Happy 90th Birthday to Joy McKean, a true songwriting trailblazer

Thursday, 06 Feb 2020

She has written the songs that that have kept generations of country music fans company on long drives, longer days and memorable nights. And on her 90th birthday, we salute Joy McKean for a trailblazing career in songwriting that has in turn, influenced and shaped the music industry in Australia.

Her music career started early, writing songs as a child and forming the McKean Sisters duo with her younger sister Heather. Their popular radio show ran on Sydney’s 2KY for seven years. She got to know Slim Dusty when the McKean Sisters were on a three-week tour with Slim, and they married in 1951, the same year Joy became an APRA member.

Joy has close to 150 songs registered with APRA, and undoubtedly there are many more written, drafted and tucked away. She has penned some of the most cherished songs in country music, and many are Slim's most popular, including ‘Lights on the Hill,’ which was written during a drive on a stormy night and won Joy the first ever Golden Guitar Award at Tamworth Country Music Festival in 1973. A Slim Dusty classic, it has been recorded and performed by countless artists including Troy Cassar-Daley, The Wolfe Brothers and Lee Kernaghan, Del McCoury and more.

Other notable songs written by Joy for her husband include: ‘Walk A Country Mile,’ ‘Indian Pacific,’ ‘Kelly's Offsider,’ ‘The Angel Of Goulburn Hill’ and the bittersweet ‘The Biggest Disappointment,’ which was covered by Troy Cassar-Daley in 1998, and Missy Higgins with Dan Sultan in 2014.

Joy is a two-time APRA Music Awards nominee: in 1987 for Most Performed Australasian Country Work nominee for 'Lights on the Hill' and in 1999 for Most Performed Country Work for 'Biggest Disappointment.' With the latter, Joy became the oldest APRA Music Awards nominee at 69 years old, and she also holds the record for longest time between nominations for a songwriter – a testament to the timelessness of her songs.

Known as the ‘Grand Lady of Country Music’ she is a co-founder of the Tamworth Country Music Festival and the Country Music Association of Australia, and helped to establish the Slim Dusty Foundation Ltd, which operates the Slim Dusty Centre in Slim’s home town of Kempsey, NSW. 

Joy was a formidable artist manager as well, guiding Slim’s career for over 50 years, until his death in 2003. He joined APRA in 1947, and during his career, he recorded over 100 albums and was the first Australian artist to have a number one international hit, for ‘A Pub with No Beer.’

She is a best-selling author for her memoir Riding This Road and the Slim biography Another Day, Another Town.

It was only fitting to celebrate her 90th, in her birthday month of January, at Tamworth Music Festival. The sold-out Concert for Joy at the Tamworth Regional Entertainment Centre, featured a setlist of Joy's songs and included performances by Paul Kelly, Troy Cassar-Daley, Kacey Chambers, Felicity Urquhart and many more, including Joy and Slim’s singer-songwriter children Anne Kirkpatrick and David Kirkpatrick and many of Joy’s grandchildren.

Amidst the revelry in Tamworth, Chief Exec Dean Ormston attended the concert and had a cuppa with Joy to congratulate her on all her achievements and thank her for always keeping songwriting at the heart of what she does. 

It was an absolute pleasure to meet Joy in Tamworth ahead of the amazing tribute given to her by the best of the Australian Country Music community.

Joy is sharp as a tack, asking me about registering catalogues, and tracking songs -  it’s no surprise she has long been the business force behind the family’s success.

I asked Joy what she thought about current country songwriting, "I think they should just get on with it, cut to the chase, tell the story!"

And at 90, Joy well and truly takes her own advice having just finished writing a new song that was specially performed for the first time by her grandson James Arneman and partner Flora Smith, the musical duo A Small Town Romance. Contemporary in sound, it really demonstrates just what a story-telling, songwriting force this woman has been for well over 70 years.

After a more than a three hour tribute to the music of Joy, son David invited his mum to the stage to say “a few words.” Joy’s response “I’ve got more than a few words, David!” The sold-out crowd hung on every word, listened, laughed and cheered.

Joy McKean knows how to hold a room, tell a story, and calmly and quietly just get on with it!


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