Interview with Irene R. Barrett, an Aussie radio host of ‘Drivin’ Home With the Blues’ at Cairns 89.1 FM

"Let’s hope there will always be people like myself that have a real passion for the blues. Where it comes from is anyone’s guess but long live the blues."

Irene R. Barrett: Southern Cross Blues

Irene R. Barrett is an Aussie radio host at Cairns FM 89.1 Queensland Australia. Her passion is the blues/rock music and the protection of animals and the environment. Irene Barrett started work in television in November 1984 and left in 1990. She worked behind the scenes and her television journey started in The Green Room at the Channel Ten Studios, North Ryde, NSW, Australia. For all those early morning guests that appeared on Good Morning Australia back in the early days Irene greeted them with a warm smile and looked after their needs.

Irene also worked closely with author Di Morrisey. She went on to become Entertainment Producer at Network Ten and spent most of her evenings at opening nights and functions mixing with the stars.

She has travelled extensively to all parts of the globe. After city television she worked in regional television in Townsville & Cairns as a Reporter and Copywriter/Producer. Whilst in Cairns she moved into tourism where she had a long association with Captain Cook Cruises. From the tropics of Far North Queensland to Tasmania where she owned and operated a clothing shop on the West Coast to the Manning Valley in NSW where she worked in radio as a presenter. Irene has had an extraordinary life.

She now lives back in Cairns where she works as a radio presenter and presents her program ‘Drivin’ Home With the Blues’ and previously at 2 BOB Radio Taree NSW presenting several programs including blues. She interviewed from: B.B. King, Claude Hay, Louis Tillett, Eugene 'Hideaway' Bridges, Michael Allman, Billy Washington The Drifters, John Lee Hooker Jr. Otis Redding III (son of Otis Redding), Kelly Joe Phelps and many more. May & June 2013 saw her pursuing her love of the blues with an extensive tour of parts of the USA to meet with blues artists, venue owners and see concerts she never dreamed she’d attend. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

When your first desire to become involved in the music was and what does the Blues music mean to you?

I’ve loved music since I was a little kid. I knew the words of every song on the radio no matter what genre. I worked in television as Entertainment Producer for the now defunct Good Morning Australia in Sydney in the 80s. I had a lot to do with music back then and spent a lot of time at local venues searching for talent to perform on GMA. On reflection I realize how much I was drawn to the blues back then when I went to see a blues band called ‘The Hippos’ every Sunday afternoon at the Sir William Wallace hotel in Balmain. I was recently asked by Cathy Ponton-King’s husband when I stayed with her in Virginia US ‘how I found the blues’? … my answer came without thinking … ‘the blues found me’.

How started the thought for a radio show? How do you describe “Drivin' Home With The Blues” philosophy?

I started work in radio at 2BOB Radio in Taree, NSW in 2008. I presented several programs including a blues show on Sunday afternoons that I shared with other presenters. Of all the shows I presented blues was my favorite. My passion for radio presenting and especially for the blues steered me straight to the local community radio station when I arrived in Cairns late 2010. At that stage they didn’t have a blues program so my timing was good. It took a few months and I presented everything but blues! Eventually my submission for a blues show was accepted and I got the gig.  When deciding on a name for the show I cheated a little. As the show was in drive time I called it ‘Drvin’ Home With the Blues’. When I was at 2BOB Radio they had a show called ‘Drivin’ Home’ so I stole it from them and just added the blues. Thought it had a nice ring to it.

Photo: Irene "On Air' at studio of Cairns FM 89.1

How do you describe your contact to people when you are “On Air”?

I have so much fun with that because I have Facebook open when I present the program so if someone tells me they are tuned in from the USA or UK or wherever I say hi to them ‘on air’. They love it and so do I. Listeners tend to be reluctant to phone in so you just never know who might be listening but it’s such a thrill when you are out and about and someone out of the blue says they tune in every week.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What is the best advice ever given you?

That’s an interesting question and I’m not sure I can give a simple answer. I think it’s a journey and that journey of knowledge would come from interviews I’ve done along the way with legends like BB King, Eugene Hideaway Bridges, Taj Mahal and sons of legends like Otis Redding III, John Lee Hooker Jnr. and Michael Allman to name a few. The best advice has really come in the form of encouragement and confirmation that you are doing a great job.  

Which was the best and worst moment of your show? Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

There have been many highlights on the show but I have to say one that comes to mind is when I had Aussie blues/rock artists Jimi Hocking and Ray Beadle in the studio together in the lead up to the 4th Annual Cairns Blues Festival. They were so much fun together and I love them both. Jimi totally rocks and Ray is the quiet shy type but they compliment each other and both are incredibly talented. The worst moment was when I was playing a track and didn’t realize it had the F word in it. I prayed I had ‘no listeners’ that day. I’ve had a very full and interesting life for many reasons and not all good BUT I’d have to say the most interesting period has just occurred with my trip to the USA between 17th May and 21st June 2013.

