As he walks past three large objects wrapped in brown paper, a young Colin addresses the camera. “It looks a bit pointy at the top,” he says, smiling. “It looks a bit like a rocket.” As he pokes the third parcel, it laughs. “I know what it is!” he says, brandishing his finger as if he has an idea. “It’s a big teddy and if you push its tummy it squeaks.” Of course the parcel is Monica who we’ve already seen wrap herself up to hide from Colin.
Welcome to Play School circa 1990-something, and Colin Buchanan’s first foray into public entertainment, the role he remains best known for.
Since then, numerous ‘Colins’ have emerged so that whole families can enjoy his one-man variety show. There is the ABC radio guest who writes impromptu songs to make commuters laugh on their way home. There is the Christian children’s songwriter mashing absurdities with vital theology so once his music is learned it can’t be forgotten. Then there’s the multi-Golden Guitar winner whose tunes have been sung by some of Australia’s biggest names in country music.
Buchanan is coy about his “profile”. But there’s no denying he has an eclectic one these days. Among his adoring Sunday School fans, for instance, his feats in country-music are basically unknown. Perhaps the same is true of his radio listenership when it comes to his kids’ songs.
If his retrospective compilation The Songwriter Sessions released recently, and featuring his own greatest hits played live with the likes of John Williamson, Lee Kernaghan, Troy Cassar-Daley, Sara Storer, Diana Corcoran, and Anne Kirkpatrick, reveals anything, it’s that Buchanan’s knack for writing music for adults is well known.
“I had an urban upbringing – born in Dublin,” Buchanan tells Eternity over the phone. “But really, lyrical songs always attracted me. And songs that I guess had the fabric of life in them.” He names James Taylor, Eric Bogle, and Shane Howard as artists that “captured my imagination”.
Strangely the Sydneysider’s music career began at a time when he says he was “seeking first the kingdom of God”. He had travelled to Bourke in north western NSW to be part of the Cornerstone Christian community and was inspired to begin writing music. Something lasting was born. “The Lord opens doors,” he says. “I went to Bourke and he led me into music.”
Since that day, the musicians Buchanan has teamed up with are more than guitarists and vocalists. They are “chums” as he calls them. So what do they think of the faith that takes him to churches around the country singing ‘10, 9, 8, God is great’? “I’ve never been lampooned for it at all,” he says. “One of the guys on the record rang me yesterday and asked, ‘I lift my eyes to the hills. Where does that come from?’ … So I read to him Psalm 121 which is a great Psalm of refuge and hope in God. And he said, ‘I’d really like to put that reference at the end of my new album’s thankyous because I’d just like to acknowledge that God really is a refuge for me.”
Buchanan says a number of his friends are open with him about what they think of God. “My Christian faith is really foundational to my life – and I don’t do that perfectly. But I know that I’m loved perfectly by God. And I’m not afraid to acknowledge that and talk about it. And I just find it interesting that I get the calls from guys who just want to ask about something, or, ‘Hey what Bible should I buy? The kids are asking questions after you gave them that DVD.’”
Perhaps it is this assuredness that has won Buchanan a platform in what is often called the “secular world”. When I bring up the question of how the church can better connect with culture – thinking Buchanan could teach us a thing or two – he seems rather nonplussed. “It’s a bit of a hard one,” he says, “I just wonder whether rather than worrying how we’re connecting with the outside world, if we just went about the things that are in the essence of being the community of Christ, then the way we presented that in the broader world would be less about the point of connection, and more about living the life of faith. The life of being the community of love.”
Buchanan doesn’t appreciate “people begging me to join their club” and so he doesn’t want to be doing that as a Christian. How then does he think we should fulfil Christ’s mandate to reach our neighbours? “I think of Troy Cassar-Daley,” Buchanan launches into another parable. “Here’s a good piece of evangelism. I went on the road with him and he looks at puddles wondering whether there’s fish in there and whether or not he could catch them. He’s just a mad keen fisherman and it’s infectious. He didn’t go on the road thinking I need to change Colin’s attitude to fishing – because I’m no fisherman – but sure enough, by the time you’ve been on the road for 10 days with Troy … I walked into the tackle shop in Echuca and I bought myself a rod. I couldn’t wait to get out there.” Get on with being enthusiastic, Colin reckons, and others will join you.
As for whether creativity gives Buchanan a unique opportunity to be more expressive and open about his faith, he readily admits that. He knows there is something about wielding a guitar that affords a chance to share of Jesus.
His subject matter is significant too. Words such as those from Song of Australia evoke an older Australia, where dusty shoes outnumbered asphalt-scuffed ones. Sung like a love song to the country, its verse is filled with rural imagery:
“You are gumtrees
You’re the muster on the Pentecost
You are Kakadu’s
A dreaming place under the Southern Cross.”
Buchanan says, “My son teases me sometimes – he’s 22 and he says, ‘There you are promoting the myth of the noble rural Australian’. And I know what he’s saying. But I think it is a part of how we see ourselves.”
He believes to reach the hearts of people in this land, a sense of place and belonging is important. It doesn’t matter exactly where in this large southern landmass we reside. The very fact we live here makes all the difference. “We know that we’re remote and we live in a big country with breadth and harshness,” Buchanan says. “It’s beautiful and it’s wild. The work that’s taken to pioneer this country does live in people’s minds, even though the vast bulk of us live on the coast and in cities.”More