They have raised two daughters on the road, home-schooling them as they went, sometimes camping wherever they played. Along the way they released one of the most underrated country music albums in New Zealand, The Gypsy Pickers And Friends, which features contributions from John Grenell, The Warratahs and The Coalrangers.
It includes titles such as ‘Waiheke’ and ‘Takaka’ and name-checked Hari Hari, Barrytown, Westport, Greymouth, Karamea, Seddonville, Golden Bay, Otago and the Far North in songs about gumboot gals, miners coming, Rasta cowboys, worn-out honky tonk stars and a barmaid from Hokitika, prompting one reviewer to comment, “Do people really live like this?” Well, yes.
“A lot of Ron’s songs were inspired from running around New Zealand fishing and living outdoors all the time,” Lindy Valente told AudioCulture. “The two of us, as well, all our years together. Because when you live in vehicles you’re outside a lot just looking at the mountains, looking at the sky, looking at the beaches, wherever you are.”
Funnily enough for a man who captured the essence of New Zealand so vividly in his songwriting, Ron Valente was born in Arizona.
Funnily enough for a man who captured the essence of New Zealand so vividly in his songwriting, Ron Valente was born in Arizona, but his family moved to California when he was five. He started playing guitar as a nine-year-old and was in his first band The Soundmasters a year later. After a brief flirtation with baseball, he formed prog rock originals band Lugey, playing mostly showcase spots in Los Angeles.
“That band folded after five years – practising five nights a week and maybe playing somewhere every six months or so,” Ron laughed. “Our music was so off-the-wall, so we didn’t play clubs much. It was a great training ground for writing music.”
Ron moved to the mountains, became rhythm guitarist to banjo player Don Hall and learned his own repertoire of cover songs to sustain solo gigs. For the next four years, he toured the west coast of the States and Canada with Hall and bluesman Buddy Reed, one-time guitarist for Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton and Muddy Waters.
“He (Reed) taught me a lot,” Ron said. “After playing all the complex music, he sort of got me into this simplicity thing and playing with feeling rather than having all the notes. It was real good grounding, and that taught me a lot about music, actually.”
The next few summers were spent living out of a van, playing solo through the Rocky Mountains, turning up unannounced and playing for tips. When he met Texan singer and guitarist Kevin Atkinson, they played together and spent a lot of time fly-fishing. Atkinson was forever saying, “The fish in New Zealand are really big!”
The two men hadn’t seen each other for about a year when Atkinson rang Ron at his five-nights-a-week solo residency in Canada to tell him he’d met a New Zealand girl and was going to New Zealand, would Ron like to join him. They arrived in the North Island in 1980 and started getting gigs as The Gypsy Mountain Pickers while fishing their way south.
After two months they arrived in the South Island, decided they wanted to stay and battled for the next two years trying to get permanent residency. “It was like stepping back into the 1950s or something,” Ron recalled. “Everything was just so low-key and people don’t lock their doors, they don’t steal from each other. I mean, when I first came here it was very much like that. I fell in love with the landscape too.”
In 1981, The Gypsy Mountain Pickers were spotted at their Dunedin City Hotel residency when touring cast members of TVNZ’s That’s Country visited after a show and they were invited to join the series. It led to a period of touring with kindred musical spirit John Hore Grenell, one of the show’s most popular stars.
When Kevin Atkinson ventured to West Germany, Ron Valente took up working with his brother Redgie (on double bass) and sister Dena (on mandolin) as The Gypsy Mountain Pickers in Queenstown. “We had a big woolshed we fixed up into a big barn dance thing right out on the lake,” Ron said.
While living in a caravan at Grenell’s Whitecliffs property, Ron bought some recording gear and put together a solo cassette, calling on members of The Cowboys, later The Coalrangers, and That’s Country pedal steel guitarist Paddy Long to overdub parts. The lo-fi album was called Stagger In and included Ron’s travelogue of the West Coast ‘West Coast Bound’ and a duet with Grenell on ‘Nights In My Day’.
At a show headlined by Grenell at the Tinwald Hall in 1984, Ron Valente crossed paths with singer and guitarist Lindy Friend. The daughter of a farmhand, Lindy was born in Auckland, but the family moved to Waiheke Island when she was about seven. There was a piano in the home early on, but it wasn’t until her Beatles-obsessed brother got a guitar that Lindy was drawn to the instrument.
“My dad was a big racing man my whole life, so always had the radio going and he would listen to the races and I’d listen to the music that came on between the races,” Lindy remembered.
At the age of 16, she took to the road, busking and playing in cafés. She made her way to Australia, gigging solo or with jazz pianist Sybil Graham, who was the musical director for comedian Barry Humphries. She briefly helped with the Humphries shows in Melbourne and Sydney, watching as Dame Edna Everage tossed gladioli into the audience during the finale.
Back in Auckland, Lindy played solo at cafés, folk clubs, nuclear rallies and hospitals. After one café gig she walked right into the Queen Street Riot. She moved to Coalgate, west of Christchurch, to get back to nature. As well as playing the wine bars and cafés, she would busk in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square. “The Wizard used to get annoyed with me and tell me to stop because he was on now,” Lindy said.
Within a few months, the pair got together as The Gypsy Pickers – dropping the “Mountain” part from Ron’s previous band name.
She had met John and Deirdre Grenell and offered to help out at the couple’s annual Whitecliffs music festival. In 1985, while setting up stages, toilets and amenities, Lindy and another volunteer Ron Valente got to know each other, enjoying each other’s songs and singing at the night-time jam sessions. Ron’s sister had returned from the United States with a bottle of Mexican tequila. “We ended up sharing the worm and that was it,” says Ron.
