Oamaru musician John McCabe is celebrating more than 50 years on stage. Kayla Hodge hears his story.
Fan mail can take you far in life — just ask John McCabe.
The Oamaru musician began writing letters as a child to his hero, American country musician Tom T. Hall, and never dreamed decades later he would share the stage with him in Nashville and Sunbury, Ontario.
‘‘I always loved his records and to actually meet him and perform with him was the thrill of my life. To actually be on stage with him was fantastic,’’ McCabe (65) said.
McCabe’s career began in Oamaru when he was 12, learning music from his mother Joyce, a pianist, and performing in his first ‘‘duo’’ with bassist Michael Conlon.
After leaving Waitaki Boys’ High School, McCabe toured throughout New Zealand, before recording his first demo and singles with English band Manfred Mann, which was touring New Zealand.
Desperate to visit where his father, Douglas, trained to be a pilot for World War 2, McCabe left New Zealand for Canada in 1981 and his music career blossomed. He was signed to Toronto’s Song Master Records, which was ‘‘a hell of a good experience’’, and spent up to 26 weeks on the road touring.
He also joined the rodeo circuit in the United States, regularly performing the US national anthem in front of 20,000 people.
‘‘It was probably the most frightening thing I’ve ever done — you do not mess that up.’’
He spent 23 years overseas, living in both Canada and Nashville, and played alongside Randy Travis, Ronnie Milsap, Shania Twain and more, and signed to Banner Records.
‘‘I’ve been very, very fortunate. I’ve met a lot of really neat people.’’
While he loved performing and meeting everyone, it was a ‘‘gruelling life’’.
After spending seven years in Nashville, he moved back to Canada to ‘‘start making some money’’ and to find himself again.
‘‘The money was very poor for me, it’s not all glitz and glamour. I was very, very hard up.
‘‘I needed to find myself again. I got stuck into the writing department, and said ‘I’m going to let the songs do the walking for me because this is too hard’.’’
But his love for music kept going.
He worked in bars to make money, and spent eight years doing ‘‘one of the biggest gigs of my life’’ performing at a casino in Niagara Falls.
He was performing to 500 people a night, seven days a week, and once worked 87 days without stopping, he said.
McCabe returned to New Zealand when his father fell ill in 2004, and he was feeling quite homesick.
‘‘I’ll never forget after all the experiences in the United States, seeing New Zealand, this little gem in the middle of the ocean. I thought ‘I am home’.’’
These days, he performs in Christchurch, Timaru, and Ashburton, and was a regular at the annual Motukarara Races in Banks Peninsula.
McCabe said his wife and ‘‘roadie’’ Sue was an incredible manager, helping book his gigs everywhere, he said.
His most recent single, Aotearoa I Love You, was his ‘‘green peace’’ message to the world.
This year, McCabe celebrated 53 years on the stage and he said he continued to love every second of it.
‘‘It means everything — it’s in my blood.’’