John Hore Grenell is now in dementia care – but has released a new album. Steve Braunias profiles a country gentleman.
One of the great and most distinctive sounds in New Zealand life these past 50, nearly 60 years has been John Hore Grenell's voice.
No one sounded like the country music singer from Kyeburn on the tussock plains of the Maniopoto. He was honey-toned, had just exactly the right touch and timbre that instantly evoked rural New Zealand life – simple values, hard work, cattle yards and hoedowns, a campfire at dusk.
He made his first LP in 1964. He made another dozen albums and sold 100,000 copies throughout that decade. Two new albums are about to be released by Do It records, his first in 20 years, in slightly strange circumstances; at 76, the country legend is now in dementia care, at the Brookhaven rest home in Christchurch.
Most Wednesday nights his daughter Amiria gets him over to hers for a meal. "Hey there," he said over the phone, and although the voice was shaky, and scratchy, his trademark good humour and country manners were all still there in his voice. He sounded exactly like himself.
Before dementia took hold, Grenell laid down vocals for about 25 tracks with his pals in country band The Saddleblasters. The recordings have been remastered and form two albums' worth of material, led by the first single, Aupouri Angel, a beautiful country ballad. It sure is good to hear his singing again. Of course it's old-fashioned. It's the sound of early settlers, not necessarily white – Grenell's mother Nellie, who grew up on the Chatham Islands, is Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāi Tahu.
The singing Māori cowboy is a high-functioning dementia patient. He suffered a series of strokes that knocked him around to the point where he lost his sight and a good deal of his memory. They also robbed him of being able to play the guitar for a while but he can strum chords again and can see in black and white.
He has another theory about the cause of his troubles. "I got tangled up with a white-tailed spider. That's when I lost my sight. I'd never seen a white-tail on my farm. It must have got in my gear on one of my tours."
He was on speaker phone. Amiria's voice interrupted him: "We probably don't want to go into this white-tail spider story."
He didn't put up a fight. He always was an easy-going sort of rooster and that was part of his charm. The beautiful voice made him a superstar but his South Islandness fixed him in the public eye as a man you could trust.
At the height of his fame, he bred Appaloosa horses at his Canterbury ranch. The first Appaloosa stallion he brought into New Zealand was called War Bird; the two of them make a handsome couple on the cover of The Best of John Hore Vol 2. "He was a real beautiful horse. I bought him in from Canada. Yeah. He had to go to England for quarantine. Then he flew all the way down here. He left a lot of stock. Yeah."
That was his conversational setting, to finish sentences with a slow, emphatic "Yeah". He spoke like a man who was in no hurry to get anywhere. He was like that with everybody. Dave Maybee toured the length and width of New Zealand with Grenell for many years ("We played honestly everywhere. You'd turn up at a real out of the way pub where they'd put plywood over a pool table, and that'd be your stage") and got to know him better than most people.
Sure, he said, Grenell is able to have a conversation whenever he calls him at the rest home. "Oh yeah. But he'll let you know when he's had enough. He'll just say, 'Okay. Good to talk to you. I got to ride the trail.' And he's off. And that might be three minutes or 10 minutes in."
"A special man," said Dennis Brown. "A true country gentleman." Brown's father Joe discovered Grenell, then known as John Hore, and made him a star, releasing over a dozen albums on his record label Joe Brown Enterprises, which he ran out of his home in the flat country town of Mosgiel. The filing cabinet was cardboard boxes under the kitchen table.
The night it all began
Dennis Brown was there the night that it all began, in 1963, in Naseby (population 100). He said, "Dad put on a talent quest open-air show in the football ground there, and the last act was a really shy guy. His mates had forced him up onto the stage and obviously had a couple of beers in him. I can still remember he stood up there with his guitar and sang Streets of Laredo and won the talent quest.
"There was a farmer up that way called Eden Hore, no relation, who had a big station, a run, and he was there that night and took quite an interest in John and would drive John down to the recording studios and kind of became his manager.
