Ian ‘Dicko’ Dickson is probably best known for being the “nasty” judge on Australian Idol, but the English-Australian television and radio presenter, television producer and music journalist previously spent over twenty years working in the record industry in both the UK and Australia, alongside music artists including Celine Dion, Ozzy Osbourne, Pearl Jam and Midnight Oil.
Now, Dicko is dipping his feet into country music, managing Cornell & Carr and newcomer, Taylor Moss as well as hosting the fast-paced, light entertainment show called Dicko’s Country Spit Roast at NightQuarter on the Sunshine Coast, including The Big Aussie Special on January 28. The show is a carnival of twang, country queens and 12-hour smoked barbecue with only the very biggest and best country hits – think the Grand Ole Opry meets Priscilla Queen Of The Desert with a bit of Hey Hey It’s Saturday Mayhem thrown in!
Reality television series, Australian Idol is set to return on the Seven Network, after a 12-year hiatus. You were a judge on the original series from 2003-2004 alongside Mark Holden and Marcia Hines and again from 2007-2009, respectively. There’s no word on who will host or judge as yet. Do you think that reality television is still a viable way of finding talent in Australia?
Yes, if you do it right. When I first started on Idol, I was basically working at BMG Records, so whoever we were going to pull out to that show, it was my responsibility to try and make sure they had a career – and that’s what Simon Cowell [television personality, entrepreneur, entertainment manager, and record executive responsible for creating TV series Pop Idol, The X Factor and Got Talent and signing artists like One Direction, Little Mix and Olly Murs amongst others] does. He takes those contestants and turns them into stars to his record company. That’s the difference. I was just being naïve. I thought it was an A&R process and they were filming it, but ultimately, it was [just] a TV show.
We found a lot of talent from Australian Idol. Guy Sebastian, Shannon Noll – these are guys that, 17 years on, are still making records. [Rob Mills], Ricki-Lee Coulter, Jessica Mauboy, Casey Donovan, Anthony Callea, Matt Corby, Lisa Mitchell – they’re still making music. Stan Walker as well. Mark Holden’s done an Idol podcast with his daughter [Katie, called Our Idol Achieves]. He’s been getting a few past people on.
The Voice and Australia’s Got Talent complete the Seven Network’s announced line-up. Given that talent is a dime a dozen these days, I suppose it makes sense that we need three similar talent scouting television shows to find that one-in-a-million superstar.
To be honest, if you’re looking for one in a million superstar, you’re gonna go mad, because it’s very hard to find them. I always felt if you find someone who’s likeable, ambitious and talented in that order, then you’ve got something going on. The reality process provides you with an indication of whether someone’s likeable [and] resonates with the public, so it’s valuable on that point of view. In terms of ambition, you get a little bit of a squiz at that and in terms of raw talents, obviously, you can tell if they can sing, but in terms of real artistry, that’s something you’ve got to take a chance on. That’s something that reveals itself after.
You got your start in music working for labels in the UK, where you worked with artists like Midnight Oil, LL Cool J and Michael Bolton, as well as Pearl Jam, Ozzy Osbourne, Celine Dion and Jamiroquai. Given the amount of talent you’ve been exposed to, who do you think are the most exciting up-and-coming Australian and International country music artists?
I’m pretty new to country music. I like what I see from Brad Cox. He’s fantastic [and] has a real unusual feel to him. Rachel Fahim is bloody good – that Middle Ground song is fantastic – and she’s got a beautiful country pop voice. And I like a lot of what I’m getting out of the US, like Morgan Wallen is a superstar! Luke Combs is similar, obviously, to what Brad Cox provides on an energy and tonal level. I like Jon Pardi as well. And probably out of all of them, the artist that I’m most impressed with in the country world is Kacey Musgraves. She’s pop, but she’s brave pop.
The one thing I do worry at times is country music seems to be a small industry in Australia and, if you’re not careful, you can engage in what becomes like an exercise in ticking boxes just to proceed forward. I don’t think that breeds creativity. I really encourage [Cornell & Carr and Taylor Moss] to try and push the creativity of their ideas and what their genre is a little bit more.
