'Not dead yet'

'Not dead yet'

There are two things everyone should know about Australian country music singer-songwriter Chad Morgan: (1) his prominent front teeth are real; (2) he's still alive and working at the age of 79. The latter - a surprise to some people - is the reason a new documentary on his life is titled I'm Not Dead Yet. But, of course, there's a lot more to Morgan than two bald facts, as the film - shot over two years following Morgan and his wife Joanie on the road - shows.

Narrated by Tex Perkins and produced and directed by Janine Hosking, I'm Not Dead Yet is screening tonight and Sunday as part of the Canberra International Film Festival. ''[Chad] celebrates 60 years in show business next year, in January ... he's the last remaining country music star of the pioneers,'' Hosking says.

Chad Morgan may not have achieved the superstar status in some quarters that other music stars have, but when he was starting out there were no television shows such as Australian Idol on which to gain quick, widespread exposure to millions of people with the backing of a major corporate and marketing machine. Back then, there wasn't even TV.

And unlike, say, Slim Dusty, Morgan concentrated on comedy, which tends not to be given a lot of critical respect, however popular it may be.

And there's also something of the urban-rural divide involved.


''In the cities people may not be interested in country music,'' Hosking says.

''But in the country they line up for his shows and for autographs. He's an icon in the true sense of the word.''

Hosking had been aware of Morgan but became interested in him as a potential subject a few years ago when a musician friend who had worked with the singer sent her some footage ofhim.

''I thought he might make a good documentary,'' she says. ''In his later years he's become a country music icon and there hadn't been one made.''

Morgan got his start at the age of 19 on the radio show Australia's Amateur Hour The Sheik of Scrubby Creek, which would become his signature song and launched his country music comedy career.

''The songs are funny, they're based on things that happened in his life,'' Hosking says.

He wrote The Sheik of Scrubby Creek after falling in love with a local girl who rejected his advances.

The film-makers tried to track her down. ''It was quite funny,'' Hosking says.

Did they find any candidates? ''There's a couple,'' she says.

So Morgan was a bit of a wild man? ''You'd be surprised,'' Hosking says. ''He was one of the hellraisers of the country music scene in his day.''

He went through copious quantities of alcohol, cigarettes and women. ''We interviewed some women who, back in the day, he may or may not have been involved with.''

Someone in the film describes Slim Dusty as ''a goody two-shoes'', Hosking says, while Morgan was ''like a Rolling Stone, a Keith Richards-type character''.

Morgan had an early marriage and a couple of children but it was not until he was well into middle age that he married Joanie, more than 20 years ago, who helped him get off the grog and became his roadie. There's no entourage - it's just the two of them, travelling thousands of kilometres together.

''It's a bit of a love story,'' Hosking says - an unexpected but welcome angle. Neither of the Morgans is in the best health - Joanie has back problems and walks with a Zimmer frame and Morgan had a foot crushed when a car fell on it and walks with callipers.

But, Hosking says, ''he still gives great performances and gets standing ovations'' and ''prides himself on giving 100 per cent during his shows''.

Morgan's long touring schedules see him play tiny gigs with a handful of people in one-horse towns, as well as larger venues. Hosking says one of the highlights of the film is seeing him perform to big crowds at the Tamworth Country Music Festival.

''A lot of people who watch the film are inspired by the fact that an elderly person is still out there doing it.''

The film premiered earlier this year at the Sydney Film Festival and Morgan did not want to see it before the premiere. Did he and Joanie like it?

''He said it was better than he thought it was going to be,'' Hosking says.

Morgan, who lives modestly outside Brisbane, confirms this assessment, which isn't, however, the damning with faint praise it might appear.

''I was rather honoured,'' Morgan says about being asked to be the subject of a film.

''I was a bit dubious at the start but once we got going, once we got on the road, we became afamily.''

It helped that, like Morgan himself, Hosking didn't work with a lot of people. And although he's aware of how things can be changed in the editing, he was ''very pleased'' with how the film turned out.

In I'm Not Dead Yet, he performs a new song, The Ballad of Bill and Eva, a tribute to his little-known Aboriginal heritage. It's a departure from his usual comedy repertoire.

''I've been trying to write that for nearly 50 years,'' he says, ''but when I started the words never came out right, it was never the way I wanted it. Then I woke up at 3 o'clock one morning with the words in my head, the tune in my head and started scribbling. I finished it in a couple of nights.''

It's a tribute to his grandmother, who gave him his first guitar. He's proud of the song and it's gone down well when he's performed it. ''It's very good, terrific. There's shock value - people don't expect it from me.''

Morgan says he ''never saw any reason'' to talk about his Aboriginal heritage. ''Those who knew, knew; those who didn't,it didn't matter.''

Morgan is devoted to Joanie and says her frail health has meant easing the pace a bit, although ''she's a trouper''.

She's also been very supportive of him and he acknowledges he ''used to get cranky at times''.

But 26 years ago, after a doctor friend warned him if he didn't ease up on the booze he wouldn't have long to live, he resolved to give up alcohol and cigarettes and he did.

''No Alcoholics Anonymous, no nicotine patches,'' he says. ''It wasn't hard to give drinking up but smoking was harder. But I've stayed off both now for 26 years.'' If he hadn't, he says, ''I wouldn't be alive today''. Performing commitments in Brisbane meant he couldn't come for the film's Canberra premiere, and he has a perforated eardrum and can't fly, but, he says, ''I would've loved to have been there''.

He hopes to make it to Canberra in the New Year, since he has no plans to retire.

''When I stop enjoying it, I'll give it away, or I'll drop dead.''

  • I'm Not Dead Yet is on at the National Film and Sound Archive tonight at 7.15pm (includes introduction by, and Q&A with, director Janine Hosking) and Sunday at 2.15pm. Tickets $17 full, $14.50 concession. Bookings: 62482000.