Their brand of country was a long way from traditional country and western – Val once told an Auckland newspaper she didn’t emphasise the ten-gallon hat and yodelling and that she believed country music had moved on to a new sophistication where it was more modern and electrified.
The Nashville sound was championed by hotshot producers such as Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley who steered country music away from its honky-tonk traditions in a move designed to wrestle back some of the impetus lost to rock and roll in the late 1950s. The sub-genre saw country cross over to the pop charts for the first time.
Back in New Zealand, Val Elliott & The Rhythm Ramblers’ Country Sounds LP was produced by Howard Gable who went as far as to write to the band, “It is, I think, the best country sound to have come out of New Zealand ever.” But within two years, the band had split up.
Born into a musical family in the North Canterbury town of Rangiora in 1946, Val Elliott was the youngest and only girl after five boys. She could play the piano by ear and undertook seven years of lessons with the Trinity College of Music, passing all her exams with honours.
Val listened to the popular music of the day but was drawn to the country music played during a 15-minute radio slot called Cowboy Corner.
Val listened to the popular music of the day but was drawn to the country music played during a 15-minute radio slot called Cowboy Corner, which regularly featured the likes of Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, Slim Dusty, Connie Smith and Marty Robbins.
After leaving high school, Val worked in Rangiora as a dressmaker. She attended dances at country halls in Oxford, Amberley, Ohoka and Fernside as well as Christchurch venues The Latimer, The Caledonian and The Rendezvous.
At The Rendezvous Val was invited to sing with The Caroline Ramblers, performing the Ned Miller song ‘Do What You Do Do Well’. The experience encouraged her to take up guitar so she could accompany herself, which led to talent quests.
A musician friend introduced Val to country record collector John Cooke, a mean fingerpicking guitarist in The Carter Family vein, who played her LPs by Porter Wagoner, Kitty Wells, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Loretta Lynn and their ilk. He played her country pianist Floyd Cramer whose ‘Last Date’ would remain an influence. Val was hooked and they teamed up.
Soon after they met steel guitarist Jim Lange, and a shared love of country music resulted in them forming Val Elliott & The Rhythm Ramblers, tightening their sound while playing at concerts in Oxford, Rangiora, Duvauchelle Bay and Christchurch. Val often played her Floyd Cramer split-note-style piano.
After a big concert at the Caroline Bay Sound Shell, the band were approached by an employee of Radio 3ZB and invited to play live on Murray Forgie’s Sound Show. They brought in lead guitarist Dave Johnston and bass guitarist Malcolm Lilley – both from The Caroline Ramblers – for the occasion.
Val Elliott & The Rhythm Ramblers recorded a demo tape, submitted it to HMV and were asked to fly to Wellington to record an LP. With Howard Gable producing, Frank Douglas as engineer and augmented with session pianist Garth Young and Soundells drummer Leo George, they committed 26 songs to tape. The result included country standards ‘Almost Persuaded’, ‘My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You’, Kitty Wells’ ‘Will Your Lawyer Talk To God’, Loretta Lynn’s ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ and the Val Elliott-penned ‘Wait For Me’.
The album Country Sounds was released in 1968 and also included a couple of duets from Val and John Cooke and the Jim Lange instrumental ‘Orange Blossom Special’. Gable’s initial plan to release band favourite ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ as a single independent of the LP never eventuated and the other tracks would never be pressed.
The band promoted the record in concerts and Val appeared on the first series of the NZBC show The Country Touch. She also appeared in the third series in 1970, but by then Val Elliott & The Rhythm Ramblers had disbanded. With most of the music opportunities and tours originating in Auckland, Val and John decided to get married and move there, but Jim Lange stayed with his Christchurch employer.
Shortly after, Val and John moved to Australia, where Val stopped playing music to establish a sewing business and raise their two Sydney-born daughters. The family returned to Auckland in the early 1980s and in 1983 Val and John took up square dancing. John had previously been a caller and Val was soon calling also. The dances encouraged the couple to start their own club they named The Dixie Twirlers.
In 1994, Caroline Rambler Malcolm Marshall invited Val and John to Christchurch to be judges for the Garden City Country Music Awards and to feature as the main guest artist, reuniting them with Rhythm Ramblers bandmates Jim Lange, Dave Johnston and Malcolm Lilley.
Three years later, Val and John relocated to Christchurch and again took up square dancing and calling. When Val bought a Yamaha keyboard and began entertaining the square dancers it led to invitations for her and John to perform at all manner of clubs, retirement homes and private functions, naming themselves Vee-Jay.
The square dancing came to an abrupt halt after the Christchurch earthquake of September 2010 damaged the hall they had been hiring. The violent quake in February 2011 severely damaged Val and John’s house, and in August 2012 they had to move. Soon after the move, John passed away.
Val Elliott still entertains, playing keyboard and singing country music to show tunes, rock and roll to sing-alongs and even the occasional yodel.
Val Elliott - vocals, guitar, piano
John Cooke - vocals, guitar
Jim Lange - steel guitar
Dave Johnston - guitar