Acclaimed country singer, Lee Kernaghan, has given a voice to the diggers past and present in his latest album, The Spirit of the Anzacs.
On Rememberance Day in 1993, former Prime Minister Paul Keating gave a speech on behalf of the Unknown Soldier. It was the eugology of man whose identity had been lost in time – a man whose sacrifices had cost him his legacy. But on that day in 1993, Mr Keating revived the fallen solider’s identity, and burned his memory in the hearts of all Australians.
One line in Paul Keating’s speech single-handly epitomised the identity of every soldier who had fought in war: “He is one of them, and he is one of us.”
22 years later, and 100 years since Australia’s involvement in WW1, country artist Lee Kernaghan is reminding us of this message.
“I was visiting the war memorial a couple of years ago, . . . and I found my way in to the archives where all of the letters ancd the diaries from the diggers, dating back to Gallipoli right through the war in Afghanistan – all there for the general public to see,” Lee says.
“And I think that’s when inspiration hit me – when I began to read these deeply personal and moving accounts of what the diggers were going through at that time.”
As an Order of Australia recipient in 2004, and Australian of the Year in 2008, it’s safe to say that Lee has a very strong connection to his country. Brought up in the Riverina bushlands of southern NSW, Lee and his family have deep ties to the way of the land. His father was a truck driver-turned-country singer, while his grandfather was a WW2 digger and a third generation sheep and cattle drover. Both men inspired Lee’s songwriting, leading to a string of Golden Guitars, country chart toppers and ARIA awards.
Now, Lee is facing somewhat of a crossroads. His new album, The Spirit of the Anzacs, has been in the works for a few years, and he admits that it’s a project he never expected he would do.
“The gravity of these songs is unlike anything I’ve ever recorded before,” He says.
“It’s almost as if every song I’ve ever written or recorded has been preparing me for this record, and the sacred privilege of singing the voice of the Australian soldier.”
Moved by the letters of our past and present diggers, Lee and his good friend, Australian War Memorial Director Brendan Nelson, teamed up to plan a commemorative ANZAC album – a tribute that would withstand the test of time, and reflect the identities of our soldiers.
“We’ve worked really closely with the historical department of the War Memorial and they’ve checked every word of every song and all the lines and notes to ensure the authenticity of the material that we’ve produced,” Lee says.
“It’s been incredibly moving and heart-wrenching at times. But these stories need to be told – they need to be sung and heard. And I hope they’ll unite all Australians behind the men and women who wear and have worn our uniform, and have served and sacrificed on our behalf.”
One day during Lee’s research, he came across a letter written by Private Ben Chuck, who was killed five years ago in a Black Hawk helicopter crash in Afghanistan. The letter was addressed to his partner, Tess Crane, and was instructed to be given to her on the event of his death. Now on display in the War Memorial, Ben’s touching final goodbyes stirred something within the country star. The letter is reborn in Lee’s song ‘I Will Always Be With You’, which he dedicates to the diggers’ surviving family.
“The letter gave me a much better understanding and appreciation for the level of danger that these men and women put themselves in,” He confides.
“Ben knew the risks – he knew the perilous nature of the mission he was on. His courage and his spirit somehow symbolises everyone who has served”.
Although Ben’s story was particularly moving for Lee, he says that every letter he read had an effect on him. For Lee, every story that he discovered became part of the wider identity that represents all of our diggers, reminding him of the piercing message in Paul Keating’s Eulogy for the Unknown Soldier.
“Paul Keating said in the speech that out of the war came a lesson that transcended the horror and tragedy. It was a lesson about ordinary people, and the lesson was that they were not ordinary. I find that theme running through all of those letters,” Lee says.
“My grandfather served in WW2. Most Australians have all got family or extended family that have served. But everybody who’s mentioned – all the diggers who are mentioned in this album, they feel like my family. It’s pretty intimate reading their letters and doing all the research around where they were and what they were doing. I feel a very strong connection to them all”.
Although a commemoration of the many men and women who sacrificed themselves for our country, The Spirit of the Anzacs is very much a testament to Lee’s patriotism. His 13 year old son, Jet Kernaghan, is an army cadet, and Lee says with pride how much he’s looking forward to watching him March at their local Anzac Day parade in Southport, Queensland.
“I was at the welcome home ceremony and commemoration services for Operation Slipper, and those marches took place all around Australia. There were men and women from the airforce, from the Navy and from the army, and many of them have young families.
“I love seeing little kids wearing their dad’s slouch hat and stuff like that. It brought home to me what an incredible job they do and what special people they are,” he says.
“The thing about ANZAC day is that it’s their day. It’s a day for the country to stop and remember the fallen. It’s not a celebration, it’s a commemoration and a time to reflect on the freedoms and joy we have because of the sacrifices made on our behalf.”
Lee Kernaghan’s ‘Spirit of the Anzacs’ (RRP $24.99), Universal Music, is out now. See your local music store, or buy online at www.itunes.apple/au