Country singer is back in the saddle

By Susan Edmunds

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Few honest-to-goodness cowboys are left in 21st century New Zealand but musician Neil Hersey isn't scared of being something of an anomaly.

"I think I was probably born a couple of hundred years too late," he says from his ranch just outside Whangarei.

"Everything's too fast, too electronic these days. It used to be a simpler way of life and they probably got a lot more enjoyment out of it."

Country singer-songwriter Hersey is the real deal, from his tilted cowboy hat to his favourite pairs of boots.

He's never as happy as when he's with his horses, miles from anywhere, deliciously out of touch with the rest of the world.

"I consider myself a cowboy. It's not just a hat."

Even in his living room a Western saddle sits next to the fire. Ropes and old spurs are displayed and, on the walls, paintings and photographs of wild horses give the impression of a man who'd almost always rather be out riding.

Hersey is going back to where his music all began with a Country Calendar programme, The Last Ride, screening at 7pm on Saturday, September 15 on TVOne. The day before, he'll be on Good Morning.

The documentary focuses on Hersey and the men he used to work with, wrangling wild horses and singing around the campfire, as they return to the Aupouri Forest in the Far North, the site of his first foray into songwriting 25 years ago.

Tasked with reducing the numbers of wild horses there, Hersey developed a bond with the creatures that roam the romantic forest of the wild west coast.

Seeing them killed was heart-wrenching and provided the inspiration for his very first song, Aupouri Angel.

"I saw things up there that set things off. I'd never written much music before. I wrote about cowboys, horses ... it was the life I was living there for a while."

Over the years, he has written about 90 songs, recorded several albums with veteran New Zealand recording producer Dave Maybee and toured with country/folk legend John Grenell.

They travelled throughout the country, playing everywhere, from pubs to shearing sheds.

Hersey released his first album, Free Rein, in 1998 and his most recent album, Cowboy Country, in 2007.

He writes about the intricacies and delicacies of modern life that other people seem to miss.

"Little things, not big things, really obvious things that just haven't been put that way."

Cowboys and country music have always been in Hersey's life.

His mother was from Canada and would regale him with stories about the country's prairies, describing men on horses riding alongside trains, firing their guns in the air.

Some of his songs are romantic, some deal with the rawest emotions that come with a transient life lived on the road.

Those penned in the depths of depression are some of the hardest to perform on stage.

"You know who it's about, why you wrote it.

"It's a struggle to get emotional content into songs without going over the edge on stage."

Pondering the prospect of yet another tour this year, Hersey admits life on the road can be hard going. Travelling from one town to the next each day with your life in a suitcase is tough.

"It's a hard life. It's not everybody's life but it's been my life."

This year's return to the Aupouri Forest has renewed his passion for his music.

Hersey says it's the kind of environment that people don't really understand unless they have lived there.

And, he says, no animal lover can visit the forest without being affected by it.

"It's a really magical, wonderful place."

So, despite his reluctance to embrace technology - his ranch has only limited cellphone reception - Hersey plans to sell his music via iTunes and Amplifier and has a website,, from where his music and albums can be downloaded.

He's hoping a new generation will hear his music and connect with it - and pick up a little of his cowboy spirit.

- Hamilton News

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