Photo: Irene at Gip's Place, Alabama with Gip Gipson

What's been your experience from your “studies” around the US Blues places?

Although I’ve been to the US many times, this trip was like no other in that it really was all about the music. I started in New York where Glenn from Coleman Audio met me and truly looked after me and showed me the sights. I then took in places like Montauk, (Montauk Music Festival) Long Island, Vienna, Virginia (where I caught up with Cathy Ponton-King), Birmingham Alabama (with the main purpose of visiting Gip’s Place), Memphis TN (where I caught up with my good friends Low Society), Nashville TN (where I caught up with my good mate from Australia Eight Ball Aitken who now lives there). I spent 6 days in Nashville which is renowned mostly for country music but there was still blues to be enjoyed and my highlight was stepping out with legend Jack Pearson who took me to see one of his favorite bands at one of his favorite clubs. From Nashville it was on to Chicago (my favorite time and favorite place of all). I was greeted by Catherine Faber from the Water Hole Blues Club at the airport along with the Ori Naftaly Band who arrived just before me from Israel. Six days in Chicago convinced me it is definitely Sweet Home Chicago and to top it off I was also there for the Chicago Blues Festival. From Chicago it was on to Detroit where Howard Glazer was the perfect blues host. The Rusty Wright Band (Laurie & Rusty) collected me from Detroit and treated me like a rock star for several days. I stayed with them and we did road trips to gigs and for their own gigs in Michigan. My trip ended with the Rolling Stones concert in Philadelphia. So to answer the question, the blues experience varied from city to city and would be very difficult to sum up in a brief interview. 

Are there any memories from Elvin Bishop, Eric Burdon, Harvey Mandel and Charlie Musselwhite, which you’d like to share with us?

Just being in the same room as these blues legends was obviously very special and to sit amongst them backstage for a photo was magic. In all honesty though, I barely had a conversation with them. I did ask Charlie (Musselwhite) if he’d be at the Byron Bay Bluesfest again in 2014 but he said he didn’t know. I did however have a conversation with Corky Siegel and he told me about his fondness for Australia and his time spent on Heron Island with his lovely wife Holly. He’s so adorable and I told Holly I fell in love with him. How can you not, and then to see him on stage. He describes himself as ‘an all around mad man’ and if you saw him on stage that night with all of the above legends along with Sam Lay, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg, Gary Mallaber and Michael Goldberg you’d see why. Age certainly does not weary him and he was jumping on an off the stage as well as rolling around on it playing that harp like a man possessed. He’s dynamite and certainly my favourite. What a night to remember though at the ‘Born In Chicago’ all star concert.

Photo: Irene with Charlie Musselwhite, Eric Burdon and Harvey Mandel

Tell me a few things about your meet with Gip Gipson, which memory from Gip's place makes you smile?

Oh my goodness! Everything about that place makes me smile. From the moment I arrived with local lass Susan Brewer I’ve never been so warmly greeted anywhere in my life before as I was there. True southern hospitality oozing at every turn. That is an original juke joint that Gip has run since 1952. To describe one memory that makes me smile is difficult but being invited up on stage to stand by Gip as he performed was pretty damn special. Everyone around me had a smile on their face. The memorabilia on the wall and all around was amazing. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, but that could have been the moonshine. Gip is now in his nineties and an absolute sweetheart.

What are some of the most memorable interviews you've had?

There have truly been so many it’s a difficult question to answer. All of whom I mentioned previously of course. I think the interview with Michael Allman stands out to some degree. Mostly because of his honesty and truly troubled life journey. When I asked him whether being the son of a famous person was a ‘blessing or a curse’ he said both and explained why. One of the interviews I am most proud of was with Australian singer-songwriter, keyboard player and saxophonist Louis Tillett. This interview was carried out over 11 weeks live ‘on air’ at 2BOB Radio on a program I hosted called Midday Magazine.  Now there is a man that had a troubled life. He spoke openly about being in a mental hospital but being allowed out to do gigs, most of which he cannot remember. The only thing that miraculously kept him alive was his passion for music.  His music however comes from a very dark place (not blues). The stories he told would make your hair stand on end. This 11 week series has just recently been repeated here on Cairns FM89.1 on my Jukebox program which I no longer host.

"My passion for radio presenting and especially for the blues steered me straight to the local community radio station when I arrived in Cairns late 2010."

