Sixty years on 'a wonderful journey'

Ferg Mitchell, of Cromwell, belts out an old tune from his song book. PHOTO: ADAM BURNS
Ferg Mitchell, of Cromwell, belts out an old tune from his song book. PHOTO: ADAM BURNS
After more than six decades of playing music, Cromwell country music figure Ferg Mitchell may be one of the more prolific entertainers in the land. Adam Burns spoke to the Central Otago music veteran about what drives his love of playing.

Cromwell country music journeyman Ferg Mitchell recalls the opening of the Haast Rd fondly. His father George's band, the Old Music Makers, shared in the commemorations of the road opening which completed State Highway 6 on November 6, 1965.

In 2015, it would be Ferg himself who would mark the 50 year celebrations.

"The committee had no idea when they asked me at the time. They just liked my music. It was sheer coincidence. It wasn't until later that I also realised that dad had done the job 50 years ago."

It is appropriate the Central Otago performer would help commemorate a major highway anniversary. The 76-year-old has travelled the South Island for more than 60 years as a performer, playing every backwoods stop-off imaginable.

He started learning to play guitar at the age of 16, and soon had his first taste of delighting lively crowds, during "after hour" sessions at the local watering hole.

"It was 6 o'clock closing in those days. I was a young fella, and I would sneak in after hours and get up on the bar and play the guitar. We had quite the jam sessions entertaining the crowd."

Drawing on influences from country heroes such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Charley Pride and Kenny Rogers, and early rock and roll, Mitchell developed a significant passion for covering cherished golden oldies throughout the South Island.

"There's a big following [of country] throughout the whole of the South Island. I've played most pubs, halls and hotels, the South Island top to bottom."

Despite never playing in the North Island, Mitchell travelled through Australia, playing a stretch of shows between Alice Springs and Darwin in 1978.

The annual Hoedown, having its 33rd event in November, was born out of a weekend jam session at the Hakataramea Hotel in 1986. It developed into an annual tradition.

"It was a great atmosphere [the first year]. The publican said it was a fantastic weekend and that we should make it an annual event. We went back the following year and it started to grow and grow."

The event was later moved to Otematata after the Hakataramea Hotel closed but the Hoedown's burgeoning popularity meant it moved to Omarama and later Cromwell. Last year, the event attracted 1000 revellers.

"The weekend is always abuzz. It's a fantastic weekend and you just see the town grow."

As the music was a part-time vocation, Mitchell had been an orchardist at Cromwell's Sunhaven orchards for 45 years before retiring.

The orchard occasionally served as a stage for Mitchell to showcase his song book.

"The Octagon Club in Dunedin would come up to the orchard for fruit. I would perform for the club members while they had lunch."

In 2004, Mitchell travelled to Christchurch to record a compilation of covers entitled My Kinda Country. It would later find itself on the country charts in New Zealand: "The sales were exceptionally good."

"When I played at the races, my late wife would set up a table and an umbrella and we sold a lot. When they see you [play] live it seems to help."

His prolific experience has been acknowledged over the years by numerous runner-up awards at the Southern Alps Country Music Awards and a Highly Commended gong at the Gore Gold Guitars.

A bout of ill health over the past 18 months has "grounded" the entertainer. He has been discharged from hospital only recently after a serious medical event.

"My kidneys failed on me and I ended up on dialysis. I'm just learning to walk again and have been getting my strength back. It was a tough row to hoe but I'm getting there."

As he gets back on his feet, Mitchell is looking forward toreturning to the stage.

"It's about the people that come out of the woodwork and the friends you make. I've had a wonderful journey."

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