Roger Knox (right) and Jon Langford (left)
of the Mekons
|Born||Moree, New South Wales
|Origin||Toomelah Aboriginal Mission|
|Associated acts||Roger Knox and the
Knox is from the Gamilaroi nation, part of the indigenous Australian Aboriginal community, and was born in Moree, New South Wales. Knox grew up in the Toomelah Aboriginal Mission near Boggabilla, which is near the border between New South Wales and Queensland.
Knox's father was a "hard-drinking labourer," his mother "a tough and emotionally volatile woman" who had 11 children. His mother was a stolen child, "taken from her mother in the Moree town camp as an infant and sent 800km south to Bomaderry children's home." Knox was not allowed to attend the high school in Goondiwindi, but instead repeated "Year 6 until he turned 14, and was sent to a nearby pastoral property to work as unpaid labour."
On his childhood: "I grew up on a mission, which is like a reservation where the Native Americans live.... We were under the system, we had a manager who looked out for us. He ran the place and told us what to do and made the decisions for us. We weren't allowed to come and go without reporting to this manager."
Knox has said that the first music he heard growing up was gospel music, which his grandmother, who taught Sunday school, played. "Later, his older brothers and relatives who had gone to seek work outside the aboriginal community returned with various country songs. One of the major artists they covered was Slim Dusty, a long-running and popular Australian country artist who often celebrated the rugged bush lifestyle in song."
Knox left the mission at 17. "He originally intended to pursue rugby and boxing until he went to Tamworth with a cousin and got his first taste of singing onstage. Inspired by the audience reaction, he became a singer. In time it was the music of aboriginal artists that resonated most deeply with Knox. He saw his own experience reflected in their songs." It was during this time that Knox met activist aboriginal musicians such as Harry Williams. On this meeting: "It opened my heart and mind because I knew what he was singing about.... We talked about the missions and how we were under the control of the government. ... We sang about it, our struggle and our survival."
He started out in the 1980s as a gospel singer. "Chronically shy, he was 31 before he finally entered the Star Maker talent quest at the Tamworth festival, but his sharp stage clothes and jet-black quiff inspired the nickname, The Black Elvis."
In 2007, Knox went public with claims that he couldn't get booked at Tamworth's annual festival, Tamworth Country Music Festival, "because he attracted the wrong crowd."
Jon Langford & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts
On February 12, 2013, Knox along with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, released his first album in nine years, Stranger In My Land on Bloodshot Records. The material was "culled from the work of earlier generations of aboriginal artists. Some of them were friends and peers of Knox, others were singer-songwriters who preceded him."
The album was produced by Jon Langford and included guest contributions from Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Charlie Louvin, Dave Alvin (X, The Blasters), Kelly Hogan, Jon Langford, Andre Williams, the Sadies, Sally Timms (Mekons), and Tawny Newsome.
The record came about after Langford read about Knox in Australian author Clinton Walker's book, Buried Country, which chronicled aboriginal country artists. When Langford visited Australia, he heard many of the recordings, then went to see Knox play at Tamworth's annual country music festival. Knox's show was actually at the Aboriginal Youth Center. Langford said: "Through various people I knew, we managed to contact him, and he was quite happy for the Pine Valley Cosmonauts to come down and play. It was a big, weird scene for the people at the Aboriginal Youth Center, because they weren’t used to white people even going down there, so when we walked in it was kind of a strange thing. We got up and played, and then Roger played his set and brought me up onstage with him. Afterward we sat around talking, and I asked if he’d ever thought about making an album of these great songs, and he was like, 'Oh, yeah, that’d be good!' He came over here, and I went over there a couple of times, and we made the album."
Langford said: "I still can’t listen to it without bits of it making me sob. A lot of that music wasn't really available; it was maybe out on cassette tapes that got passed around. Roger had made a couple of albums, but they were all out of print. There was no way to get hold of it. I thought, This doesn't deserve to die; it deserves to be heard."
In 2009, Knox was scheduled to perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Illinois on October 10, 2009 with Jon Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. However, his US visa was denied a week before the show and Knox did not make the trip. "US immigration officials denied him a visa because they deemed that he lacked cultural significance," and despite intervention by country music fan and U.S. House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi, Knox had to cancel his flight. The tour with Langford finally occurred in 2012. Knox performed at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco.
Describing his music, Knox says: "My music is basically country with an influence of aboriginal spirituality.... I use all these (aboriginal instruments such as didgeridoos) but I still play country music. I may not sing about trains and sheep and cattle, but I still play country music." It has been described as "frequently upbeat and the lyrics often sharply political in tone. The lyrics are sprinkled with references to kangaroos and pelicans and detail the struggles of Australia's indigenous aboriginal population."
Knox's son, Buddy, is also a musician, and has played in a band called Buddy Knox Blues Band in 2006. In 2011, he was nominated for a Deadlys award. Knox also has sons who play in his band with him: Gene, John, and Ruben.
On his spiritual beliefs, Knox says: "I guess I'm very religious in a way. Not Christian, but I believe in my ancestors and what they believed in. We call it baiame in Gomeroi country. It's the same God that was here before white man come."
Knox survived two back-to-back airplane crashes. In 1981, early in his career, Knox joined the roadshow of Brian Young, who had a band that criss-crossed Australia by light plane "to perform at remote towns, mining outposts and missions. It was on one of those tours that Knox and the rest of Young's troupe were flying in a 10-seater de Havilland Dove aircraft when one of its engines failed over the desert of central Australia." After the crash, "the band and their equipment had to be shuttled to Oodnadatta on smaller planes, and Knox was on the last flight out, in a little four-seater along with drummer Ken Ramsay and gospel singer Stephen Bunz. By the time they lifted off - from a makeshift airstrip marked out by the headlights of the search-and-rescue trucks - it was pitch black and moonless.... The plane disintegrated on impact." Knox escaped. But Ramsay was dead, Bunz and the pilot were injured. Knox was badly burnt (third-degree burns over more than 90 percent of his body) and became addicted to painkillers before one of his Elders got him onto a traditional bush remedy in the form of a natural bath oil made from the Euraba bush. That bush and the settlement on which his father was born were inspirations for the name of his band, the Euraba Band.
Knox is well known in Australia and is loved for his regular tours of the New South Wales and Queensland prison systems, where many Aboriginal men and women are incarcerated. Knox has also performed at many Canadian prisons for Native American prisoners.
Knox participated in the Voices United for Harmony project, "a project aimed at improving Indigenous mental and physical health" that was jointly managed by the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council and Griffith University.
- 1984: Give It A Go (Enrec Records)
- 1986: The Gospel Album (Enrec Records) - re-released in November 2006
- 1998: Warrior in Chains - The Best of Roger Knox (Enrec Records)
- 2004: Goin' On, Still Strong (Trailblazer Records)
- 2013: Stranger In My Land (Bloodshot Records)
- 1988: Goulburn Jail
- 1988: Koala Bear
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