Almanac Music: Sunnyholt – Perry Keyes


Steve Earle once said, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”


I lack the brashness of Steve Earle, and wouldn’t dream of standing on Paul Kelly’s coffee table, boots or no boots.  Yet, in my humble and modest opinion, Perry Keyes is this country’s great storyteller.


His latest album (his fourth), Sunnyholt, reinforces that reputation.


Perry Keyes grew up in Redfern and Waterloo, and his capacity to take you into that time and place with just a handful or words is without parallel. Perry Keyes sings of Winfield Blues, black Dunlop Volleys, Champion Ruby, Mount Carmel Hill, Fisher’s Ghost, XU1 Toranas, the Botany Bay Refinery, Mario Millano and Harry’s Cafe de Wheels.


The Australia painted by Perry Keyes is harsh and bleak. These are not unsettling songs – there is great comfort in them – but perhaps songs about not being settled. The themes are confronting: death, domestic violence, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and teenage prostitution.


Sauternes on his breath, scared us half to death.
On a Blacktown backstep, under the red ash sky.
Our mother kept her mouth shut, she sucked in her gut.
She didn’t scream, and I didn’t cry.


The songs are about people at the bottom of the pecking order:-


Oh Jesus, that bus is never coming,
The ladies stand around a sweat.
Last night a car was burning by our gate,
The fire trucks haven’t made it here yet.


And yet there is nostalgia in the references, and nuggets of shining ore in the characters:-


My cousin Doreen drives a taxi. She likes girls and one day cricket.
Used to watch the whippets run, from beyond the Wentworth pickets…
From the cross strapped trees of Macquarie Fields,
To that empty drive-in at Chullora,
A lonely girl knows how it feels,
To have the beautiful things ignore her.


In 2017 Australia there is political capital to be made in promoting a yearning for a carefully crafted, but false, mirage of an older, less complex society. In addition to creating hauntingly beautiful vignettes, one of the great merits of Perry Keyes’ work is to call out the shallowness of that facade, and to remind us that reminiscence is a positive and valuable activity, but absolutely without merit if done selectively.


About Danny Russell

Danny Russell, feet planted firmly in the island state, is easily led. "Scratcher" Neal led him to the Cats where his loyalty has remained (despite being sorely tested). The weekly magazine "The Story of Pop" led him to music beyond the focus of Tasmanian AM radio of the 70s.


  1. great pick-up. We know Keysie from around the inner west, hardest working man in rock and roll, great storyteller in all formats, proud Rabbit etc.

  2. PW, would love to invite Perry to a Sydney Almanac lunch. Do you think that’s possible? JTH

  3. The album ‘Johnny Ray’s Downtown’ is a real favourite of mine. Great singer/songwriter and a cracking band. Glad to hear there’s more PK music to check out.

  4. Funnily enough I was listening to Sunnyholt yesterday in the car. I love that line where The One and Only Mario Milano steps out of the crashed car. And I’m 100% with you on the Paul Kelly thing. I’ve been telling people for ages this guy is better than PK (just by way of singing his praises) Of course it’s blasphemy and people think you’re mad.
    Johnny Ray’s Downtown is a cracking album. The Queen of Everyone’s Heart is (dare I say) antipodean Springsteen.
    As to Townes and Steve Earl… my daughters are visiting Nashville and texted me yesterday to ask me why neither Townes nor Steve E are in the Country Hall of Fame. Pretty outraged they were. (I’ve played Steve and Townes to death over the years) I couldn’t really answer other then to say they were iconoclasts, druggies etc But shit so was Johnny Cash, so I don’t know.

  5. PS Bob’s (whose coffee table Steve is notionally on) latest, is a triple album of Frank Sinatra covers. I kid you not. Heard one on Off The Record on Triple R on Saturday morning. Execrable.

  6. nonshedders says

    There must be something about “Queen of Everyone’s Heart”. I suspect its my favourite; maybe just shaded by “At The Speedway” from the earlier album.

  7. nonshedders says

    arc – On Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt – have you managed to see this?

  8. nonshedders says

    ajc – On Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt – have you managed to see this?

  9. I haven’t. But I will, non shedders.

  10. With due respect to Townes Van Zandt, I reckon that comment by Earle is just plain ridiculous. Townes has some fine songs, but is too one dimensional to be considered alongside the great singer/songwriters.
    Glad to hear you’re all familiar with the Johnny Ray’s Downtown. My favourites are the opener “Will You Shine”, the title track and the beautiful “Pauly Roberts Scores a Car”. As well as “The Day John Sattler Broke His Jaw” from an earlier album.

  11. Peter Crossing says

    Great article Danny
    Would love to know the source of the nom de plum nonshedders. If it comes from where I think it does then I wish I’d thought of it.
    I agree that Heartworn Highways is brilliant.

    Perry Keyes
    Great music. Great lyrics. His own unique sound but containing echoes of Bruce Springsteen, some Neil Young, Steve Earle, Drive By Truckers, Paul Kelly

    ajc, I can understand your daughters’ lament. However I reckon both Townes and Steve would be very grateful that they haven’t been included in Nashville’s Country Hall of Fame. Guy Clarke doesn’t seem to be there either. However, all three would be pleased that the divine Emmylou is an inductee.

    While Townes is unique he is no Bob Dylan. But Townes did write Pancho and Lefty.

    Townes: There’s only two types of music – the blues and zip-a-dee doo dah.
    Steve (on ABC Music Show): Some zip-a-dee doo dah music is pretty good.

  12. nonshedders says

    Peter, you credit me with too much cleverness over the handle. Its been with us now for about 20 years and simply drives from the fact that once we lived in a shed – and then we didn’t.

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