A classically trained violinist, Cath Newhook had a joint degree in performance violin and history when she was offered an apprenticeship at the Stringed Instrument Company by luthier Peter Madill in 1977. The pair would take turns playing records while they toiled away in the dusty workshop in the Brown’s Mill building in Durham Lane. On one occasion when Newhook was busy she had Madill take her turn as long as he didn’t play “any of that horrible country music”. “Hang on a moment, you’ve been putting country music on this turntable for the last four weeks,” came his reply.

They married in 1978 by which time they were regulars at the Poles Apart folk club: Madill a fan of Texan songwriters such as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, Newhook heavily into Bill Monroe’s long-time fiddler Kenny Baker. When Madill heard Hamilton County Bluegrass Band couple Paul and Colleen Trenwith were selling off all of their records, they drove down and acquired their Kenny Baker collection.

Newhook won the overall title at the New Zealand Country Music Star Awards in Tauranga in 1979.

By now moving more into the country music field, Newhook won the overall title at the New Zealand Country Music Star Awards in Tauranga in 1979: part of the prize was a trip to the Tamworth Country Music Festival in Australia the following January. She and Madill also formed the duo Stringed Instrument Co, which expanded to include singer-guitarist Cath Woodman and played support for Ry Cooder as well as appearing on the TVNZ cooking and variety show Hudson & Halls.

After American folk group Banish Misfortune toured New Zealand, they suggested the trio should venture stateside and Banish Misfortune would secure them some work in Alaska. Woodman wasn’t keen, so Madill and Newhook enlisted folk-club singer and multi-instrumentalist Martha Louise.

Michigan-born Martha Louise and her husband immigrated to New Zealand in 1973, setting up in Queenstown for the winter before settling in Nelson, and eventually parting ways. By 1975 Louise had arrived in Auckland where her abilities on guitar, mandolin and fiddle, as well as her singing, found favour in the city’s folk scene. She also appeared on the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks.

When the Alaska trip presented itself, Louise joined forces with Madill and Newhook and they decided on the permanent name Gentle Annie (more inspired by the Otago stream named after a prostitute from the gold rush days than the road from Napier to Taihape).

The band touched down in the US in the middle of 1980. Starting out in Portland, Oregon, Gentle Annie performed half of a 60-minute special on Radio KBOO before the announcer discovered she had neglected to switch on the microphones. At that night's bar gig, after the first set, when Madill quizzed the wedding party in the front row they said, “We just had to come and see the group that blessed Portland with half an hour of silence!”

The next six weeks were spent in Alaska gigging and staying in all sorts of weird and wonderful places from Homer, south of Anchorage, to Mount McKinley National Park in the mid-north. At the trip’s conclusion, Louise saw out the rest of the year in Portland, where her brother lived, before returning to Auckland.

A further performance on Hudson & Halls saw producers recommend Gentle Annie to country music series That’s Country, where they became the resident backing singers and Newhook later joined the band on fiddle. Gentle Annie also appeared on the show as a featured guest.

In October 1981, they cleaned up at the Star Awards in Tauranga. The trio won the best group, Madill and Louise best duo, and Louise won best female and was awarded the best overall: the title won by Newhook two years previously.

They were part of a thriving hub of activity at the Brown’s Mill building in Auckland’s Durham Lane. As well as Madill and Newhook making instruments at the Stringed Instrument Company, Louise had a fashion studio (she designed outfits worn by director Roger Donaldson’s wife to the Los Angeles and New York premieres of his film Smash Palace). Also there was fine artist Craig Primrose – starting out in graphic design for an advertising company – photographer and later winemaker Kim Goldwater, calligrapher Dave Wood, and Lyn McAllister, who founded her Martin Guitars import company on the two floors above the craft market.

Ode boss Terence O’Neill-Joyce produced Gentle Annie’s self-titled LP, released on the label in 1982.

Having met Martha Louise on sessions for Ode Records artist Doug Eckert’s Our Lives Fit Together in early 1980, Ode boss Terence O’Neill-Joyce produced Gentle Annie’s self-titled LP, released on the label in 1982. The prominence of the railway station name Remuera in the cover photo has seen the record mistakenly referred to as Remuera ever since.

