappointment, the more of a fan he became not only of their music, but of the genre itself.
“I kind of had an epiphany during the making of the film,” he says. “I was listening to the songs and suddenly the penny dropped and I went ‘oh my god, these are beautiful’. They are deceptively simple and then you realise that’s where the craft lies, in the simplicity and their directness.”
But more than that, he was attracted to what he saw as “a love story and an adventure story”. After McKean and Dusty married in 1951, the pair gambled on themselves big time, risking everything to trade their lives as a suburban housewife and factory worker for a transient life that would see them crisscross the country for much of the next half century, including visiting remote regional and rural areas and even more remote Indigenous settlements in an era where some audiences were still segregated. Stenders had no trouble attracting a who’s who of Australian music including Keith Urban, Paul Kelly, Troy Cassar-Daley, Kasey Chambers and Missy Higgins, to pay tribute to the pair who had such a huge influence on their careers and on Australian music in general.
“What Joy and Slim did on so many levels, they were true pioneers,” says Stenders. “They were the first to venture out and create these roads, these literal song lines around Australia.
“The thing the film really highlights is what an amazing connection they made with Indigenous Australia. They were really the first white Anglo-Saxon artists to connect and collaborate and communicate with Indigenous Australia in a way that bands like Midnight Oil followed.”
The contribution of Arneman, himself a musician and director, was crucial. Not only did the family involvement open a treasure trove of images, footage and music from their archives, but Arneman was able to act as a conduit between the director and his subject. Stenders was adamant he didn’t want to make Slim & I a “puff piece” but first he had to gain the trust of McKean, who he describes as a razor-sharp and formidable woman “who doesn’t suffer fools, including me”. “Slim wasn’t a saint,” Stenders says. “She obviously didn’t want to reveal too much but after a while I gained her trust and I was able to get her to speak as candidly as I think she has ever spoken and it was a great collaboration.”
McKean reveals in Slim & I that living with a legend wasn’t always easy and their partnership was at times as combustible as it was creative. Early in their marriage, she’d had to give Dusty an ultimatum when he and one of his fellow performers had taken to squiring two of the young, female band members around town, a moment that proved to be empowering for her and crucial for a partnership that would produce two children, Anne and David Kirkpatrick, who both followed their parents into music. The pair stayed married until Dusty’s death in 2003, united by a common goal of recording Australian stories through song.
“To be truthful, we were both very volatile people actually and naturally we would have the odd explosion,” she says. “But he had my back and I certainly had his as well. And honestly, I suppose the kids might have been waiting to see when the divorce papers were going to be delivered but there was never anything like that.
“The glue was always there and we both aimed for the same sorts of things and when we started that travelling and got to know people and see all of that, we both had the same aim somehow to collect those stories and those things that we saw and for Slim to get it down on record.”
Slim & I opens nationally tomorrow and will be released in Melbourne when cinemas reopen. Official documentary soundtrack featuring new Joy McKean song I Believe In You is out now.