Smokey bourbon comes to mind. Swirling around a crystal tumbler, it shoots down a lonely man’s throat before being slammed back on a bar shrouded in cigarette smog. It’s this image that constantly permeates HEATH CULLEN’s brand of alt-country blues. The Australian bluesman’s 2013 album, The Still And The Steep, presents its audience with tremolo-soaked guitar lines and laidback grooves. Part Nick Cave and part The Waifs, Cullen’s voice weaves stories of lost love and misfortune as if he is trying to fill a hole.
“My first heroes were folks like Woody Guthrie, Pattie Smith, Jimmy Reed, Johnny Cash,” says Cullen, “… today I think in terms of who inspires me, and I’m inspired by the people I chose to fill my life with.”
Cullen comes from the bush of Southeast NSW, and it’s easy to see this could be where his knack for storytelling developed. It is apparent that mysterious tales of intrigue are the bluesman’s forte. Cullen’s most recent album, Outsiders, continues this Australian storytelling tradition but in a somewhat different way than before.
Outsiders was recorded with The Imposters – Elvis Costello’s backing band. The record is more steeped in the upbeat tradition of the blues, than the folk blues ballads of Cullen’s previous effort. Pete Thomas’ drumming is more prominent, giving most tracks a swing feel for Davey Faragher’s bass to latch onto. Steve Nieve’s keyboard lines set an ambience in the background for Cullen’s tasty blues licks and smokey voice.
“Recording Outsiders with Elvis Costello’s band The Imposters was a blast. They’ve always been one of my favourite bands and I’ve been lucky enough to call Pete Thomas, Steve Nieve, and Davey Faragher dear friends since we crossed paths,” Cullens says. “On their 2014 tour we found a tiny window of opportunity, and the guys managed to sneak off the tour bus and we hit the studio, and tracked the album in a couple of days.”
Cullen’s talents also extend past that of singer/songwriter to producer. Last year he tried his hand at producing a fellow Australian bluesman’s album. Michael Menager’s sophomore record, Not The Express, saw Cullen seated in the producer’s chair as well as playing guitar and the results speak for themselves. Presenting a more Johnny Cash-inspired sound than Cullen’s own records, Not The Express carries on that Australian storytelling tradition Cullen is so good at.
“It wasn’t the first time I’ve been in the producer’s chair,” Cullen says, “but it was one of the most enjoyable projects that I’ve worked on in a long time … Michael [Menager] is one of my favourite songwriters and a great performer, a real troubadour.”
Heath Cullen will be performing at the National Folk Festival at Canberra Exhibition Park from Thu–Mon April 13–17. Tickets are selling at folkfestival.org.au/tickets.