We think of him as more Aussie than an Akubra. So it may surprise you to learn that the loveable larrikin of Australian Christian and country music, Colin Buchanan, actually hailed from Ireland.
“So I really am, in every respect, a fake,” Buchanan admits to host Jenny Salt on the latest episode of Eternity‘s podcast Salt.
But his 25 years as a Christian kid’s entertainer tell a different story. There aren’t many church-going families who don’t own at least one of the stacks of albums he’s produced during that time, including 10,9,8 … God is Great and Super Saviour. And name a child (or adult) who can recite Isaiah 53:6 without the “baa baa doo baa baa”.
Outside the Christian music scene, Buchanan is also beloved as a former Play School presenter and a regular radio panelist on ABC Sydney Drive’s Thank God It’s Friday program with Richard Glover. Buchanan also owns a tucker bag full of country music industry awards – including nine Golden Guitars and an ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) award.
So how did this entertaining artist find his way into Australia’s heart?
The early years
Born in 1964 in Dublin Ireland, Buchanan describes to Jenny Salt his “cozy” early years with his parents and three sisters.
“My grandmother and aunt lived nearby, and and other aunts as well. So I had a strong sense of identity in our street. I knew the people. I went to a little school, which was run by Quakers actually, that was in a couple of big terrace homes. So there was a very cozy, known sense of life together.”
On Sundays, the family always attended the local Presbyterian Church – an activity Buchanan describes as non-negotiable.
This was perhaps done more out of a sense of duty than devotion at that time, according to Buchanan (although he notes the growth of his father’s faith later in life).
“I think for that generation it was more important to attend church, be seen to be moral, live a good life,” says Buchanan.
He adds, “I think the only prayer that I can remember at home is ‘For what we’re about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.’”
The cozy life of the Buchanan family was uprooted when the small Dublin paper mill where Buchanan’s father worked changed hands.
“The paper mill was bought by Catholics, and they got rid of all the Protestants,” Buchanan explains.
“Mum was a keen cricket fan … so we came to Australia, where the cricket was!” – Colin Buchanan
At this turning point, Buchanan’s parents decided it was time to move abroad.
“We could have gone to Canada … South Africa, [or] New Zealand. But Mum was a keen cricket fan and thought, ‘Actually I think Australia is the best best option.’ So we came to where the cricket was!” he giggles.
“We got on a big boat, which I think is a terrific way to up-end someone’s life, especially as a five-year-old. We came down the coast of Africa and across to Fremantle and then set foot in Melbourne. That was massive – that was a new chapter. Suddenly we were outsiders.”
Two weeks after arriving in Brunswick, Melbourne, Buchanan celebrated his sixth birthday with chickenpox.
“It was incredibly multicultural,” Buchanan reflects. “I can remember the Greeks and Italians, and their flamboyant sort of way of interacting.
“We were only there for a couple of months when Dad got a job at Botany in a paper mill. So we moved up to Sydney and lived in the eastern suburbs for a little while.
“That was another interesting chapter … I remember going down to Rose Bay and swimming in the baths down there as boats would take off to go to Lord Howe Island. So it was really quite a different. Six months earlier, I’d been in Dublin and it was snowing!”
Buchanan’s family moved to southern Sydney, where they began attending a Uniting Church. In Year 7, Buchanan made a decision to commit his life to Christ.
“I was blessed that a ‘Navigator’ – an engineering student from Sydney from NSW Uni, seconded from Oatley Uniting – came to teach Sunday School there,” remembers Buchanan, referring to a young man who was part of “global discipleship” group, Navigators.
“He went through the lessons on assurance from the Navigators’ book The Bridge to Life – you know, sin on one side, God on the other, and Jesus is the bridge.
“I’d responded earlier in my life, in about Year 2, to stories about personal faith – you know, Jesus knocking on the door of the heart.
“Whereas, this was the Bible and here’s what God has done … It was like, you want to know God and you want to be sure of that. And you want to be saved from your sins and live eternally with him. It was just like a no-brainer for me.”
“I’d go behind the wash sheds at recess where kids are lining up their Winfield cigarettes, and I’d be shuffling through my Navigator [Bible] verses.” – Colin Buchanan
After making this decision, Buchanan became ‘a rebel’ for Jesus.
“I can remember getting in trouble at school, ‘Put those away!’ when I had the Navigator memory verses out. I was a real rebel,” he laughs.
“You know, I’d go behind the wash sheds at recess where kids are lining up their Winfield cigarettes, and I’d be shuffling through my Navigator verses – ‘Now, let me see, 1 Corinthians 5 …’”
In mid-high school the Buchanan family shifted to Hurstville Presbyterian Church, then called St Giles. At the time, Buchanan admits he was “sort of losing interest in church things … I had a bunch of mates who were interested in other things, being lads”.
“But there was just great preaching there and a really vital faith, and I made some key friendships there that the Lord really used.”
At this time, while at St Giles, Buchanan’s musical talents also began to blossom.
Falling into music
Despite his many awards and accolades, Buchanan was never formally trained in music.
“I never really thought of myself as a musician. I think I just enjoyed music,” he says.
“Dad, strangely, came home with a ukulele one night. I don’t know why, I don’t remember … But there was a ukulele and a ‘teach yourself ukulele’ book. We all learned how to play Way Down Upon The Swanee River – that hardly sets you up for a laugh in music!
“My sister had Beach Boys’ cassettes and a few Keith Green records and a guitar that she needed for her uni course. And somehow I picked out a few chords on that.
“At the end of high school I did elective music, and I was kicked out more often than not. I do remember the inner rage of the teacher pointing at me as I was heading out of the room, and she said, ‘Colin Buchanan, I don’t know what will become of you!’
“You wish you had a little time machine, so you could go back and say, ‘How about a career in music?’ I never thought that would happen.”
Thankfully – for all the kids, mums, dads, Sunday schools, churches and other fans of his music – that’s exactly what did happen.
As for the rest of Colin Buchanan’s story, well there’s plenty written about that.