Flying on the wings of horses

VICKI ANDERSON
Last updated 12:16 18/07/2014
KIRK HARGREAVES/Fairfax NZ

John Grenell turns 70 this weekend and you're invited to help him celebrate.

John Grenell
Kirk Hargreaves
CELEBRATING: John Grenell's 70th will be celebrated with a 'hootenanny'.

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John Grenell turns 70 this weekend and you're invited to help him celebrate. Vicki Anderson visits him at his Whitecliffs home. 

It's a life lived in black and white. Welcome to John Grenell's world.

A couple of years back, he says, his health "fell over".

He reckons it was a white-tailed spider that started his problems. It bit him under the belt.

"I wasn't found for about three or four days. I lost my sight, lost my voice, my memory. I've had a stroke, a heart attack . . . I reckon it was the white-tailed bite that started it off. I didn't have a chance, I've only got two legs."

Losing his memory was painful for the award-winning New Zealand country singer.

At first he couldn't even recall the words to Happy Birthday.

"It's interesting . . . all the old songs are the first to come back."

We are speaking inside his home at Whitecliffs, a log cabin crafted from mighty slabs of pine from the farm.

His sight is coming back, slowly, but he has only peripheral vision.

"I'm like a horse or a dog, I can only see in black and white."

One night the dog got a bowl of choice venison for dinner and he nearly sat down to a few dog biscuits.

There's a golden record hanging on the wall that he can't see.

Grenell made his first album in 1963 and, performing as John Hore, had made another 16 albums by 1974, some of which reached gold status.

He was the New Zealand representative to the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1966 and 1974. He sang at a Royal Command performance and across the United States, Australia, Canada, Britain and South Africa.

But most associate him with his 1990 hit version of Welcome to our World, which accompanied a Toyota advertisement.

"It's the oldest song I know. Lots of people have recorded it but Jim Reeves is the guy. I got roped into doing a Jim Reeves tribute once, I vowed I never would," Grenell says, adding wood to the fire he's warming himself beside.

"Toyota wanted that song. When they first approached me they said, ‘welcome to my world'. At that time my world was a bit of a mid-life crisis. I suggested they make it welcome to our world."

Many music festivals have been held at the family farm at Whitecliffs, with crowds stretching across the fields.

"Annoyed the neighbours," he says, grinning.

He'd like to clean up the place again and hold a few more events: "Smaller ones".

On Saturday he turns 70 and a "hootenanny", open to the public, is being held at Churchill's Tavern in Sydenham on Sunday to celebrate the occasion.

"I'm being leg roped for this one," he sighs. "There's no getting out of it."

The free show will feature Grenell and The Saddleblasters who are Barry Smith (bass), Mark Bradford (guitar), Paddy Long (pedal steel), Lou Shatford (fiddle), and his son, former member of Shapeshifter, Redford Grenell (drums).

There will also be appearances from his Tui award-winning folk-singing daughter, Amiria, as well as the rest of The Grenell whanau band which includes son Redford, eldest son Denver Grenell (bass) and John's partner Jennie Apirana (vocals and flute).

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"Oakley is in England somewhere," he says. "Redford is having a spell at present. He lost his hearing. He played in the loudest band in the country, Shapeshifter. For about six months it was just the two of us on the farm.

"I was blind and he was deaf."

He gestures across a field.

"Shapeshifter were born on the little stage out the back. That's where they used to practise."

What does this cowboy think of Shapeshifter's style of music?

"I went to the live concert in the Christchurch Town Hall with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in 2006.

"Towards the end of the show I went downstairs as they cranked up. When I walked in, it looked like a mob of maggots all going for it, it was the people. I thought the Town Hall was going to fall over that night."

He was in the last live show at the Christchurch Town Hall, starring Don McLean, held on February 21, 2011.

"I'd organised some horses for Don and I to go riding on the morning of the quake. It's lucky Don and his wife flew out early."

Grenell estimates there are around 10 guitars lying around his home.

He grabs one he found in a junk shop in 2008.

It was purchased when he was searching second-hand stores for his Gallatone guitar, bought as a child, which had been seized by the Ministry of Justice to cover unpaid fines and sold at auction.

It was later returned to Grenell.

"It's keeping it in tune. I hurt my fingers chopping wood, which doesn't help."

Guitar in hand, Grenell grabs a hat from a wide and varied selection on a shelf and eases into his worn cowboy boots.

Climbing up onto a fence, Grenell begins to sing On the Wings of Horses. Around his head fantails flutter. Across the paddock one of his horses, a kaimanawa named Whoopi, neighs softly.

His voice sounds as good as it ever did. But playing the guitar is trickier now.

He pauses to examine his fingers and shakes his head.

"I was trying to be a cowboy back in the old days. I did a few rodeos. After a while I realised it was a lot easier to sing about being a cowboy than to be one."

Gesturing with open arms at the land around him, he says he bought the place to "raise family, Appaloosa horses and music". He has successfully done all three.

"I am young in the world," he sings. His eyes are closed.

"I'm glad I am alive. I know some days I'll fly away, on the wings of horses."

THE DETAILS:

John Grenell's 70th "hootenanny" is at Churchill's Tavern, Sydenham, on Sunday from 2pm. Free entry, and children are welcome with their caregivers.

- The Press

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