You'd be forgiven for thinking that you'd turned up to a fancy dress event at a Michael Waugh show – one where the theme is red and black checked flannelette shirts. "The Grateful Dead might have die-hard fans called 'Deadheads'," observed Canadian Folk Singer Scott Cook at a recent show with Michael, struck by a sea of these working man's tops on a warm Queensland evening, "but Michael Waugh's shows are swarming with 'Waugh-heads.'"
Since his 2016 debut, Waugh has released three albums of deeply relatable, emotional story songs based on characters and events from around his home town of Maffra in Eastern Victoria. Fans of the singer-songwriter have rusted on to his uniquely Australian narrative style – and they proudly wear the red and black checked shirt as a sign of their connectedness - uniformed members of team Waugh.
"Initially, it was really weird seeing people turn up to shows dressed like me," says Waugh, who started wearing the flanno as a tribute to his dairy farming father, "but then I realised that I was singing songs in an Australian accent about people and places that they recognised – I was singing about their lives, and that's why people related so much that they wanted to wear that shirt." Inspired by the Waugh-heads, Michael has kept evolving his storytelling style – painting evocative pictures of ordinary Australians, whose lives are celebrated in Waugh's songs.
On Waugh's fourth studio album, The Cast, the roll-call of characters has broadened. "There is new territory covered on this record – musically and lyrically. There may not be a red and black checked shirt on the cover, but there are still stories and characters that you've met before."
'Dirty River' is a tribute to Waugh's adopted home town of Melbourne. In 'Real Estate' he dreams about better lives that might be lived, and in 'Swollen', a bold, brave and brutal mission statement to the album, Waugh addresses his experience of an eating disorder.
While the album might be book ended by 'Swollen' and 'Sleepless', painfully honest stories from the perspective of a haunted soul, the title of the album – and the title track – are about healing.
Sitting at the centre of this collection, 'The Cast' title track is brave, funny, and deeply personal. The story twists unexpectedly with a characteristic narrative turn that we have come to expect from Waugh, leading to him being dubbed the 'M Night Shyamalan of country music' by comedian Wil Anderson.
It may be his love for storytelling in his work as a high school Drama teacher that has led to the character driven story songs which are uniquely specific to The Cast; the 13 tracks on the record are little slice of life dramas that play out through the album.
"Working with kids keeps things real." Says Waugh, "if you're doing your job properly as a teacher then you need to empathise with where kids are coming from – imagining what it might be like to walk around in their school shoes for a day. I suppose if you're doing your job properly as a songwriter, then you're doing the same thing – trying to give voice to what it's like to live inside a character's skin."
Crafted by multi-award winning producer Shane Nicholson, who has partnered with Waugh on all of his four records, The Cast features a duet with Golden Guitar award winning artist, Felicity Urquhart. The credits are a testament to Nicholson's freakish skill and talent – not only did he record, engineer and mix the album, he also played at least 17 instruments.
Written and produced through the time of Melbourne's 2020 COVID lockdown, the emotional core of the album is Waugh's tribute to his parents who both died within 6 weeks of each other in 2020. 'He Taught Me', 'Hold on to the Ones You Love' and 'Too Many Drawers' are heart rending, deftly told stories about Waugh's parents, as he tries to come to terms with their loss. 'Waugh-heads' have already come to know and love John and Eileen Waugh as the Dairy Farmer and Heyfield Girl whose stories have lived large in Michael's first three albums. The Cast is Waugh's artistic exploration of being broken and learning to heal again.
Says Waugh of the making of this record, "while I really missed touring and making music with my friends, I needed to be still after losing mum and dad - to reflect, to write and to be surrounded by my family. Being isolated in lockdown was a little like having a broken arm stuck inside a cast – it was frustrating and I was itching to get out, but ultimately it's what I needed so that I could start to put myself back together again."
The Cast is destined to win a slew of new Waugh-heads – with or without the red and black checked shirt.