Along the way McCauley performed his earliest shows with two men destined to go on to fame with Ray Columbus and The Invaders, started his own promotions company with fellow musicians, toured alongside Howard Morrison, Paul Walden, John Hore and Maria Dallas and appeared on the NZBC television show The Country Touch.
After the promotions company was wound up in 1970 McCauley played a major part in establishing the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards in Gore, which would provide a stepping stone to recording careers for past overall winners such as Patsy Riggir and Noel Parlane.
From an early age Max McCauley showed a propensity for singing and yodelling. Born in Lumsden to Gordon and Dorothy McCauley in 1937, when he was two his mother took ill and was hospitalised. Max stayed with an uncle and apparently sang and yodelled himself to sleep every night.
Back with his parents, his mother would put a record on the gramophone whenever her son required soothing. Both Gordon and Dorothy played the button accordion and sang, although Max never heard his father sing until he was an adult. The preferred material was Irish and Scottish folk music though Dorothy also yodelled and sang country and western songs; Gordon also played the mouth organ.
Max first took to the stage at the Lumsden Hall as a five-year-old in a group that included future National Party MP Derek Angus. He could not really play it but Max strummed a ukulele as they performed ‘Sail Along Silvery Moon’ and ‘The Yellow Rose Of Texas’.
When he was seven the family moved southeast to Gore. The yodelling on the Jimmie Rodgers, Wilf Carter and Australian Shirley Thoms 78s played by the McCauleys’ next-door neighbour fascinated Max. An early New Zealand influence was Dunedin singer, songwriter and yodeller Les Wilson, younger brother of Cole Wilson, whose recordings were released on HMV.
Upon hearing Austrian Alpine yodelling on the wireless, Max acquired records from Gore music shop proprietors Ray and Marjorie Lusk, who continued to encourage his endeavours. They were big in the Gore Theatrical Society when Max sang in productions Showtime and Holiday In The Sun.
During his 10½ weeks of compulsory military training at the Burnham Army Camp in the mid-1950s a fellow trainee gave 18-year-old Max McCauley his first guitar lesson. The fellow showed McCauley three chords and told him if he was keen enough he would learn the rest. The first song he learned to play was Wilf Carter’s ‘A Cowboy’s Best Friend Is His Pony’.
Theatre manager and promoter Trevor King told McCauley he was a country music singer and to never change his vocal style.
He began entering local talent quests yodelling and singing material by Hank Williams, Hank Snow and Marty Robbins. There were a few first places and McCauley was securing the odd paying gig, but mostly he was learning his craft.
That was when rock and roll hit Southland. He was at the St James Theatre in Gore when New Zealand’s king of rock and roll, Johnny Devlin, had his shirt ripped off by hysterical girls. However, McCauley was more taken with Buddy Holly’s singing alternating between regular voice and falsetto, as well as records by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and The Comets.
McCauley met drummer Jimmy Hill and learner guitarist Wally Scott while working at the Mataura freezing works. Scott was anxious to take in everything McCauley knew on guitar and had soon surpassed him. The three men played together on occasion, including one trip to Larnach Castle in Dunedin when there were no buses to the venue and few people turned up. Around five years later Hill and Scott found success as part of Ray Columbus and The Invaders.
In the meantime, McCauley was making a name for himself around Southland and Otago as a country and rock and roll singer and had come to the attention of Invercargill promoter and NZ Railways worker Frank Stapp. A passionate, diligent man who would write his artists letters detailing their upcoming work, Stapp had McCauley work one memorable bill with guitarist Peter Posa and fire-eater Jon Zealando.
After a talent quest in Christchurch, theatre manager and promoter Trevor King told McCauley he was a country music singer and to never change his vocal style, advice McCauley heeded.
He entered Mosgiel promoter Joe Brown’s Search For Stars in Dunedin and formed The Mountaineers with bass guitarist Francis Steel and guitarist Garth Gibson, who also produced the Country and Western Spotlight magazine. It was Gibson who instigated McCauley’s recording career after the band recorded two numbers apiece by Wilf Carter and Ernie McCulloch in the implement shed of Gibson’s Kelso farm.
