23 July 2009

Hillman Hunter

Pedigree is important in music. To be a soul singer, it helps to be the son of a preacher man. In country music, coal miner’s daughters have made their mark.

So Al Hunter, born the son of a miner in the back hills of the Waikato, must have had a head start when he decided to be a musician. He reflects on this as he drives the last few bends in the road to Pukemiro. He spent his childhood in the small mining town, about 15 minutes southwest of Huntly. At the age of 18, he caught the bus to Auckland, hoping to join a blues band. That was in the late 60s; for the last 20 years, Hunter has become known singing country in the big city.

As he gets closer to his birthplace, he remarks on what’s missing. Rotowaro, a ghost town for years, isn’t even that now. Up until a few months ago, the town’s presence could still be felt, lingering like the coal dust in the air. Recently, though, a new road was built that bypasses even the spirit of long-gone Rotowaro. Having flattened the township, the mining company now wants to see what’s below the old road.

There’s still an open-cast mine at Rotowaro, a gaping black canyon surrounded by rolling green hills. Hunter visited the location recently for the cover shot of his new album, Cold Hard Winter. His life could have been very different. He points out the mining company office where he worked as a pay clerk after leaving school. He had only lasted a few weeks underground, in the McDonald mine nearby.

It was terrible,” he says. “I was the ‘trucker’ who pushed skips full of coal. I was a skinny little guy, and not strong. And that took a lot of strength.”

The Pukemiro mine closed in the mid-1960s, but the township is still there. Nestled on the side of a hill, Pukemiro can be visited in moments. But it’s still thriving, as a haven for retired miners, or as a rural dormitory town for workers in Huntly and Hamilton.

Halfway up the main street, Hunter shows us the site where the IGA store stood, decades ago. He’s mentioned it in his song ‘When the Circus Came to Town.’ It’s a true story, although calling it a circus was an exaggeration; there was only “one horse, one tent, and not one tiger”. But it was exciting to a 10 year-old, and Hunter volunteered to join. The manager said he could sell the hot dogs, and paid him with all he could eat.

Nearby is the Pukemiro Hall, unpainted and closed up. Down the hall on Saturday nights, Hunter’s father would play the piano at parties. One time he slammed down the lid of the piano and declared, “If no one’s gonna dance, don’t expect me to play for you!” He loved tunes such as ‘Remembrance’ and ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ and classical music, too. Apparently, the more he had to drink, the better the music got.

Not that Hunter can remember. He was only eight months when his father died. Aged 46, with asthma and lung problems from working in the mines, he left behind a wife and seven children.

There’s an 18-year gap between Hunter and his eldest sister, Ella. She still lives in Pukemiro, beside the hall where their father played. When we visit, her coal-fired range is alight; the aroma of a lamb roast fills her small house. Their mother, who came out from Scotland as a 15-year-old, always made sure they got up to a warm house by rising at 5.30am to bake bread rolls.Ella remembers her brother’s first performances. “From the age of four, he’d get up at all the dances in the hall and do an item. Then he won a talent quest at Whangamata when he was about seven.”

Ella and Al try to recall the song he performed that night. Was it ‘Bye Bye Love’? No. ‘Don’t Be Cruel’? No. ‘Money Honey’? No. Hunter does remember another victory, though. In the third form he won the Huntly College talent quest, singing ‘Long Tall Sally.’ The Beatles’ version, of course. That achievement convinced him to take up singing again; at that stage, he’d been in retirement for about three years. “I always sang at dos and parties,” he says. “But when I was about 10, I gave up. I enjoyed it, but I always felt like I was under pressure to perform.”

Ella mentions the collection of records in the Hunters’ house. They had a pile of 45s. “We bought everything that was popular. Elvis EPs, Fats Domino, Little Richard.” Next door, a neighbour would let them play his 78s of Hank Williams and Hank Snow on the windup gramophone. “So going back to country was natural for me after the blues,” says Hunter.

Pukemiro is not without its changes, too. House prices in Huntly have gone up remarkably since the highway to Auckland improved, and Pukemiro may be next. A cottage for sale across the road had an open home just before we visit, and 15 people had a look.

And for some reason, the regular earthquakes they felt as children seem to have come to an end.


First published in the NZ Herald, 1997. A compilation of music by Al Hunter, Glenn Moffat Red McKelvie has recently been released on Exile.