For a little while he used both names – John Hore Grenell – and he briefly included his birth father’s surname so that he was John Denver Grenell, but in the country music world that was just a little confusing.
Whether he is known as John Hore or John Grenell, there is no mistaking the voice, even when Grenell lowered his warm, velvety baritone a little to imitate Jim Reeves. In the early 1990s Toyota recruited him to sing ‘Welcome To Our World’ for a long-running ad campaign. The public found it so soothing the song launched a revival in Grenell’s career after he had spent nearly 15 years away from the entertainment business, preferring to breed Appaloosa horses on his Canterbury farm.
Born in Ranfurly, Central Otago, in 1944, he grew up as John Hore on the family farm at Kyeburn. A true Southern man, his identification with country music was almost a given. He went to high school in Dunedin, and began singing and playing guitars with his classmates. Grenell’s stepsisters, Lorraine, Ainslie, and Marilyn formed a vocal trio called the Three H’s, and recruited him to back them on guitar. In the late 1950s they entered one of the Search for the Stars talent quests run by Mosgiel entrepreneur Joe Brown, and came second. Brown would soon become pivotal in Grenell’s career.
In 1960 Grenell’s family was based in Port Chalmers, and he joined a folk group called the Jasons, winning a few local talent quests. He then returned to his rural roots, which are crucial to his character and identification with country music. After leaving school at 18, he began working as a rouseabout on a shearing gang, and a farm labourer on Glenrowan Station. After hours he entertained himself and his fellow farmhands by singing country and western songs.
It was in 1963, at an outdoors talent quest at Naseby, that Grenell was noticed by Joe Brown. The legendary promoter saw that the shy country singer captivated the crowd, and soon – as John Hore – the singer won another talent quest run by Brown. Part of the prize was a spot on the bill of the nationwide tour of the Miss New Zealand Show. Shortly afterwards, Hore came third in the national final of the Have a Shot television show. By this stage, Brown had offered him a recording contract with his new label, Joe Brown Records.
Hore’s debut recording was released in 1964, the single ‘Mary Ann Regrets’ b/w ‘Big Man In A Big House’. In the same year it was followed by ‘Streets Of Laredo’ b/w ‘Mr In-Between’, three other singles, his debut album Introducing John Hore, and tours with overseas and local artists such as Marty Robbins, Freddie Keil, Bob Paris and Dinah Lee.
Supporting Robbins at the Dunedin Town in 1963 was pivotal, he later said. “He was one of my heroes, and I was trying to make up my mind whether to leave the land for an entertainment career. That show changed my life, there must have been something in there which inspired me to go for it.”
At the time, Encore was the biggest selling LP by a New Zealand artist ever.
By May 1965, when Hore’s second album Encore was released Brown – one of the masters of hype – could truthfully market him as being “bigger than the Beatles”, as the album outsold the Beatles’ latest. At the time, Encore was the biggest selling LP by a New Zealand artist ever. In all there would be two dozen singles released on the Joe Brown label, as well as a dozen albums.
The material recorded shows the diversity of Hore’s talent: country weepies, honky tonk, and novelty country; many were Brown’s suggestions rather than to the singer’s taste. ‘She Taught Me to Yodel’ had a B-side called ‘Tongue-Tied Smith’; ‘Santa is Crying Tonight’ – a duet with Paul Walden – had ‘Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy’ on its flip. Almost inevitably, he covered ‘My Voice Keeps Changing On Me’. There were many C&W standards, such as ‘I Fall To Pieces’, ‘El Paso’ and ‘Old Shep’. One of the most popular items of this first phase was ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’, his localised version of the Australian singer Lucky Starr’s rapid-fire place-name hit. Years later he would re-record it, with the Māori pronunciation corrected.
That song originally came from his 1966 album Country Gentleman, which also featured the song ‘Private John Hore’ – like Elvis, Hore had been called up to do compulsory military training while at the height of his fame. Fortunately, although Elvis had to serve two years, New Zealand only required its conscripts to spend three months in the army. After this, Hore made a foray to the United States, visiting Nashville, performing live and appearing on television and radio, and recording an album in Hollywood, The Town & Country Sound of John Hore (known in New Zealand as John Hore USA). In Los Angeles, he shared a bill at the Troubadour with the Mitchell Trio, which included as a member John Deutschendorf aka John Denver. Hore would go on to tour England, Canada, South Africa and Australia; it was while in the USA that he was advised to change his name from Hore.
Overseas, he found that audiences wanted to hear songs about New Zealand, not US country songs.
Overseas, he found that audiences wanted to hear songs about New Zealand, not US country songs. “New Zealand is a small country and I always wanted to live here and sing about it – sing music of it,” he once said. Until 1968, Hore only occasionally recorded local songs, such as ‘Mackenzie And His Dog’ and ‘Haere Mai’, but the album New Zealand Songs was devoted to material about the country’s colonial past. Among the songs were ‘Ballad Of The Waitaki’, ‘Cobb & Co’, ‘Otago’, ‘Good Keen Man’ and ‘Click Go The Shears’. His next album would feature more contemporary country-pop, such as ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ and ‘Little Green Apples’.
A feature of Hore’s career has been the number of duets recorded with other New Zealand artists, including whole albums with Howard Morrison (Take Ten), Paul Walden (Together ) and Eddie Low (We Should Be Together). He was at the forefront of a boom in New Zealand country music that included artists such as Garner Wayne, Rusty Greaves, Ken Lemon, Maria Dallas, and Dusty Spittle. Much of it emanated from the South Island, and it culminated in 1968-69 with the hit TV series Country Touch, hosted by Tex Morton.
Around 1973, Hore decided to take a break from entertainment and concentrate on his family and breeding horses at his farm. He had married in 1971, to Deidre Bruton – a runner-up in the Miss New Zealand contest – and their children Oakley, Redford, Amiria and Denver would all become involved in music.
He returned to show business in 1988, with the album Silver released using his new/old name: John Grenell. ‘Welcome To Our World’ followed in late 1989, and would lead to a very successful touring show paying tribute to Jim Reeves. John Hore/Grenell’s premier status in New Zealand country music was once again confirmed.
In 1973, the New Zealand magazine Country Music wrote that whereas country music in New Zealand was once restricted to a small, enthusiastic following, Hore had made the genre “not only better appreciated but more acceptable to a wider audience. In other words he was responsible for dispelling the ‘hillbilly’ image which was an anathema to many.”
A loner, often uncomfortable with his high public profile – and the limitations that country audiences can place on the type of material they want to hear – Grenell has nevertheless attracted a wide audience that has been loyal to him for over 50 years.