"The whole time John was just himself. He was a very, very polite bloke and was able to just cruise into the hurly-burly of showbusiness life and then come back out and head for the hills. He'd go missing, he'd take a horse with a swag on his back and a fishing rod, and that was John."
Guitar player Dave Maybee can testify to that. He said, "We would come to somewhere on tour and he'd bugger off for a couple of hours and come back with a trout or a salmon, or he'd get some possum roadkill and cook up a stew ... This ain't no rhinestone cowboy. He's done it. When he sings songs about riding broncs, he is the real deal. He's probably at a guess broken 110, maybe 120 bones in his body."
There was a tendency in Maybee's talk – and that guy talked a lot – to exaggerate things. Grenell himself was none too sure that he'd broken all that many bones. "Oh only a couple in my feet. Yeah. Broke my fingers too. And shoulder… In the early days I went to rodeos on the circuit. I rode at Calgary. Yeah. But I wasn't that good at it so I decided to sing about it instead."
The fishing, the Appaloosas, his nose always in a cowboy book by Zane Grey ... He was obligingly filling the stereotype of a good old boy without a care in the world. Much of that version is true but not all of it in the life – and names - of John Hore Denver Grenell.
Liner notes on New Zealand albums are almost entirely bland ravings but a gothic note is unexpectedly touched on in the spiel on the back cover of his 1968 LP Country Style.
"John was borne [sic] on 19th July, 1944, and lived on the family farm doing the usual farm-boy chores ... All this happy life came to an abrupt end in 1956 when his father passed away; the farm was sold. The family moved to Ranfurly, 10 miles away."
There was silence on the end of the phone when it was read out to him and Amiria suggested asking him something else.
The potted biography omits the fact that it was his stepfather who died. His father was an American serviceman here on duty during World War II. He got shipped back home and disappeared without a trace.
Grenell's ex-wife Deirdre takes up the story. "John was only a baby when his mother married Bert. Bert was a farmer in Central. He'd lost his wife and his only son had drowned on a school picnic. Bert and John's mother had five daughters and he was the only boy around. Bert was pretty hard on him but he died when John was at high school, I think."
She was right: he was 13 when Bert Hore died. And then she said, "But he didn't know Bert wasn't his real father until much later on when he needed a passport to travel to the States." He'd been invited to appear at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. "That's when he found out that his real father was somewhere in the States and that Hore wasn't his legal name. On his birth certificate, under 'Father's name', his mother wrote Denver ... It's part of the reason he changed it to Mum's maiden name, Grenell."
He made attempts to track his father down when he travelled to the US but the military refused to release any information. "I've been away so long," he sings on that 1968 Country Style album, "fought a war that's come and gone. Doesn't anybody know my name?"
'A real showman'
Grenell remembers that first tour to the US. He said, "I was in Nashville and the guy who introduced me says, 'He's travelled 12,000 miles to be here on this stage tonight at the Grand Ole Opry.' Yeah. I come on, and the guy says, 'Oh, so John, how long did it take you to drive here?' I says, 'No. I come from New Zealand. That's near Australia.' They didn't have a clue about New Zealand."
He told the story with laughter in his voice. During his long career he developed the stage persona of a storyteller, and would ramble on for five, maybe 10 minutes between songs.
His son Oakley said, "I was very lucky to grow up and see a real showman. His concerts were like comedy shows." Hore features on the live album from the 1979 Nambassa music festival. There's a cosmic guitar freak-out by Living Force, Split Enz do their neurotic pop thing, and punk band The Plague (who performed nude, in bodypaint) lay down an apocalyptic chant – but the most radical sound is made by good old John Hore, who treats the audience to an incredible bout of yodelling. The crowd go absolutely wild.
All his children are musicians. Amiria won a Tui award for best folk album, and son Denver played in Jacinda Ardern's favourite act, Shapeshifter. Oakley said, "My bands would often tour down in the deep south where Dad's from, and people would come up and say, 'We had photos of your Dad on the walls at home.' He's part of the background of New Zealand music."
