Golden girls recall first awards

NICCI MCDOUGALL
Last updated 15:53 31/05/2014
linda robertson, rhonda heaps

YOUNG STARS: Linda and Rhonda Heaps perform at the Gold Guitar finals in 1974.

rhonda heaps
Rhonda Heaps
linda robertson
JOHN HAWKINS/ Fairfax NZ
Linda Robertson

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In the thick of the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards reporter Nicci McDougall takes a look back at the first overall junior winners in 1974.

Rhonda Heaps still shoulder-dances in the car and - much to the disgruntlement of her neighbours - is teaching herself to play the drums at age 47.

A good day in Linda Robertson's household is she and her family singing along with good country tunes as they work in the shearing shed or hay paddock.

That's what growing up surrounded by country music has done to them.

Aged seven and nine, the tight-knit sisters won the first overall junior Gold Guitar Award in 1974 with Jimmie Davis' biggest hit from the early 30s Nobody's Darlin' but Mine and they won again in 1978. They were runners-up in 1975 and runners-up in the senior group category in 1976.

Performing on stage came naturally to the confident sisters and even though Linda remembers a large, loud audience at the awards, nerves never seemed to hit. Instead, once they were on stage, they'd be in the zone without a care in the world.

The New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards were a big part of the girls' childhoods and even in its infancy it was "a pretty big deal", Rhonda says.

The renowned competition has made careers and even though its built in stature, it was just as influential in its early years for the people who entered as it was now, she says.

It's a great part of Gore's heritage, Linda says.

Growing up in Mataura the girls shared a bedroom, a two-year age gap and a musical bond so deep they refused to perform without one another.

"I've only ever performed with Rhonda. If we sing away from each other there's something missing. We just have this chemistry, this bond. It all just fits together."

Now in their 40s the sisters continue to talk often, visit each other often and regularly swap Ipods even though they're living more than 2500km apart.

Rhonda was just five and Linda seven when they first performed on stage at the St Peter's Hall in Gore.

It was the beginning of a myriad of performances as they travelled up and down the South Island competing in music competitions, talent quests and even making the semifinals of the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks.

Life was dominated by music. Linda, now 49, played guitar and sang melody while Rhonda played the ukulele and sang harmony.

But when Linda was 13 and Rhonda was 11 the driving force behind their music - their father Wilson Heaps and one of the Gold Guitar founders - passed away.

And with him so did the sisters' musical performances.

They haven't performed publicly since, except at family functions and weddings.

Family gatherings have always been fun and surrounded by multiple instruments; anything from clarinets to cornets. Needless to say, they have never needed to hire a band.

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Now living in the small "Gore-sized" town of Roma in Western Queensland, Rhonda spends her days running her accounting firm.

Music has remained a huge part of her life and in fact - much to her neighbours' disgust, she joked - she recently purchased her first set of drums.

She often sits, guitar in hand, on the back patio at her home and strums a few tunes. These traits have extended to her 21-year-old son Luke and 18-year-old daughter Rye.

Music is incorporated in everyday life and takes precedence over television in her household. She shoulder-dances in the car and sings through housework and gardening and everyday general chores. She chuckles as she describes the prime spot her guitar and bass have in the lounge.

Rhonda's household story echoes Linda's. There's always a guitar sitting in a stand somewhere in the house.

Leafing through an old scrapbook full of photographs and newspaper clippings she laughs as she comes across a small white piece of paper with she and Rhonda's winnings of the 1974 Gold Guitar awards - a cheque for $20.

Linda and her family are beef, sheep and grain farmers in Kaiwera, north of Gore.

A good day in the life of the Robertsons (Linda's husband David, 21-year-old daughter Sentain and 18-year-old son Zed) is a sunny day in the shearing shed or hay paddock singing along to good country tunes.

Life without music wouldn't be a great life, Linda says.

"I've had two periods of quite ill health and music can transport you to places ... it reminds you of people, places, times and events."

One musical memory Linda recounted was visiting Tamworth in 2008 after being talked into it by her sister. The pair, along with some friends, were so excited to get their $100 tickets to attend a country music competition show. But, they completely missed it because they were too busy jamming around the table at the backpackers.

Linda still has her ticket, she says.

The music has certainly never stopped for the pair and although they don't perform themselves, they enjoy following young and upcoming New Zealand artists.

So much so that the Heaps family sponsored the highest scoring Gore Country Music Club Junior Member annually for 20 years. Linda has also judged the Gold Guitars about three times.

When the sisters are together they're always having a "jam session", just like they did in their teenage years. When they pick up their instruments together it's like no time has passed, they say.

The prospect of performing again wasn't far out of sight but the daily tasks of raising children, running a business and maintaining good health, not to mention the distance between the pair, could get in the way, Rhonda says.

Linda says the possibility of a live performance would have to involve raising money solely for a charity event.

"(I'd) prefer to leave it to the young, upcoming artists."

● There are 640 entrants in this years' Gold Guitar Awards.

● The New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards runs from May 30 to June 1, 2014 following a week of country music celebrations including the New Zealand Country Music Awards, MLT Songwriting Awards, concerts and busking competitions.

● Each day auditions are held in three venues. At the auditions judges choose finalists in the various sections.

● The Junior and Intermediate finals are held on Saturday night and the senior final night is Sunday.

● The 40 Plus and 60 Plus finals are held prior to the Professional Artists Showcase concert on Sunday afternoon at the end of the auditions.

● Contestants may enter as an individual, in a duet and/or as part of a group.

● This year the Topp Twins will be inducted into the Hands of Fame and organisers expect a sell-out crowd.

- The Southland Times

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