Joy McKean, the Australian singer, songwriter and country music scene builder who, along with her husband, the late Slim Dusty, formed one of this nation’s great creative partnerships, died Thursday (May 25) following a battle with cancer. She was 93.
“Joy passed away peacefully last night with family by her side,” reads a message from her family, issued Friday (May 26).
A trailblazer in the country scene, McKean enjoyed a career spanning more than 70 years, and composed some of the genre’s most celebrated songs, from “The Biggest Disappointment” to “Ringer from the Top End,” “Walk a Country Mile,” “Indian Pacific” and “Lights on the Hill,” an award-winning hit for her husband Slim Dusty, whom she married in 1951. Many others have covered the song, including Keith Urban.
Lauded as the “grand lady” of Australian country, McKean made cut her teeth in the 1940s and ‘50s, working alongside her sister Heather — as the McKean Sisters.
After teaming up with Dusty, Australian country music had its golden couple. McKean wrote many of Dusty’s iconic songs, managed him for half a century, and the pair toured relentlessly in regional and remote Australia, at a time when the perceived role of women was that of home-maker.
With McKean as his support, muse and collaborator, Dusty released more than 100 albums and sold over eight million copies. Dusty died in 2003, aged 76.
McKean’s trophy collection is almost as impressive as her songbook. She’s a two-time inductee into the Australasian Country Music Roll of Renown and winner of the Industry Achiever Award, bestowed on her by the Country Music Association of Australia, which she co-founded back in 1992. She’s a winner of seven Golden Guitar awards, including the very first statue, won at the inaugural Tamworth Country Music Awards back in 1973.
In 1991, McKean was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for “service to the entertainment industry,” and, 30 years later, in 2021, was the recipient of the Ted Albert Award for Outstanding Services to Australian Music, one of the music industry’s highest honors. She said of the salute, “after what has been a lifetime of working in the music industry, and loving just about every minute of it, I find it fascinating to reflect on the changes that have taken place.” On the night, the award was presented by her children Anne and David Kirkpatrick.
Joy is survived by her two children, four grandchildren, and six great grandchilden. “She will be remembered as a pioneer in Australian music,” reads the statement from her family.
Australia’s music community is paying tribute to the country music legend.
“Where do I start about this beautiful woman, your songs will always be the melodies that makes my heart sing,” writes homegrown country star Troy Cassar-Daley. “Your emails always like a hand written note of encouragement and love.” He adds, “thank you for being the best yard stick a man can ask for.”
“Vale Joy McKean OAM, the ‘Grand Lady of Country Music’, who has passed away at age 93,” reads a post from APRA AMCOS. “We extend our condolences to Joy’s family, friends and many fans. She will be greatly missed.”
ARIA Award-winning country artist Fanny Lumsden writes, “What an icon. Someone I didn’t even realize I was following in the path of until quite recently. (I know, shameful). But will I will draw strength from as I continue to play halls throughout regional aus, sharing stories, running a business & a family. Thank you Joy.”