New Zealand 1985 – at the height of 'new wave' and Kiwi pub rock - was an unlikely time to form a country band. However, a bunch of Wellington's musicians did just that. Called The Warratahs, the band's two-year residency at inner-city tavern The Cricketer's Arms drew increasingly large crowds, attracted by the mix of covers and originals in the style of Hank Williams, Jimmy Rogers and Hank Snow played in an acoustic style.
The Warratahs began touring and in 1987 turned up in Gore, at the bottom of New Zealand's South Island, for the legendary Gold Guitars country music awards. It was no surprise when, three days later, they walked away with the title of Best Group.
The band went into the studio in 1986 and recorded a Barry Saunders/Wayne Mason song Hands of My Heart. Released as a "single", the song received significant national airplay and led to the recording and release of The Warratahs' first long-player Only Game in Town in late 1987. The album spent 26 weeks in the charts and clocked up "gold" sales.
Covering the country, The Warratahs were now a full-time touring band reaching almost every part of New Zealand with their distinctive sound. A Saunders-penned song - Maureen - was lifted from the album and also received heavy airplay. Both "Maureen" and "Hands of My Heart" are still among the most-requested songs in The Warratahs' repertoire.
Like most bands who have extensively toured the relatively small New Zealand market, Australia soon beckoned and The Warratahs quickly built up a steady following in Sydney and Melbourne. New Zealand tours with Billy Joel and Johnny Cash (twice) followed, as well as their own headlining shows on both sides of the Tasman.
Also during this period, in 1991, a second album was released; Too Hot To Sleep featured the singles "St Peter's Rendezvous", "Fool's Paradise" and "Bruno's Last Ride". Two more albums followed, as well as a Best Of which went platinum - but after eight years of flat-out touring it was time to take stock.
With differing song writing styles and directions emerging Mason left and was replaced with accordion/piano player Alan Norman. Singer and songwriter Saunders used the hiatus to write and record two solo albums -"Weatherman" and "Magnetic South" - the latter winning the New Zealand Music Country Album Award.
By now it was 1999 and time to take the Warratahs out on the road again. The band joined legendary performance poet Sam Hunt and headed out on the "Drivin' Wheel" tour - to find that their following in heartland New Zealand was as strong as ever. In November of the same year a new Warratahs album was released - One of Two Things, featuring guest appearances from Hunt and singer Caroline Easther, garnered much critical acclaim and also picked up the NZ Music Country Album gong.
Four years later, a Warratahs Collection album spent six weeks in the charts and reminded fans of the vast catalogue of (largely Saunders-composed) songs that the band had amassed over the years. Around the same time a new Saunders album "Red Morning" was gathering considerable critical acclaim and marked a milestone of his 'singer-songwriter' career.
Now, twenty-odd years on, The Warratahs are a New Zealand music institution. The distinctive vocals of Barry Saunders and individual violin style of Nik Brown reach all the way back to the band's beginning in 1985 and, along with Saunders' elemental songs, form the core of 'The Warratahs Sound'. Still touring and playing shows and festivals, they continue to pull the crowds and deliver strong and exciting performances. Although they play songs from their five albums they have always continued to develop and record new material.