The guitarist sent the tracks to his Viking Records contact Ron Dalton who released them as the EP Yodelling Out West credited to Max McCauley and The Mountaineers. Two more EPs followed on Viking in the 1960s – She Taught Me To Yodel and I Was Born To Yodel.
Recognising a scarcity of yodelling numbers and being a lover of poetry, McCauley began writing his own songs. Among those to be recorded were ‘Down By The Singing Waterfall’, ‘I Was Born To Yodel’ and his best-known yodelling composition ‘Back To The Mountains’.
McCauley performed at rodeos with fellow Southlander Dusty Spittle as well as doing shows with Margaret Bates, Howard Morrison, John Hore and Paul Walden as far north as Christchurch. Walden was particularly helpful, teaching McCauley to watch the audience for their reaction, to dress well and to always appear relaxed.
Seeing the success Joe Brown was having with his touring shows, McCauley and country music friends Stewart and Bill Abernethy, Richard Tutty, Garth Gibson, Ray Ferguson and their girlfriends pooled their money and started Country Style Promotions. They put on events in Southland and Otago halls that included a show, a dance and supper.
In 1967, McCauley joined the hugely successful Maria Dallas Country Show tour through the South Island that also featured Tony and the Initials, Ken Lemon, MC George Tumahai and ‘Tumblin’ Down’ writer Jay Epae. Viking released a live album from the tour as The Maria Dallas Country Show, with McCauley contributing ‘The Yellow Rose Of Texas’.
An avid country record collector, McCauley’s mate Stewart Abernethy got in touch with Master record label owner Hoghton Hughes in Christchurch to gauge his interest in releasing new Max McCauley material. Hughes was keen and in 1968 came a duet 45 with Margaret Bates on ‘Yes Mr Peters’ and the album Tears, Yodels And A Whole Lotta Country.
The EP Sounds Of Southland appeared on Master the following year. Its four tracks, including ‘Hokonui Whiskey’ and ‘Tapanui Yodel’, were written by McCauley’s friend Bob McFarlane. The albums Max McCauley Country and Great Country Hits Of Today were released on Master in the early 1970s.
The money was put into a trust which the Gore Country Music Club used to get the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards up and running in 1974.
McCauley rarely ventured to the North Island, but on one occasion he appeared on the NZBC television show out of Auckland The Country Touch hosted by Tex Morton. It led to appearances with Morton in Southland where the veteran showman dazzled the audience with his sharpshooting and stockwhip skills.
Country Style Promotions was wound up in 1970 when the musicians were starting to marry and settle down. After a final show in the Green Island Hall in Dunedin, the money was put into a trust which the Gore Country Music Club used to get the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards up and running in 1974.
The inaugural winner of the Gold Guitar that year was Putaruru checkout girl Patsy Riggir while Noel Parlane won in 1978. Both went on to long recording careers and were stars of TVNZ’s That’s Country in the 1980s. Other winners to have found success as recording artists include Janice Ramage, Kylie Harris, Camille Te Nahu and 2013 Tamworth Star Maker winner Kaylee Bell.
During the early years of the Gold Guitar Awards Max McCauley was part of the organising committee; his job was to contact the artists. The competition initially benefited from the backing band of Invercargill pedal steel guitarist Les Thomas, a stalwart of Country Style Promotions days.
McCauley’s 20 Golden Yodels was released on Master successor Music World in 1978. It received a gold disc in 1994 for exceeding 50,000 copies sold. His subsequent albums Back To The Mountains (1999) and 50 Years On (2014) have been released independently.
As the Gold Guitar Awards have continued to grow, McCauley and his wife Coral have maintained important behind-the-scenes roles. Both are life members of the Gore Country Music Club and Max McCauley continues to perform whenever he can.
Max McCauley has never parted with the guitar he used on his debut Viking release Yodelling Out West in the early 1960s despite the finish being burned off the then new instrument when it was left too close to the heaters in the implement shed the EP was recorded in.