A crazy, creative legacy

Fred Kuhnl (second from left) with long-time collaborator Jim Fisher (left) and the rest of the Sensitive New Age Cowpersons.

FRED KUHNL left a creative legacy across WA’s blues, country and bluegrass music scenes as a legendary tea-chest, electric and double bass player, singer and unique comedic performer.

After arriving in Fremantle at age eight with his mother and elder brother, as migrants from post-war Germany, Kuhnl spent most of his years living in Hilton or Beaconsfield.

The much loved musician and craftsman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year. He was the centre of a joyous 71st birthday musical celebration of his life at Hilton Park Bowling Club not long before his passing and the 300-plus attendance at his funeral service, was a powerful and moving testament to the rich legacy of a beautiful life.

A keen competition lawn bowls player, his idea to introduce live music at the Hilton club helped save it from financial oblivion. In his final years, he regularly played bass guitar at the ‘bowlo’ with Pete Stone and the Hiltones, for wildly appreciative audiences.

Amongst many career credits, in the mid-1970s Kuhnl played bass with country rock outfit Flying Doctor featuring singer Judy Davis – later known for her international film and television career. Well known Fremantle area muso Jim Fisher joined the group later, launching an enduring friendship and musical partnering.

Outlaws was formed around this time, bringing together Fisher, Kuhnl and Richard French to explore earlier hillbilly roots music and bluegrass. Celebrated eastern states musos sometimes sat in on their Mundaring Hotel Sunday sessions – including Paul Kelly. 

This musical connection led to Kelly co-opting Kuhnl on double bass and Fisher on guitar to play five tracks on his 2005 gold album Foggy Highway.

Siegfried Erich Kuhnl was born in 1950 in the small farming village of Wolfhagen in Hesse, west central Germany in a musical household where his mother played accordion, guitar and harmonica, and sang.

Emma Kuhnl and sons Harry (13) and Siegfried sailed into Fremantle aboard the “Flamania” in January 1959.

Emma married widower David Irons, who had two older daughters. The family settled in Ethelwyn Street; with two bedrooms and one bathroom, the boys lived in the back shed.

Siegfried went to Hilton Park Primary School and couldn’t speak English but soon grasped the lingo and shortened his name to ‘Fred’.

At 15 Kuhnl took up a fitter and turner’s apprenticeship at Australian Iron & Steel, cycling from Hilton to work at Kwinana.

He purchased a Hofner electric bass and small amplifier and dabbled in gigs with an Italian wedding band fronted by the Zappia brothers, whose family ran a deli on South Street.

Kuhnl caught the attention of John Curtin High School students Richard French, Johnny Johnstone, Dave Clark and Bert Zuiderveld. Fred auditioned and joined their Morganfield’s Jubilee Blue Band – arguably Perth’s first Chicago blues group. Their first gig was at John Curtin – just weeks after two band members were expelled for having long hair!

Seeking to cash in on new liquor laws in the 60s that opened up small bars, Kuhnl and French teamed up with Norm Leslie and botany student Steve Hopper to become landmark Perth jug band Mud. They later brought in Johnny Johnstone on washboard and Scott Wise, also on guitar. Mud scored a gig at the Governor Broome Hotel in Northbridge and quickly built up a large and loyal audience.

Around this time Kuhnl got to know Dobe Newton, a member of acoustic bush band the Bushwackers, who’d made a few trips to Europe on the back of a folk renaissance and were about to tour WA mining towns in 1977 when their bassist quit. Newton invited Kuhnl and Fisher aboard and they played globally renowned festivals across Europe; sharing billing at the 1978 Rotterdam Folk Festival with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Jerry Rafferty and the Chieftains. In January 2021 the Bushwackers were inducted into the Roll of Renown at Tamworth’s Golden Guitars awards.

In the early 1980s, Kuhnl moved to Melbourne where he met and married Angie. Son Tom was born in May 1983, but he returned to Perth when the marriage ended some 12 years later, resuming his musical relationship with Fisher.

In 1994, WA musical performing history was recast with the launching of the original “Sensitive New Age Cowpersons” line-up: Fisher (guitar), John Reed (cittern), Martin Randall (banjo) and Kuhnl (double bass) – they all sang. Their anarchic humour and full throttle bluegrass musicianship had audiences tapping their feet, roaring with laughter and screaming for more. 

As a member of the rhythm section, Fred helped drive songs forward while also sending audiences into peals of laughter with his idiosyncratic comedy… eye-bulging facial expressions, odd noises, sudden body movements, or left-of-field commentary.

“We weren’t deep and meaningful, we just made ‘em have a good time,” said Fisher. “We worked really hard at it and Fred was incredible on stage. He was the glue which held us together.”

Fred Kuhnl is survived by his sister Karen and son Tom.

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