A man with his pictures on the walls of strangers is literally a household name. But Grenell remained modest, unassuming. "I was not a party-goer in the early days," he said at his daughter's house. "I was pretty quiet. But I'll tell you something. One of the girls in the Miss New Zealand contest, I married her. Yeah. Miss Waikato."
Throughout the 1960s, he toured New Zealand as part of the Miss New Zealand pageant, run by Joe Brown Enterprises. The contestants and a band toured from north to south in a bus. Deirdre Bruton was Miss Waikato.
She said, "I met him in Whangārei. He was a very shy country man, about 5'7" with thick dark hair. He'd carry lots of horse books and veterinary books in his canvas bag, and sit at the front of the bus and read. It took him a while to come out of his shell. The further south we got, the more he felt at home and joined in. By the time we got to Otago, his region, he was right into it."
They honeymooned on horseback. Deirdre said: "We left the reception on horses and rode up into Moonlight, an old goldmining area and about the farthest point in Queenstown, and there were actually, in those old days, still some old furniture in the huts up there. We took this beautiful old bed out of a hut and put it under an enormous poplar tree. It was Easter time and the colours were just spinning gold. It was just the most romantic setting."
The couple raised four children, farmed, and bred horses at their 45-acre property in Whitecliffs. In 1984, they began hosting the annual Whitecliffs musical festival, which ran for 15 years. It ended around about the time their marriage ended, too.
Deirdre said, "John had enough of public performance. It didn't sit comfortably on his shoulders. He was sick of being onstage and keeping up an image, and he just wanted to have a quiet life on the farm. Really he wanted to stay home and be a hermit.
"It was just as the children were starting to leave home and going to university, and I went into town to get a job. We disagreed about our futures. Staying home on the farm just wasn't where I wanted to be in that stage of my life. We separated but remained good friends and we still are."
Grenell built a tepee at Whitecliffs. Deirdre: "He was always interested in American-Indian history, and all the books he'd read about Appaloosa horses being surrounded by Indian tribes living in tepees." Dave Maybee, his long-time guitarist: "John really identified with the old Western way of life but he said to me one day, 'Shoot, I was never on the side of the cowboys and the cavalry. I was always on the side of the Indians.'"
The tepee was big enough to light a fire in the middle. He would sit in it by himself, separated from his family, and stare into the flames ...
Strangely, it was also the time when his career was relaunched. In 1990, he covered an old Jim Reeves song for a Toyota commercial. The recording sessions at Stebbing studios in Herne Bay cost a fortune – producer Murray Grindlay got Grenell to sing one phrase at a time, and then flew to Melbourne to use a group of non-English speaking Russian and Austrian violin players – and when it was released as a single, it topped the charts.
The wonderful profile writer Vicki Anderson interviewed Grenell on the eve of his 70th birthday in 2014. He was still at Whitecliffs back then, rattling around inside "a log cabin crafted from mighty slabs of pine from the farm". He talked about his stroke and a heart attack, and he also told her his theory about the white-tailed spider. Her story is a little portrait of someone on the ropes but putting up a fight. Another stroke about three years ago took away his independence.
"He would go down the road and couldn't find his way home," Deirdre said. "And he couldn't read the labels on food. That was when it was decided he needed to be in care just for his own safety. It's sad in one way to see him in secure dementia care but in other ways we know he's safe and looked after well. He seems to accept it."
Asked how he liked the rest home, Grenell said, "It's good. Yeah. I sing a lot of the old songs for them. It's got me going again. Playing the guitar, and singing. I like the old, old country music. The early days of cowboy music. My favourite of my records is probably my first one [Introducing John Hore]. It had an old cowboy song on it."
He was an old cowboy, a singing Māori-American cowboy, and the hour was getting late. Dinner was on the table. His daughter had made risotto and salad. "Well," he said, "happy trails."
Aupouri Angel by John Hore and The Saddleblasters is on YouTube.