After the festival, Lindy sought Ron’s advice on the best places to play at that time of the year. Ron suggested the Nelson area, where he was heading with his family band. The Valentes rented a place at Little Kaiteriteri and Lindy rented at Mapua and they started playing independent of each other and jamming at each other’s gigs. Within a few months, the pair got together as The Gypsy Pickers – dropping the “Mountain” part from Ron’s previous band name.
They toured the North Island with John Grenell, Emmylou Harris’s virtuoso fiddler Wayne Goodwin and American Bob Shelley. They were married in 1986 and spent a winter performing nightclub hours in Queenstown at the weekend and nightclub hours in Methven during the week, taking two days to drive the 400-odd kilometres along the Southern Alps on their two days off. The crazy itinerary allowed them to buy a piece of land in the Abel Tasman National Park.
Their first daughter was born in 1986, and eight months later they took off to tour the United States. They recorded the cassette-only covers album Gypsy Pickers at Ron’s friend’s studio in Washington State and started an album of their own songs there as well. Another cassette-only release, Songs Of The Earth And Beyond was completed during a summer residency on Waiheke Island.
Ron Valente’s songs were getting noticed, with John Grenell cutting ‘Dance All Night (Down Otago Way)’ on his Silver LP in 1988 and The Coalrangers recording ‘West Coast Bound’ on their 1989 cassette Making It Work. The latter would also appear on The Coalrangers’ award-winning album Coast To Coast and in the movie Magik and Rose.
Another daughter was born in 1990, but The Gypsy Pickers barely stopped for breath. Brief times off the road were spent putting in power systems and water lines on their 50-acre property an hour from any civilisation.
When their second daughter turned one, they bought a motorhome and headed to Christchurch to rehearse with old friends The Coalrangers for a Gypsy Pickers CD. They booked time in Tandem Studios early in the week to cut the tracks, keeping later in the week and the weekends free for gigs.
With a toddler and a one-year-old, Lindy’s appearances in the studio were fleeting, even overdubbing backing vocals with the baby on her lap. The situation was summed up succinctly in her ‘Mama With The Blues’ – “I’m on call 24 hours a day.”
The Gypsy Pickers And Friends was released on Jayrem offshoot Rimu in 1993 and featured backing from The Warratahs on ‘West Coast Bound’ and a guest spot from John Grenell on a reprise of the beautiful ‘Nights In My Day’ – a song that could have been a country No.1 in the States for the likes of George Jones and Alan Jackson.
The Gypsy Pickers toured the east coast of Australia and Far North Queensland and held down a residency at Port Douglas. A couple of years later they recorded the album Live At The Courthouse Hotel during another Port Douglas residency. Other live albums, Live At The Mussel Inn and Live At The Brigand, both recorded in Golden Bay, came later.
The double his-and-hers CD Aurora was recorded on digital Fostex equipment at their property, but using a petrol generator due to their hydro system still being under construction. Marlborough Sounds neighbours Sid and Freddy Limbert provided bass and drums. It was released in January 2000 under the name The Valentes, but the new moniker didn’t last long.
“We’ve often felt like the whole ‘gypsy’ thing’s been used so much, it’s a bit outdated,” Lindy said. “We tried to use our surname, but people just didn’t know how to pronounce it. In fact, most people call us, even personally, Mr and Mrs Valentine. So we thought, ‘That’s not working.’ Even people who like our music said, ‘You can’t change Gypsy Pickers. That’s who you are!’ Oh, OK.”
Since finally acquiring a reliable phone number in the late 90s, The Gypsy Pickers’ concerts and dance gigs have been complemented with weddings and functions and even originals and covers jazz spots at vineyards. “We’ve always liked lots of styles of music,” Lindy said, “and we’ve always played lots of styles of music, but it’s historically been on Ovation guitars, so, you know, that influences sound.”
“I mean, I started out in LA in a Frank Zappa band,” Ron added. “I like variety, I always have. I can really dig a really simple Hank Williams song or I like classical music, I like jazz, I like all sorts, you know. For me, in all those styles there’s stuff I like and there’s stuff I don’t like, you know.”
During the early 2000s, Ron recorded the Continuous Play album with electronic musician Max Maxwell, which got lots of airplay on bFM, and the Gypsy Pickers’ single ‘Every Day’ achieved thousands of downloads in China. Their ‘Shaky Isles’ music video was on regular rotation on CTV after the Christchurch earthquake in 2011.
There was a temporary setback in December that year when a storm and resulting floods and slips wiped out access to their Abel Tasman National Park home. Ron had to fly out in a helicopter with a sound system and buy a car to keep working because they couldn’t get their vehicles out. The area was declared a disaster zone and was unable to be reached for six months. The land has recently been sold.
The Gypsy Pickers have performed in the United States in the last two years and are currently working on another album, and Ron’s ‘Frog Song’ was recently included on the APRA AMCOS children’s compilation MusicBox 2015.
Ron Valente - vocals, guitar, mandolin
Lindy Valente - vocals, guitar, keyboard bass, banjo, melodica
Ron Valente’s LA band Lugey was managed by Robert Crancer, a radioman who used to interview a lot of the day’s musical superstars, including The Bee Gees, taking Ron along as his tape operator. At one Hollywood party, Ron smoked a joint with Rod Stewart and Jimmy Page in a kitchen.
When Lindy Valente’s family moved to Waiheke Island, they owned the taxi business. Her father was then a real estate agent and her mother worked at the Waiheke telephone exchange for many years and also the post office.