Though it is now thought of as, to quote the CD booklet of Stranger In My Land, the “whitest of American musical forms,” its foundations were in actuality culled from both European and African cultures. It was, of course, eventually taken over by whites and never reclaimed. That is, not in the United States. In the late 20th century, black Australians adopted the country music sound as a new centerpiece for their culture.
Stranger In My Land is billed as a modern interpretation on the Aboriginal Country & Western Songbook, which, like any county & western songbook, is chiefly concerned with storytelling. Most of these songs are upbeat, but the subject matter is anything but light. The lonesomeness of American country music is amplified tenfold by tales of the struggles of the Aborigine people and the bitter condemnations of white invasion. “Wayward Dreams” and “Took The Children Away” both speak of attempts to assimilate native people into a foreign culture and mourn the deletion of identity that was deemed necessary for “a more progressive way to live/In a white man’s sort of way.”
Through it all is a steadfast devotion to the Aborigine culture, a longing for home that manifests itself in bursts of unexpected optimism. The narrators in “Blue Gums Calling Me Back Home,” “Arafura Pearl,” “Home In The Valley,” and even in the bleakness of “Streets Of Tamsworth” look on to their physical home, the land that was taken from them, and their spiritual home, the Dreamtime. This yearning makes each song more poignant, and never cloyingly so.
However, even though it both honors the legacy of these older songwriters and acts as a cohesive declaration of modern issues, it’s nothing that feels terribly groundbreaking. I have no qualms on the side of either the lyrics or music—it’s uniformly excellent, with Knox’s commanding voice backed by vocals and instruments of many different textures. Still, I feel that it’s an album that’s chiefly ideological content, and I enjoy it much more as an unusual educational experience rather than a unique musical statement.