And all was wonderful, new and strange in the days when the world was wide
- Henry Lawson
Sometimes the most powerful music is the simplest.
The Darling Downs is two men, one mission. A duo with the power of a band, with Ron S. Peno’s majestic vocal beautifully complemented by Kim Salmon’s expressive playing.
The third offering from The Darling Downs, In The Days When The World Was Wide, is their first album in six years. A career-retrospective Kim Salmon residency at Fitzroy’s Old Bar reunited the pair in 2012. “We never broke up,” Ron says, “we just had a break.”
As Ron sings in There Were Tears, “the road never ends”.
The Darling Downs is two artists who need no introduction: Kim Salmon (Scientists, Beasts of Bourbon, the Surrealists, Salmon, The Business, Precious Jules, Antenna with Dave Faulkner, and Runaways with Spencer P Jones) and Ron S. Peno (Died Pretty, Ron S. Peno and The Superstitions). Two artists who refuse to rest on past glories, continuing to plough the fields, creating new material.
In The Days When The World Was Wide harks back to a simpler time, a time when anything seemed possible. “Oh, the times were brighter then,” Ron reflects in There Were Tears, “and the world was our friend.”
The title comes from one of Ron’s favourite books, a collection of Henry Lawson’s work, which Ron’s older brother, Billy, presented to Ron when he was still at school.
Kim and Ron have been friends for more than three decades. They met in Sydney in 1982 when the Scientists were doing a residency at the Vulcan. Years later, after a Surrealists show, Ron greeted Kim backstage. “Kim,” he suggested, enthusiastically, “we’ve got to make a country record together!”
“I wasn’t sure if he was just drunk, or if it was just something to say,” Kim recalls, laughing. But when Ron relocated to Melbourne in 2003, Kim got in touch. “Maybe it’s time we made this country album?” The result was The Darling Downs’ acclaimed debut, How Can I Forget This Heart Of Mine? “The experience mesmerises,” declared The Age. Ron and Kim donned suits and ties – “The Louvin Brothers meets GQ,” laughs Ron, who dubbed the sound “country-politan”. A second album, From One To Another, followed in 2007, and was described as “Appalachian jazz”.
In The Days When The World Was Wide sees Ron and Kim’s work augmented by contributions from Mike Stranges and Julitha Ryan. This time around, Ron says, The Darling Downs have moved on in time and space, from Appalachia of the 1940s to Greenwich Village of the ’60s. The record was produced by Ron, Kim, Mike and Soundpark Studios’ Idge (Andrew Hehir), and funded by “benefactor” Barry Williams, a fan who urged Ron and Kim to return to the studio.
“It’s a songwriting cliché to say ‘the songs come from somewhere else’,” Kim says, “and I normally refute that idea. But I cannot explain why writing with Ron works; it’s mysterious. And because it’s mysterious, it seems quite magical.”
Ron considers the album a career high, one of the finest things he’s done. “I don’t like everything I do,” he says, “but I’m really proud of this record. I can’t stop playing it.”
The album is filled with striking imagery. “Will our tears grow cold,” Ron sings in Like Desire, “falling down through the showers like flames in the snow?”
These are songs “drowned in the sorrows”; magical melodies mixed with a high lonesome sound. Tales of redemption (“I’ve been saved,” Ron intones in the opening cut); longing and lament (“When I needed healing, all I got was pain”), joy (“no light ever shone oh so bright”); and searing honesty, with “our hearts laid bare.”
The album opens with the sophisticated pop of Saved, a mix of Pet Sounds and Burt Bacharach, and closes with a rousing recital of country gospel called Light Of The World. “Kim says it sounds like I’m singing, ‘I am the lie of the world,” Ron smiles. “I like that. It’s the good and evil, and people can choose which one.”
These are simple songs that stir the soul. A potent mix of folk, bluegrass and indie rock. The Darling Downs take you to another place. In The Days When The World Was Wide.
Written by Jeff Jenkins
The Darling Downs
Ron S. Peno – voice
Kim Salmon – banjo, guitar