On the road with Adventures of the Heart

July 14, 2021

Archer and Wilcannia local Eric holding a guitar

A musician plays ‘Love Me Tender’ at a nursing home in Broken Hill (Wilyakali Country) accompanied by elderly resident Dorothea. His voice is from another era, old-timey like a travelling troubadour. Hers is strong and dreamy. A carer tells us that Dorothea doesn’t usually speak, but when the musician comes to play she sits in her chair and just sings and sings. Once she sang ‘Singing in the Rain’ and then it rained for days.

The musician’s name is Archer. He’s from central Victoria and has been travelling to this part of NSW for years playing gigs, sharing music with the locals, and bringing donated instruments to the communities in this region.

In 2019, Archer hit the road again, this time with Zeb, Alex and Rex from Main FM in Castlemaine Victoria (Dja Dja Wurrung Country). They travelled with a convoy of vehicles filled with instruments, destined for Wilcannia (Barkindji Country), a remote outback town in western NSW. The plan was to make a radio series that chronicled the journey and connections between two regional community radio stations.

Wilcannia, located on the Baaka (Darling) river, is known for its strong-hearted station, Wilcannia River Radio. In 2019 the station won the Tony Staley Award for Excellence in Community Broadcasting recognising their contribution to the local community. This included being the main distribution hub for bottles of clean water during the three-year drought that saw the river dry up.

Seven hundred kilometres south, Main FM also sits at the heart of its regional community. The recipient of the CBAA’s 2020 Outstanding Small Station Award, the station is known for its music, talks and popular outside broadcast events such as the Main Game footy fundraiser.

Archer’s journey north is captured in Adventures of the Heart, a short radio series described as ‘travel, birds, trains, songs’ which pretty much sums it up. Part road-trip, part music doco, part soundscape, the series is a meandering chronicle of stories and songs. Hitting the road with open hearts and field recording gear, Archer and Zeb discuss social and environmental issues with local elders and townsfolk, connecting through music and conversation.

The CBF’s Georgie Boucher caught up with Main FM’s Zeb Olsen, who produced series one and two of Adventures of the Heart, to ask her about being on the road with Archer and her experience making the series.

How did you get involved with Main FM?

I got involved through a friend, Elizabeth. We did the music show No Agenda together for about a year, and then she bowed out. So now it’s all mine. The show, as the title suggests, means I can play any music I like. I was listening to a lot of podcasts and I decided I wanted to do something that’s more produced, a bit more ‘soundy’ and story-focused. And then I had Archer come in on my show because I’d seen him play once at the Digger’s Store in Campbell’s Creek and I just thought he was amazing – is this guy for real?

Tell us about Archer

He’s an exceptionally talented musician – a really gifted human who is loving and generous to everyone he meets. We’re friends but doing a creative project together means there’s quite a lot at stake, especially for him, so he has to trust me. We say we’ll just keep doing it until we’re sick of it.

He has a caravan at Mount Prospect near Daylesford but he literally travels all the time. He came in for an interview when he was in the area and we just clicked. He was funny. He was interesting and he’s got a beautiful voice. I just thought this is it, this is radio gold! After the show, I told him I wanted to make a series about him. I was so ready for him to say no…

But he said yes! What happened next?

I heard that he was going on a trip with Alex up to Wilcannia and Alex was recording him. I asked if I could tag along. We camped down by the river and I cooked for them, recorded and took photos so I didn’t feel like a freeloader for inviting myself! That was how the first series came to be and then Tina Helm (Main FM station manager at the time) was so impressed she said let’s apply for a CBF Content grant to send you up there again and make a second series.

Where did you get all the instruments to take up to Wilcannia?

Archer organised the concert in Castlemaine at an outdoor venue called Lot 19 with a bunch of musicians. It was called the Great Wilcannia Musical Instrument Recombobulation Project which was all about getting locals to donate musical instruments we could take up to Wilcannia. People could either pay $10 or bring an instrument to donate. Lots of people did both. We ended up getting so many instruments that we had to take two vehicles to fit them all which blew out our grant budget!

