It’s the crunch under your feet of the gravel on the river bend, while the water sings polyphonies over stone.It’s the sound of car wheels on a lonely gravel road at night, alerting curiosity and suspicion. You never know what might be going on. Locals? Strangers? It’s the sudden bend that sometimes wipes out unsuspecting city speedsters, but more often some souped-up district rev-head trying his best not to see 21. It’s listening to Lucinda Williams’ great ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’, and knowing. It’s the sound of a thousand of us guitar-pickin’ mopoke-toned male country/folk singers. It’s the magic improvised interweaving of Dave Blight’s note-bending harmonica and Garrett Costigan’s note-bending pedal steel.

Yep, Gravel Bend. The name felt right on every count.

This is our first offering. Time, fate and money permitting, we hope there may be more.

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Re-reading Woody Guthrie’s Born To Win, I found again some lines he wrote to ‘Dear Australia’:

I hear old tales and dreams told in my newpage songs of other years and other times. I hear a curious twist and a mix-up of songs older than the human tongue, and newer than our new moon rattling silver spoons.

‘Home From The War’ is one of those tales and songs as old as the human tongue. I’m just another writer and singer to give voice to it. Is it ‘just a re-write’ of ‘Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye’, or John Shaw Neilson’s poem ‘The Soldier Is Home’? Of course. Not out of imitation, but because they all tap into the same age-old theme.

This one’s for ‘Unc’ and Dave and Jarryd and all the legions like them – men and women – who’ve returned from war unable or unwilling to talk about it. They’ve had plenty of good reasons. Because unless you were there, you wouldn’t know. Because only your mates or buddies do. Because you had experiences so bad you can’t put them in words even if you try. Because you don’t want to expose the kids to it.  But the result is that people find themselves fighting internal battles that can swamp them, and affect every aspect of their relationships. Once they called it shell shock or battle fatigue.. Now it’s called post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. But labels never do justice to reality.

And, not least, the song is for their partners.

‘Home From The War ‘ is also now on YouTube. The images, culled from many hundreds of archival photographs from both World Wars, convey something of the scenes that continued to haunt so many participants (civilian and military) for the rest of their lives. To do full justice to the power of the photos, it’s best viewed in Full Screen mode.

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Some of them have been dying a slow death for decades. Mines boom and bust. Farms become unviable, along with the businesses that supply them. Families move out. Kids chase a future elsewhere. To scrape together enough players for a football or cricket or whatever team, the side has to amalgamate with one an hour or more’s drive away. Sometimes the amalgamated side ends up having to amalgamate with another one in turn. Namewise at least, what could ever top Mangoplah-Cookardinia-Eastlakes United? Let ‘sophisticates’ sneer – sport is the social lifeblood of many small communities. If the footy team dies, it rips the guts out of the place.

Lots of good things happen in small towns, but sometimes nostalgia buries the negatives. Among all the Utopias there are always a few Hackstons.

So where do folk go when they leave? Mostly they don’t head for the distant cities. At least not in the first place. Mostly they’re drawn to the nearest large regional town like iron filings to a magnet. And the bigger it grows, and the more it attracts all the industries and shops and schools and sports and social clubs, the less it feels like a traditional country community and the more it feels like a city beginning to sprout suburbs.

You drive through on a Saturday, maybe stopping at some new cafe, and half-cheer how the old joint has come on, and half-cry that it’s no longer the same old small-minded, generous, rigid, quirkily tolerant, strangely character-building neck of the woods it used to be.

But then again, maybe it still is.

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