Many, many bright stars twinkle on Australia’s country music stage, but few shine brighter, or for longer, than 90-year-old Joy McKean.

Story + Photo Ken Eastwood

This year’s Tamworth Country Music Festival in January, had some wonderful surprises for the beloved First Lady of country music in Australia. To celebrate Joy McKean’s 90th birthday, dozens of musicians – from Paul Kelly and Don Walker to Amber Lawrence and Gina Jeffreys – put on a show in front of more than 2000 people called The Concert for Joy, where they played some of the most popular songs she’s written, each performing in their own style. “It was absolutely amazing,” Joy says. “They spent months getting it ready. They all sang those songs so beautifully.” She sang along with some, and roared with laughter at others, such as when Colin Buchanan and Beccy Cole sang ‘What am I doing in this town?’.

During the festival there was a sneak preview of a new 90-minute documentary about Joy, called Slim and I, that was part produced by her grandson. At the finale of the festival – the coveted Golden Guitar Awards – a new song about her was performed by Tom Curtain, Lee Kernaghan, Sara Storer, Lyn Bowtell and Troy Cassar-Daley. Called ‘She gave us the song’, it’s on Tom’s latest album, and contains references to many of Joy’s songs, particularly those she wrote for Slim Dusty, her husband of more than 50 years. “And the lights on the hill shine forever, and the Nullarbor train thunders on, been walking a country mile together, from the heart, she gave us a song,” Tom sings. 

But to top the week off, Joy then received the biggest surprise of all. “They just about lifted me out of my chair at the awards and took me out the back,” she says. There, beside the granite boulders outside the Tamworth Regional Entertainment Centre, she became the only person to be given a second plaque on the Country Music Roll of Renown. “I couldn’t believe what was going on,” she says. “It was a special, special night.” 

This story excerpt is from Issue #131

Outback Magazine: June/July 2020