Wilcannia River instrument donation concert at Lot 19 with instruments displayed on table in the foreground

Archer has been collecting donations for years – if he’s in a music shop, he’ll just say I’m going up to Wilcannia and he’ll ask if the shop has anything to donate. Wilcannia is a musical community with a strong musical tradition – Dougie Young, Uncle Bill Riley, Black Shadow Band all come from there. Everyone plays guitar, but there’s just never enough instruments to go around, especially for the kids. While Archer and Rex were playing a nursing home gig in Mildura on the way up, I took the cash from the concert to the local music shop and bought straps, leads, picks, strings to go with the donated instruments. I just told them I was with Archer and we got a really good discount.

Archer has a lot of connections in Wilcannia. He’s visited there a lot over the years. The series never would have happened without that history. The great artist and elder Uncle Badger Bates who was born in Wilcannia and is a friend of Archer’s, lent us his house in Wilcannia. So when we arrived we unloaded all the instruments into this beautiful old house and just sat around for hours tuning stuff, plugging things in and seeing what was working – harmonicas, tin whistles, guitars, bass guitars, amps, so many different instruments.

How did you work out where the instruments would go?

Evelyn, the cool girl in town who knows everyone, was happy to hang out with us and recommend homes for the instruments. She’d take us to the houses and we’d deliver the instruments. We also had a whole band of instruments set up at the community drop-in centre because it was school holidays so the kids were coming in every day and just jamming away.

We did ad-hoc tutoring as people were interested. Archer and Rex sat down with some kids on guitar, I taught drumming, Archer taught violin. We ended up with these two girls – one played guitar and one played violin for hours one afternoon. The next day we took the instruments over to their home and they’d gone to Broken Hill for the day. We just hung out with their family until the bus pulled up and these two little girls, aged around 9 and 10, hopped off. When we gave them the instruments, they just gasped and ran into their room and started playing straight away. They were so excited. There’s some lovely audio in the series of Archer teaching them how to tune and they’re all having a laugh.

We went out to Mutawintji National Park and we recorded Leroy Johnson who is a ranger for the park and also from the Black Shadow Band. We also recorded Aimee Volkofsky, a singer-songwriter from Broken Hill, in the caves and canyons of the park. It was incredible to be given the opportunity to record on such important country and to learn about the history. There was a blockade at the park in the 1980’s to stop tourists chiselling off rock engravings and visiting sacred areas. Protestors locked the gate to the park and sat in front of it. Mutawintji became the first national park to have dual custodianship with local rangers so there was this whole great story about the park that the locals really wanted to share.

Quote from Archer over picture of guitars: “It was so great to see those instruments reinvigorated as we handed them over to those kids. The smiles on their faces said it all! I think there’s gonna be a few new bands popping up in the community now."

What’s the connection to Wilcannia River Radio?

They know Archer. Every time he’s in town he drops in and he’s really good friends with Eric who works there. I spent quite a bit of time hanging out at the station. I did some interviews – it’s hard in a short time to really make connections but I just hung around and chatted.

So, how did the series end up?

It’s kind of chronological – it starts with the concert at Lot 19 and follows the trip up to Wilcannia. It’s been a bit tricky because I made the first six episodes. I was so pleased with myself. I thought they were so fantastic and then I sent them to Archer. He said, “They’re really good, but can I talk to you?”

So I gave him a call and he made some suggestions – about things that were too long or songs in the wrong place or places where he felt he sounded like an idiot! As he’s the only one who gives a shit enough to care and at the end of the day it’s all about him, I had to be sensitive to that. I feel so lucky to have an editor who is so invested in the project.

Zeb and Archer’s passion for this project (along with the production support from the team at Main FM) has resulted in a beautifully crafted series of nursing home gigs, conversations in the car travelling down highways while wind rushes through open windows, poetry amongst birdcalls, phone calls, jokes, conversations with people in the street and music around crackling campfires. Archer describes the atmosphere in Wilcannia as the air being “thick with songs and water and hope.” He says a highlight of the trip was a concert they put on for the locals:

 “Ten minutes in, the heavens opened and the rain bucketed down. It hadn’t rained for six months. We switched to acoustic guitars so we could keep playing. “

You can stream series 1 and 2 of Adventures of the Heart on Main FM’s Mixcloud.  Start by listening to episode 1 >

Photos: (top) Eric from Wilcannia River Radio and Archer, (middle) Lot 19 in Castlemaine where the Great Wilcannia Musical Instrument Recombobulation Project concert was held, (bottom) some of the instruments donated to Wilcannia.

Adventures of the Heart was funded through a CBF Content grant in 2019.

We run two grant rounds each year, usually in January and July.  You can check when our next grant round is open on the key dates page.

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