It’s a tricky one because you have to be respectful to the genre, but it’s funny trying to tiptoe through the rules of country music in Australia. You listen to like, that Thomas Wesley/Diplo project – he did that song Heartless with Morgan Wallen, which has EDM beats on it – but also, Florida Georgia Line. They’ve been messing around with a format as well.
So, for someone who is unashamedly but honestly new, but enthusiastic to the genre in Australia, I find it an interesting environment to be working in. I think there’s a lot of exciting things to be done, but also a few pits you can fall in if you’re not too careful.
I think too – and country artists have mentioned this as well – that ‘country’ is sometimes seen a dirty word here in Australia and even though country is often not what people think is country anymore, they won’t give the genre a chance. Is that something you’ve come across as well?
Oh, sure. Look, I mean, to jump to my Country Spit Roast, that’s an environment that’s held that situation up a lot. The big thing we get when people leave our show, these people say, “I didn’t realise I like country music so much.” And that’s because, we’ve done a show which is really designed to bring big pop hits in front of suburban Australians and have a sing, dance [and] a great time – and these big pop hits just happen to be country in genre. These are massive hits that exist in popular culture from the 70s and 80s, everybody knows every line of every song and it surprises people. People think, country is an acquired taste [but] they don’t realise that there’s so much richness in the genre.
We’re trying to put a show on that basically delivers people from a pretty shit year. We just try to allow people to unbuckle their belts, roll their stockings down, let their bellies out and have a good laugh and a sing song. We’re not carrying a beacon for country music as a genre, but that seems to be a side product of what is happening.
Dicko’s Country Spit Roast is a night of fast-paced, fun filled light entertainment with a country twang and a three-course meal (including 12-hour smoked beef brisket/vegetarian options available). You co-host the show alongside celebrity drag queen Sellma Soul, and are joined by identical twins The Reverse Cowgirls and some of the best musicians in Queensland. What more can you say about the show?
We’ve made this show out of love and respect for the genre, but it’s a classic show with classic hits. These are big pop songs, that everybody knows. You might not like every song, but you will know every song. You sit there [through] two sets of this music and allow us to entertain you. I think everyone, even the most hardened country hater, will come out of this show feeling that spark of truth and wonder in these classic country songs that they probably hadn’t given it credit for. We’re grateful to have the songs to use to inject some fun and light into suburban Queenslanders at the moment.
We put this show together with a load of fantastic musicians who breathe life into these songs on stage. Singers like Taylor Moss, Luke Dickens and Craig Madden, who’s a real aficionado of country music and a great picker with a beautiful deep voice. Through those three leads, we try and breathe life into these classic songs.
Luke Dickens competed on Season 6 of Australian Idol, coming second to winner Wes Carr in 2008. Casey Barnes, Hayley Jensen and James Johnston are other Idol alumni who also perform in the genre. Had you kept in touch with Luke and how did he get involved in the show?
I enjoyed Luke a lot when he was on the show and I’d lost touch with him. He reached out and said, “I hear you’re doing a country show. Can I get involved?” And he’s been magnificent and an absolute dream to work with. He carries some of the biggest moments in the show. He gets his Bradley Cooper on and does Shallow at the end. He’s a great singer and a great performer. He has every right to be on that stage. He’s got a proper country voice. He starts the show with Thank God I’m a Country Boy by John Denver. He sings and goes off!
I think it’s quite a unique concert experience. Although, I don’t doubt that something similar may have been done before, I personally have never heard of country music and drag queens coming together, especially on such an accessible stage. How did the show come about?
It started off with this Spotify playlist and a road trip, as most things do. Me and my two business partners, we did an 80s show in the Gold Coast and it was a similar sort of thing – it was just the biggest hits of the 80s. Then we were asked to do a show once a month down in the Sunshine Coast in the new venue, NightQuarter. I went, “I’d like to try something different. I’d like to do a country hits show like classic Nashville, but it’s gonna be a little bit of a twist …” I always wanted our shows to provide big broad brushstrokes in terms of music and have a little bit of an edge to it just so that people felt like they didn’t know what was coming.
