Australian country music legend Slim Dusty’s songs are a staple of every rural pub jukebox, and while many of us are familiar with classics like A Pub with No Beer and Duncan, the role played by Slim’s wife, Joy McKean, in creating a musical legacy is perhaps lesser known and the subject of a new documentary feature from filmmaker Kriv Stenders, Slim & I.
Speaking with STACK, Stenders himself is quick to admit that he was unaware of Joy’s influence behind-the-scenes prior to taking on the project. “Once we started making the film I realised, ‘Gosh, she is really well known in the country music industry. When I started to read her book and read more about her story, I realised what a remarkable woman Joy was. She was a wife, a mother, a manager, and an incredibly talented songwriter and performer. I didn’t realise how important she was to the building of Slim’s career.
“I was approached by Chris Brown, a Queensland producer, who’d seen my documentary The Go-Betweens and asked me about doing a film about Slim, but seen through the eyes of Joy. I thought that was such a great idea to tell their story as a team rather than just being a biopic about Slim.
“Those two really lived the dream. They had the choice of being housewives and factory workers but they took a punt, bought a caravan and went out there and built an audience, and an industry. It’s quite incredible.”
The filmmaker is also happy to confess that country music was a whole new world for him. “I must admit I was not prejudiced; I just hadn’t really gravitated to country music at all. I had my epiphany while I was researching the film and suddenly these songs were open to me and I just couldn’t get enough of them. I’m a convert,” he laughs.
One of Australia’s most prolific and versatile filmmakers, whose work includes the hit Red Dog (2011) and recent ANZAC drama Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan (2019), Stenders has been on a roll with documentary features of late, including one on another Aussie icon, motorsport champion Peter Brock.
“I did this film and Brock: Over the Top concurrently last year. I finished Slim & I before I finished Brock, so I was cutting them both throughout 2019,” he reveals.
Joy and her family were active collaborators on Slim & I, giving Stenders access to the vast family archive of photographs, Super 8 home movies and other ephemera.
“Joy’s grandson, James Arneman, who’s also a producer, showed me a lot of things and gave me some specific directions, which was really helpful.”
“I never felt I was being censored,” he adds. “The family gave me a lot of liberty to tell the story the way I thought it should be told. When she saw the final cut, Joy had one or two notes that were very minor, but ultimately I think she’s very proud of the film and very proud of the fact the family made it together. It was a true collaboration.”
As well as charting the evolution of local country music, Slim & I is a wonderful time capsule of Australiana that spans a number of eras.
“Joy and Heather started out in the ‘40s and ‘50s as The McKean Sisters. In the ‘50s there were the showground tours; in the ‘60s, the around Australia tours; and in the ‘70s Slim became a huge recording machine, releasing two albums a year; and then going on into the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s,” explains Stenders.
“So it’s an incredible story and an incredible adventure that they went on. And they really did build an industry that a lot of people have tapped into. The road trips they made and the connections with both rural and Indigenous audiences is really quite profound.”
With interviewees including contemporary country music artists like Keith Urban, Kasey Chambers, Troy Cassar-Daley and Missy Higgins, Stenders asked that they bring along their own instruments and perform some of Slim and Joy’s songs.
“It was really a straightforward idea that came out of the blue,” he says. “Country music is such a beautifully simple art form – it’s a voice, an instrument, and a story set to music. So I thought, ‘Wow, if these guys are open to it, and wouldn’t mind bringing along their guitars – or ukulele in Missy’s case – would they mind singing one of their favourite Slim or Joy songs?’ And everyone was really up for it. It was such a simple thing to do and such a powerful and evocative thing, too.
Indeed, one of the highlights is surely Missy Higgins’ beautiful version of The Biggest Disappointment.
“I remember filming Missy’s interpretation of The Biggest Disappointment and my hair was standing up and I had tears in my eyes,” says Stenders. “It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard. Her voice is so angelic and so crystal, and hearing it in that pure, unfiltered way was really powerful. That’s the power of great music, it shoots itself into your heart.”
It’s also, he believes, one of the drawcards for audiences that may not necessarily connect with country music.
“Great music is timeless and classless. It’s truly democratic and egalitarian in a way. Joy and Slim’s music definitely illustrates that. And country music is our music. You don’t have to have that rural element in your life – it sings to all of us. And it’s all part of the bigger Australian experience.
“I also think it’s just a great love story and an inspiring story about a couple that set out to live their dreams – and did it.
“I think now, especially in these uncertain times, it’s great seeing that kind of story about people who throw caution to the wind and go for it. That’s what I thought was really remarkable and beautiful about this story, the journey they went on together.”
• Slim & I is in participating cinemas (excluding Victoria) on September 10