Errol Gray
Tue, April 26, 2011 at 12:03
Stephanie Hunt in Coffs, Coffs Harbour, Dave Knight, Errol Gray, Interesting, People

I met Errol Gray at a bush poetry festival in Tenterfield.  Errol was performing as the Backyard Balladeer, and I liked his funny songs and his easy smile.  But what really struck me was how completely different his life must be to mine.  How does someone make a living performing at bush poetry festivals, I wondered.  Is that sort of life fun? lonely? a grind?  When I discovered that Errol was from Sawtell I knew he had to feature as the most interesting person I have met on the Coffs Coast.



Sawtell's Backyard Balladeer

Errol Gray looks different without his guitar.  As the man with the bald head, Miami Vice beard and tanned floral shirt saunters toward my table, it takes me a moment to realise that this is the Backyard Balladeer I met recently at a bush poetry festival in Tenterfield.  But as soon as he says “g’day, how ya goin’” I’m quite sure this is Errol.  He sits across from me, orders a coffee and a Parmesan Turkish Bread and starts to tell me about life as a struggling and not-so struggling musician.

The Errol Gray that I had seen perform is the Backyard Balladeer: singer of quirky, country style songs with titles like “I Just Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore”.  On stage he’s laid back, hilariously funny and reminiscent of John Williamson.  It turns out that’s no coincidence because this phase in his career began during the 6-years that Errol worked as stage and merchandise manager for John Williamson.  Fifteen years ago Errol had reached a low point in his own musical career when the job came up with Williamson and he thought why not?  “And just listening to John every night I thought ‘I can do that’,” says Errol. “And John was supportive too.”  Errol changed his own show to a repertoire of Australian cover songs, and then began adding more and more of his own material: the Backyard Balladeer was born.

This current persona has been good to Errol, but his musical career began long before the Backyard Balladeer took to the stage.  Born 56 years ago in Grafton, surprisingly Errol started his career as a bureaucrat.  He had wanted to be a teacher because the hours fit so well with his surfing, but he missed out on a scholarship and wound up with the Attorney General’s office.  Errol dabbled with his guitar in these early years, and in July 1977 he finally made the leap – leaving the government for life as a full time musician.  He packed up his car and joined some mates in Adelaide to try his luck as a singer.   “There were four of us living in a house and we had a beat up old car.  We got by.”  The music scene was healthy in the 70s.  “I was doing country stuff, top 40, whatever it took to survive.”

And he’s been doing what it takes to survive ever since.  He spent some time in Tamworth where he started playing bass guitar and did recording sessions with old legends like Buddy Williams.  In 1985 he moved to Sawtell to work with a local country singer and stayed.  He’s played in pubs and clubs across the country, often competing with the meat raffle for attention.  While he’s always had his music, it hasn’t always been enough to survive.  He has mowed lawns, worked as a baggage handler and helped out at an events company.  The hard financial realities don’t seem to worry Errol.  Through it all he’s “got by”.

He hasn’t just had to get by financially; he’s had to get through some terrible personal tragedies.  In 1986, one year after moving to Sawtell, Errol lost his wife Sanchia unexpectedly to cancer.  He was left with her two children, then 5 and 3½, to raise on his own.  Six weeks later his Dad died, and then his best friend died.  I can tell that this is not a time that Errol likes to talk about.  Tragedy doesn’t sit comfortably on this laid-back, comedic singer.  He does admit that it was “a pretty horrible time”.

But it’s a good time now, he makes clear.  “I met the most wonderful woman in the world and we’ve been married for 3 years now,” he explains.  He and soul mate Deidre collectively have a family of eight children ranging in age from 30 to 11 – so family is a priority, and keeps this musician at home much of the time.

And he loves living in Sawtell.  He takes me back to when he first moved here, and played the Sawtell Pub every Thursday night with a three piece band called the Sons of the Soil.  “We just got adopted by the town,” he recalls.  “It’s a great feeling when you live in a town and it takes half an hour to walk down the street because you know everyone.  There’s still that sense of community here even though it’s grown so much.”

Life in Sunny Sawtell has inspired many of Errol’s songs, and his flashes of lyrical brilliance come from some weird places.    He gives an example: “I was on the ladder trying to get rid of this weed (on the roof) and I thought, ‘oh bugger it, I’ll go home and have some lunch’.  So I sat down to lunch and the stuff started coming into me head and I started scribbling.”  By the time he’d finished his sandwich, he’d also finished a new song called ‘The Weed’.

Writing funny songs just comes naturally to Errol, so life as the Backyard Balladeer suits him.  He still does the pubs and clubs that have been bread and butter for his entire musical career.  But he’s also discovered the bush poetry circuit and the local weekend markets, which he says can be remarkably rewarding.  “What else am I going to do on a Saturday morning, study the form guide?” he says. And anyway, he loves the vibrant atmosphere of the markets.

I ask Errol what advice he might have for a young person considering life as a muso.  “Oh just go for it. You won’t get a big property portfolio, but you’ll have fun,” he chuckles.  “I laugh when I see all these grey nomads, retired and travelling around Australia.  I think: I got paid to do that.  That’s pretty cool.”

And the travel is not the best of it according to Errol.  “Everyone who gets on stage does it for the applause and anyone who says otherwise is mad.  It’s a fantastic feeling, a pretty hard one to beat.  So you always chase that.”


All Errol's albums are available from itunes


The most interesting person Errol knows on the Coffs Coast is the guy who does all Errol’s album covers, Dave Knight.  He’s an artist, a musician and an animator.  “He’s one of the most talented people I know,” says Errol.  “He’s brilliant.  He’s just one of those clever people who just knows stuff.”  Definitely sounds interesting!



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By Stephanie Hunt                                          


Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (
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