Jimmy Willing at his North Lismore studio.
Jimmy Willing at his North Lismore studio. Jacklyn Wagner

Mystery, music and memorabilia

IN amongst the amazingly colourful paraphernalia that makes up Jimmy Willing’s art and music studio, something keeps catching my eye. It stands out, you see, the grey horse’s tail hanging from the rafter – in odd and somewhat stark contrast to the bright, almost naïve paintings and decorated musical instruments.

My mind flashes back to an old photograph I’ve seen at The Northern Star – Willing in his gypsy cart in Lismore, with a strong grey horse pulling the cart that housed his whole life, his family and his marionette theatre.

“Yes,” Willing says. “That’s the horse. That was Cherry. She was the most beautiful horse I’ve ever owned, and I think the day I had to shoot her was one of the worst days of my life.”

He tells me the story of how he came to buy her.  “I went to the horse sales in Gatton, looking for a good horse,” he says, “and everybody told me Gilly Brown’s your man – he grew up ploughing with horses on his father’s farm.”

“But when I met this Gilly Brown he kept telling me he didn’t know much about horses, and I just knew he was fibbing me. Finally, at the end of the day, I showed him a photo of my cart. I told him, ‘I want a horse to pull my gypsy cart and I need a good one’.” As soon as Gilly Brown saw that Willing knew what he was doing, he changed his tune.

“He took me out to his farm,” he says, “and there she was, this beautiful full-blood Percheron – and he let me buy her.”

Some of his contemporaries were doing well too, buying houses and cars, and for Willing this horse represented a certain success in his chosen area of work – albeit not exactly a mainstream profession.

“A friend of mine bought a red Fiat sports car,” he says. “I bought Cherry. It was like swapping an old Holden ute for a new V8!” Cherry, Willing and the marionette theatre travelled many a mile on the stock routes, with Willing’s trademark chatty humour and hillbilly music garnering him fans of all ages along the way. The cart gained more and more decoration, with Willing’s wood-carvings making it a work of art on wheels, and for many years he was a familiar sight around the traps. But then Cherry caught herself up in a wire fence and ring-barked her leg, leaving a horrendous proud flesh injury, and although they tried their best to save her, after a year of her living in pain, the vet said it was best to put her down. Willing decided to do it himself. “I owed her that,” he says.

It made its way into a song – That Big Man Broke Down and Cried, and it still cuts him up to think of it now. In a way, the story of Cherry encapsulates much of Willing’s life, consisting as it does of four main strands – country life, art, song-writing and performing, all of them coming out of his decision many years ago to leave a flourishing music career in Sydney for the North Coast, and a much more ‘alternative’ lifestyle. It isn’t surprising to learn that Wiling always wanted to have horses and live in the country, in part because his father had been a drover in the Great Depression and had filled his son’s head with stories of the bush.

It comes as more of a surprise to learn that his father, later an engineer who worked extensively around the world, had sent his son at the age of eight to Tudor House (think Malcolm Fraser) and later to the King’s military school.

Willing – this tall, skinny, slightly nervy, toe-tapping arty muso, with his colourful cowboy shirts and missing front tooth, sporting an always-present Akubra, at Australia’s most elite private schools – how did that work? “I know,” he says, laughing. “But it was Dad’s fault really. He told me those stories of a little boy on a tall horse, and then was horrified when I wanted to live like that.”

Fast forward a few generations and there is Willing, having returned home from military school to play rock ’n’ roll and later enrol in art school, and for work experience he knocks on the doors of Double J’s studios. He also starts a fanzine called A Toy Horse and ends up interviewing bands such as The Clash and Madness. With fellow high school student Duncan Harty he forms the band Ragadoll and his apprenticeship includes backing national acts such as The Scientists, The Johnnies and The Hoodoo Gurus, and then luminaries The Gun Club and the Dead Kennedys – all whilst still in his teens.

Somehow though, this burgeoning career didn’t sit quite right, says Willing. “I felt I didn’t want to spend the last years of my youth chasing stardom in the city, I wanted to get into the bush and not just study my obsessions with rural folk culture from books and records but live them,” he says. Throughout his varied life his song-writing has given him some continuing stability – Singing Kate Kelly to Sleep, for instance, has been performed by The Whitlams and The Bushwhackers and has also had strings arranged for it by Richard Tognetti of The Australian Chamber Orchestra for performances at The Sydney Opera House and The Adelaide Festival. (In that year it also received airplay on all three National radio Networks – Triple-J, Classic FM and Radio National. Being a song about the Kellys it is also, of course, beloved in Ireland.

He’s written songs for numerous artists, including his Cat Fish song for Christa Hughes, which then segued into the painting on his double bass. These days Willing and his band the Real Gone Hick-Ups are performing more and more gigs on the North Coast and away from home – complete, of course with his wonderful Jack Russell, Circus, who adds his musical talent into the mix with his colourful rendition of The Little Band Of Doggies. Circus, perched on a large painted blue box complete with his likeness, knows exactly what’s expected of him. “All he has to do is hear the drum beat from his song, and he’s up on his box, ready and waiting,” says Willing.

There are many of us who will be sad that there will be no Cock and Bull tent at the National this year, but Willing says he is far too busy going with the flow of his songs, music and painting, all from his studio and the tree-top level house in North Lismore, where he lives in with his ‘sweetheart’ Xiola and their daughters.

 “We have to live up high because of the floods,” he says. “I had seven foot of water through the studio last year and nine the flood before – we have to pack everything up and then unpack it all.”

But if you’re dedicated that’s what you do, he says. “My mate Tim Freedman says that I am a ‘lifer’ – meaning that I’m here in the world of arts for life. I have a lot more songs to write and paintings to paint. I will be doing this till the day I die.”

Does he ever think he does a bit too much? Willing grins. “Only all the time,” he says. But then, in a sense that is Jimmy Willing – Willing by name and Willing by nature.

Jimmy Willing & The Real Gone Hick-Ups will present Live In Hillbilly Heaven, with Thrillbilly Stomp, Sara Tindley and Circus The Singing Dog at 1pm on September 18 at the Northern Rivers Hotel Beer Garden, Terania Street, North Lismore. Admission free.

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