Henry J. Sawyer
Henry Robert Joseph Charles Sawyer could be Australia’s Mark Twain. No, he‘s not a famous American writer, nor did he ever pilot a riverboat down the Mississippi, but he is a songwriter and he has crossed over the mighty river. At least both men’s names were adopted by the men themselves in an effort to transcend their given identities, in turn forging a creative identity synonymous with the American South.
Henry J. Sawyer, as punters know him, is the creation of Cameron Hicks, a Melbourne-based sideman-turned-solo performer. Despite growing up in a musical family, it was only after years of playing bass that he discovered he could write songs in the American country traditions crafted by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb. “Something clicked and I thought, ‘Shit, I should’ve done this 10 years ago,” Hicks said.
Though he initially used his own name to perform, it didn’t sit right with him, and it wasn’t long before Henry was born. “I wanted to create a character,” he said. “I suppose Sawyer was a tip of the hat to Tom Sawyer.”
So who exactly is Henry J. Sawyer? Well, he’s a rambler, a gambler, and a lonesome cowboy. American-made? Maybe not — he’ll tell you himself he’ll always be “Australian at heart.” But his stories are strongly rooted in a land that has become home away from home. “It's got this magic about it that sucks you in, but it's not all green, green grass. There’s more to it than what you see.”
Though he has rambled from west to east, Sawyer’s inspiration particularly lies deep in the heart of Texas. “Some people have an affinity for Nashville, or for L.A., but Texas is such a big place that it has these nuances depending where you are, and I love that,” he said. “There’s a little bit of everything (in Texas).”
It’s not uncommon for Australian musicians to be influenced by the dusty chords drifting across the Pacific, but the Lone Star influence can be found in more places than simply Sawyer’s heart. Such as classic western wear, on stage and off. “I get totally hooked by the rodeo tailors of the 40’s and 50’s. I love vintage western but mainly I’ve always loved the feeling of being well dressed” he said. “Someone called me un-Australian once when they saw me, I think that's kinda funny.”
While particular about his attire, Sawyer, who is currently backed by the “Texas Two” of Mitch Dillon on lead guitar and T.K. Reeve on upright bass, will play just about “anytime, anywhere.” From places where “people will sit up and listen,” to “the kind of bars where people are just getting drunk or eating around you.”
Dipping deep into the well of American roots music, Henry J. Sawyer performances find the group working from their repertoire of original songs (like the folksy waltz, “Writing Letters to Woody Guthrie,” a song telling two sides of a story before both parties come to terms with the reality), as well as the likelihood of a John Prine or Bob Wills cover here and there. “I'm not afraid to say I love other people's songs. I want to keep the old songs alive, but I’ve also got my own way of playing them.”
Sawyer is currently preparing to record his debut release, which he fancies will be recorded with “a 4-track (tape recorder), a bunch of musicians and a case of beer.”
In his words, anything beyond that is a mystery.
“I’m not a good forward-planner with music, I let that take its course.”
Like a river?