The other thing is, I’m a massive f*g hag. I’m always drawn towards queer culture, because it drags our sense of humour into the brave space, and it’s fun. To me, there’s never been a show on Earth that can’t be improved by a man in a dress. The other thing is, it fits perfectly. There’s a big quote from Dolly Parton, which is, “Thank God I was born a girl otherwise I’d have been a drag queen!” So, there’s a camp to a lot of classic country, which coexist together really, really well. At the end of the day, all we’re doing is performing fantastic songs by fantastic musicians and adding hyper femininity, glamour and LED light projections. It’s shitty Dad jokes, glamourous men dressed as women, amazing performances and fantastic production values. Every single song is an absolute joy. We do lots of skits. We have so much fun. It’s like a big family.
The only downside to the whole evening is that there’s a 58-year-old C-grade celebrity has-been acting as host, but once people get over that, it’s fine [laughs].
On January 28 – the week of Australia Day, Dicko’s Country Spit Roast is set to farewell summer with The Big Aussie Special at NightQuarter. What makes it different to the regular show?
We’re doing this big Aussie version and we throw in a few Australian classics in there. Plus, we’re introducing a new segment called ‘Wheel Of Confusion’ where are we going to toss up a few Aussie classics and see if the band can turn them into country classics. Might go Kylie Minogue. Might go INXS. There’ll be a lot of fun.
You dressed in the unflattering gold frock that you famously criticized contestant Paulini for wearing on the first season of Australian Idol and you also performed in drag as Widow Twanky in Bonnie Lythgoe’s 2015 pantomime of Aladdin and his Wondrous Lamp at the State Theatre in Sydney. So, having done so more than once in your life – do you don a dress in the show?
There are no plans at the moment for me to frock up, but it’s always possible. I am an English man and it’s only so long before an English man will put a dress on and have fun. So never say never. And I think I’ve still got my old Paulini gold dress somewhere in the cupboard. I get a little glimpse of gold lamé every now and then. And, potentially, there might be a little bit of Tiger King fun as well [laughs].
What are your favourite classic country songs?
Ring of Fire [by Johnny Cash] is one of my favourites. I love the mariachi horns at the beginning. It’s just got a sparkle to it. When you listen to it intently, it’s got these incredible female harmonies. The other one is Jolene [by Dolly Parton]. It’s just an unbelievable song. That’s a genius song lyrically, but when you listen to the guitars, it’s got this trippy, psychedelic guitar in it, it just sounds fantastic.
I love Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell. That’s one of the most glorious melodies out of country music ever. The Devil Went Down To Georgia [Charles Daniels Band] is great because it’s just an amazing fiddle song and it’s a bit camp as well. It’s like Vegas country.
We do them all. It’s hard to see this show and not fall in love with these songs. We say “Patsy, Kenny, Tammy, Johnny, Dolly, Willy” as a bit of a mantra. They’re all battlers – from a country where the American dream was meant to be there, but didn’t seem there for country folk – it was one of adversity and overcoming. I think it’s a romantic form of music, when you distill it down to the stories, personalities and experiences, and that just adds so much to the songs.
What do you think are the similarities, qualities or formulas that make up a classic country song?
I think it has to be hardwired to your psyche. I think, when it works, it goes beyond the lyrics. Not purely the melody, because song structures in country music can be simple by design, but some of the ideas, lyrically and imagery just seems to be able to unlock some emotion in you and they do it effortlessly. They never seem to be too clever for their own good. There seems to be a desire to clear the bullshit out of the way lyrically and to be quite direct, but ultimately poetic and incredibly resonant as well.
I go back to Jolene – ridiculously simple song, ridiculously simple sentiment, ‘please don’t take him just because you can’. There’s nothing fancy about that. It’s a very prosaic line. It shows a helplessness [and] displays a desperation – and who of us has not been in love and felt that hopeless?!
For more in-depth interviews from CountryTown, check out here.
Images: via NightQuarter