It included Newhook and Louise on twin fiddles for ‘Darkness On The Delta’ and the pick of the repertoire they had taken to Alaska – such as The Amazing Rhythm Aces’ ‘King Of The Cowboys’, Don Williams’ ‘Lay Down Beside Me’, The Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’ and Paul Craft’s ‘Midnight Flyer’, covered by the Eagles on On The Border. Half of the tracks featured session musician Bruce Lynch on acoustic bass. Rob Stanley’s ‘Old-Timer’s Dance’ coupled with the Kenny Baker tune ‘Festival Waltz’ became a frequent filler track on Radio New Zealand’s National Programme over the following years.

To promote the album, Gentle Annie undertook a mini tour of the North Island, stopping in Whakatane, Napier, Gisborne, Rotorua and Hamilton. But after Martha Louise and O’Neill-Joyce were married, moving her business out of the Brown’s Mill building to their new home in Muriwai, she left the band.

Offered a second series as harmony group on That’s Country, Gentle Annie added folk singer Denny Stanway. Madill was impressed by her ex-Hamilton singer-guitarist boyfriend Glenn Fuller and invited him to join, also. And when promoter Benny Levin offered them the support for Don McLean’s Auckland concert in October, Fuller invited Sid Limbert, his old mate from the Kon Tiki Folk Club in Hamilton, to sit in on bass guitar.

Although Newhook lasted till That’s Country’s demise in late 1984, Gentle Annie were let go as backing singers when they were made the scapegoat after a run-in with an unhappy American star forced to room with his ex-wife, who was also his manager. Denny Stanway left the group not long after.

She was replaced by gutsy young singer Evlynn Barber, also from Hamilton, for several shows supporting Des O’Connor in late 1982, but by the time of the Tamworth Country Music Festival the following January, Gentle Annie were a trio of Madill, Newhook and Fuller. Among other things, they appeared on Dusty Spittle’s New Zealand showcase alongside rising star Jeff Rea and Dunedin dobro and guitar player Read Hudson, who had recorded two albums in the 1970s as part of The Bluegrass Expedition.

Newhook entered the national bluegrass fiddle championship at Tamworth, but Gentle Annie had to leave to play another concert before the winner was announced. On their return a man picking up rubbish informed them that “some girl from New Zealand” (Newhook) had won. The judges were visiting American fiddle player Byron Berline (whose credits included Dillard & Clark, The Rolling Stones, and The Flying Burrito Brothers), banjo player John Hickman and a relatively unknown guitarist called Vince Gill.

Back home, Sid Limbert joined and the band picked up work at Raglan’s Harbour View Hotel where they met, jammed, gigged and recorded with Limbert’s former bandmates, songwriter-pianist Ritchie Pickett and guitarist Dave Maybee, who were in the early days of forming The Inlaws. With Maybee writing and directing, Gentle Annie participated in winemaker Diana Belich’s promo recording ‘Tramtrack Riesling’, using the studio time to record another Kenny Baker tune, the live favourite ‘Jerusalem Ridge’. And Auckland country singer Michael-Roy Croft engaged Gentle Annie as session group on his early 1984 RCA single ‘Still At Tamworth’.

In the first few months of that year, Peter Madill bowed out as the band looked to steer away from the acoustic style he preferred towards country rock. Now comprising Newhook, Fuller and Limbert, Gentle Annie performed a series of concerts at the Royal Easter Show in Auckland, playing their own repertoire and backing singer-songwriter Andrew White and the legendary Roy Phillips of The Peddlers, with drummer Steve Garden on board.

Still looking to add a female lead vocalist, the band recruited Anna Rugis, who had recently returned from the UK. Raised in Pokeno, Rugis ventured to London in her early twenties where she answered an advertisement in Melody Maker to join a trio of girl singers. The ad led to session work and European tours with Cliff Richard, The Peddlers and Cat Stevens and a trip with The Kinks to the States, where she also toured with Van Morrison. She returned to Auckland in the early 1980s with her second husband, who was the production manager and sound engineer on the Morrison tour. (Her first husband was the production manager on The Kinks shows.)

Pedal-steel guitarist Errol Shute was also brought in, but after extensive rehearsal and just a few gigs, Rugis realised she wanted to stay at home with her young family. Still based in Raglan, Limbert exited too. As well as his duties with Gentle Annie, he had been playing with Roy Phillips, doing the late-night café scene with Mike Farrell’s Farrelli Brothers and touring with the likes of Midge Marsden when required, so something had to give.


Read Gentle Annie - part two - here