Of all the people you’ve met, who do you admire the most? Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

People that I admire the most are the humble ones. Some artists believe too much in their own publicity and their egos spoil their personalities. It’s a blessing to have talent but you still have to keep it real and be nice to those around you. I was lucky to meet Lorne Greene once (from the TV Show Bonanza) when I was with GMA. He will stick in my mind forever as one of the nicest people I have ever met and yet one of the biggest stars. I have no tolerance for rudeness. I admit that some people can be very annoying and that can wear thin so I try and take a wide berth when I see people like that coming my way.

What is the strangest desire that someone have requested to give you the interview?

There’s always an angle but I can’t think of anything too unusual.

Difficult question, but who of the musicians you have made interviewed do you consider the funniest, serious, moody, careless, careful, forgetful and joker?

The funniest were probably Matt Elliott & Matt Southon from ‘Two Rivers Blues’ when I had them in the studio just before the 4th Annual Cairns Blues Festival. My cheeks were aching from laughter at the end of the hour. What we call real Aussie larrikins.  Perhaps the most serious but in the nicest possible way would be Sugarcane Collins. Sugarcane has travelled the world and really knows his stuff and never stuck for anything to say. Serious may not be the right terminology because I really do enjoy having him in the studio. Moody! Well yes, a certain duo comes to mind but best I keep that one to myself. Not only moody but very difficult to interview. I can’t say I’ve really come across anyone that’s especially careless, careful or forgetful but maybe that’s because I’m being ‘careless, careful and forgetful’ haha! I was a little bit nervous when I interviewed John Lee Hooker Jnr. But one of the nicest things he said to me was it was not ‘I’ that should feel honored to interview him but ‘he’ was honored that he was being interviewed by me. Otis Redding III was much the same. They really put me at ease. 

"I’ve loved music since I was a little kid. I knew the words of every song on the radio no matter what genre."

Why did you think that the Blues continues to generate such a devoted following in Australia?

One reason would be that there are people out there with a passion for blues that give us these wonderful festivals and in doing so convert newcomers to the blues. Some of our own 60s Aussie rockers like Russell Morris are now blues converts and Russell has just released one of the best blues albums I have ever heard. People will go to his concerts because they are a fan of his 60s pop music and then hopefully become blues converts when they get to his show.

Make an account of the case of the Down Under Blues. Which is the most interesting period in local scene?

Without a doubt the Annual Cairns Blues Festival is our finest time here with visiting blues artists from Australia and the world. We are lucky enough to have blues artists like Sugarcane Collins and GG Davies (George) based here in Cairns. The blues scene has never been the same since the demise of Johno’s Blues Bar, a former haven for blues artists from around the world. Johno still performs around town and Johno’s Blues Band get together at times. Although there are other artists that are passionate about the blues or dabble in the blues, from a survival point of view they have to be more diverse in their playlists to satisfy the masses. Jazz seems to be more accepted than the blues here in Cairns.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of Blues music? Give one wish for the BLUES

Let’s hope there will always be people like myself that have a real passion for the blues. Where it comes from is anyone’s guess but long live the blues. I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t like the blues. It’s just a feeling and the minute I hear a blues shuffle my body takes control and I instantly sway. It’s an addiction I can’t shake.

Photo: Irene and Eugene "Hideaway" Bridges

What has been the relationship between Aussie Folk Roots music and Blues?

I think they mostly come together at music festivals. These days a ‘folk festival’ doesn’t necessarily mean all folk and a ‘blues festival’ doesn’t strictly mean blues. This is where the genres cross over much to the frustration of some and the delight of others. I am a contributor to the Aussie Blues & Roots Airplay Charts but my program tends to be more blues/rock because of the timeslot where I like to keep things jumping and the music lively compared to late night blues where you might be sipping a port late at night and feeling ‘lay back’.  I want to keep the listeners awake and getting ready for their weekend. A lot of my listeners are literally driving home with the blues.

What characterize Cairns Blues scene? What are the differences from the other Aussie Blues scenes?

Cities like Sydney have it all over Cairns as far as the blues scene goes and that’s understandable when you consider the difference in population. Blues festivals abound in NSW and other parts of Australia with the biggest in Byron Bay NSW, the Byron Bay Bluesfest celebrating its 25th year in 2014. Cairns is such a long way from the capital cities and although the music scene is quite healthy the blues scene lags behind. The Tanks Arts Centre used to bring quite a few blues acts to Cairns but sadly that seems to have dropped off too in favour of jazz and other genres. I suppose it’s a case of supply and demand.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

Simply that! Because they are fads and the music has no substance and because the people that like the blues obviously have good taste!

  

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