Fred Smith comes home

Fred Smith Maleny
Fred Smith in concert – Maleny 2014

Few itinerant musicians could claim to have drawn a full house to a lecture at the University of Western Australia, but Australian diplomat and singer-songwriter Fred Smith did just that, on the topic Live like an Afghan. Fred was the subject of an Australian Story episode last year, which brought him from folk circuit favourite to the mainstream, no doubt accounting for the interest shown in his lecture.
Fred is currently touring a show called Dust of Uruzgan − a narrative of his time with a multi-national peacekeeping force in a remote dusty outpost in northern Afghanistan. He and his entourage were halfway through the 13-gig tour of Western Australia when we caught up with him for a meal at the Castle Hotel bistro in York, 97 kms east of Perth, and for a quick chat after the show.
In his role as a diplomat, Fred has been to Uruzgan twice – from July 2009 to January 2011 and then May 2013 to November 2013. The time he spent there made a big impact on Fred, and in turn, the songs and stories that emerged have resonated with ordinary people around Australia, as well as those who have personally experienced what he’s talking about.
The show begins with an emotive song from bass player and singer Liz Frencham and then moves on to a narrative, interspersed with Fred’s songs (written during his time at the multinational base at Tarin Kot), accompanied by a slide show using hundreds of photos taken by Australian Defence Force photographers and civilians. It is an absorbing presentation.
Fred’s songs differ from the work of most of his contemporaries, as the subjects of his songs are often real people. The song Dust of Uruzgan, for example, is a tribute to Australian soldier Ben Ranaudo, one of 40 Australians killed in action during this country’s engagement in Afghanistan. Many of those killed or injured were sappers, the forward patrols who scout for IEDs (improvised explosive devices), placed by insurgents along the roads used by the military coalition.
Fred’s song Sapper’s Lullaby has become something of an anthem for the Australian troops in Afghanistan and the families of those who lost loved ones. The last Australian troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan in December 2013. Since coming home, Fred has been touring Dust of Uruzgan around all parts of the country.
The WA tour was 18 months in the planning, and Fred says it is a civilised tour, because the band get to stay in motels, there are proper meals and days off. There’s a PA and stage lights and someone to operate them. All the same, Broome to Esperance with 11 other stops along the way is a big commitment, more than 3,000 kms and not much time for sight-seeing.
The tour is organised by Country Arts WA and sponsored by the WA government Department of Culture and Arts, Lottery West, Healthway, GWN7, the ABC and Act Belong Commit, a movement to encourage people to achieve better mental health.
The tour covers familiar territory for Fred, whose parents were teachers in Regional WA until his father got a job with the Foreign Affairs Department in Canberra in 1969. Fred returned to Perth as an adult to study Law and Economics, completing his studies at the Australian National University. He took a job with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1996 “about the same time I caught the songwriting bug”.
While he is making money at the moment, touring with a properly funded show and enjoying the mainstream popularity of the critically acclaimed Dust of Uruzgan, it is not a way of life he sees going on forever.
“I just don’t think (touring) is viable in Australia anymore, and especially not financially viable. The towns are too far apart and people are more interested in sport.”
Despite Fred’s pessimism about the future for independent musicians touring Australia, the Dust of Uruzgan tour is doing quite well – 100 at Exmouth Yacht Club (big military presence in Exmouth) and 60 on a Monday night in York are quite respectable numbers for this type of show.
Fred says the tour is about raising awareness of what Australian troops were doing in Afghanistan and how much they need support at home.
“The Vietnam generation got back and no-one knew what they had been through and they copped a lot of hostility, even from the RSL.
“Over the last 12 years, 20,000 young Australians have served in Afghanistan. Regardless of what you think of our involvement there, it is important that their story gets told and heard so they don’t walk the land as strangers, like a generation of Vietnam veterans did.”
Fred told the York audience that soldiers injured during the conflict have struggled on returning home, through a combination of their injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and some had since taken their own lives.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, welcoming the last troops home in December, said it was a heavy question to weigh up if the war had been worth the price paid (referring to the effects on those who had served in Afghanistan over a 12-year conflict and the cost of more than $7.5 billion).
“If you look at the benefits for our country, for Afghanistan, and for the wider world, then my conclusion is yes, it has been worth it,” the PM told the ABC.
“But not for a second would I underestimate the price that’s been paid by individuals and families, and the price that will continue to be paid because, while there are 40 dead and 261 wounded, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who will carry the psychological injuries with them for many years to come.”
Meanwhile, Fred Smith says he has come home to find balance in his life, although for now he has a fairly hectic schedule. Fortunately for Fred, DFAT seems to think a lot of what he achieved through using music to build relationships and trust during postings to Bougainville, the Solomon Islands and Uruzgan.
“I’m busy all the time. I work part-time for DFAT and because most of the gigs we get are on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I spend the weekends doing that.”
He will be on the road again in October launching his new CD, Home, which though mostly set in the domestic frontier (home), also contains a couple of strong songs about the difficult return many soldiers face coming home from Afghanistan.
“It’s about coming home and calming down. I became a Dad in January and I’ve already written a love song for my daughter.”
I asked him if he considers what he is doing as a job, or a calling.
“The only reason to make art in this country is if you can’t stop yourself, so yes I guess it’s a calling,” says Fred.
And is the candle worth the game?
“It depends what time of day you ask me. I’m OK, if I manage to have an afternoon nap!”
But can he see himself doing a Leonard Cohen, one more comeback in his 80s?
“Never say never,” says Fred.

1 thought on “Fred Smith comes home”

  1. A great story. You have a skill for allowing the voice of your subject to shine through. Thank you for both that talent, and for the story. XXXX

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