I’d like to talk to you this week about some of the icons in Australian Country Music. Not just the artists but the festivals and some of our legendary moments. Just like The Beatles and Elvis set precedents in rock n roll all over the world, there were some amazing pioneers in country music in Australia to set up the wonderful music scene that we have today.
Australia is a big country, full of stories and a diverse range of people. A lot of those stories and people were unknown to the rest of the world for many years. We were an isolated country, not as well connected as countries are in the UK and Europe or Canada, USA and Mexico, for example. It takes a long flight, even now, to get to our country from there. Not that long ago, people came here in ships.
Australia’s original peoples, had their own cultural history, long before the white man came along. When the first white settlers came to the Great Southern Land, they brought with them a new culture, with convicts and free settlers and military. Australia’s white population was dominated by English, Irish and the Scots. Our Celtic background provides us with a lot of music. Like the U.S.A, we were flooded with different nationalities over the years, for various reasons. Wars in far off lands, hardships and a dream for a better life and a fresh start were predominantly the reasons for coming to this land.
From the Didge to the Switch (of the computer), the Australian Music scene has travelled through many forms. It is heavily influenced by the Celtic influences of our ancestry, the great wide land that has been carved out by many and overseas trends that have filtered into our own music. Having said that, there is something quite unique about Australian Country Music and something very Australian that most people can pick a mile off.
It is our uniqueness, our blend of many peoples and our distance from the more populous nations of the world that makes people think of us as “a poor cousin” or almost from a “different planet”. Australians don’t give up easily. Sometimes, they have to jump over hurdles and walk on fire to get the message out there and to try and talk people out of the “kangaroos jumping down Pitt Street” attitude that some people have of us. Australia is many things and we have had to fight pretty hard to get that message out to the world, particularly those who confuse us with Austria or those who think that we all live in the outback.
I think that the country music scene, in all of its 79 forms is the best that it has ever been. The wonderful history of this country and the inspiration that comes from the land and its peoples provide a large amount of that culture.
I am about to feature Australia’s major festival, Tamworth, but there are others like Mildura (totally Indie), Central Coast Music Festival, NSW, Broadbeach (QLD), Deni Ute Muster, NSW, Gympie Muster, QLD and now major ones in WA, SA and Tasmania. There are many others which I will feature over the next few weeks, but here is a little on Tamworth.
Tamworth Country Music Festival and Tamworth
The North-Western NSW city of Tamworth is the official sister city of its much better known city of Nashville. I have never been to Nashville, but I grew up in Tamworth. The very first awards were held for country music in 1973. The festival that started way back then was a long weekend in January (Australia Day). It now goes for 10 days, with a lead up to Tamworth that lasts a couple of weeks and a wind down from Tamworth that lasts for about a week. It had one venue. At this year’s Tamworth, it had 100 odd venues. It has evolved. One of the most infamous attractions at Tamworth are the buskers in the main street, Peel Street. A great many of today’s big acts – both nationally and internationally known, have busked in Peel Street. Some of our well known acts make guest appearances still, you never know who you will run into.
As well as the Golden Guitars, which are Australia’s biggest country music awards, Tamworth Country Music Festival also has People’s Choice Awards, TSA (Tamworth Songwriters’ Awards) and ICMA awards for Indie Artists during the festival, amongst others. They have a hands of fame, where chosen country music artists put their hands in cement and sign them. They have a Country Music Hall of Fame, the Big Golden Guitar and lots of other special features around town.
Tamworth is a major centre in the North-West. You have to go a fair distance to the next major town or city. Once upon a time, country music was just at festival time. Now, many artists have moved there or come to perform there during the year as well. A major entertainment centre, the TRECC opened up new possibilities for large concerts (and the awards) and even legends like Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan have performed there during the year.
During the year, just about every week, or at least once a month, local artists have special jam sessions at the pubs and clubs in Tamworth and the Cattleman’s Steakhouse run gigs regularly. The Tamworth Songwriters’ Association and The Country Music Academy are influential in the country music scene in Tamworth, encouraging singer/songwriters of all ages to perform their songs.
Allison Forbes, Brett Clarke, Wendy Wood, Sally-Anne Whitten, The Crosby Sisters, Ashleigh Dallas (and her amazing family), Jo Hemara, Ryan Sampson, Tracy Coster (a great performer in her own right and also the daughter of one of our legends, Stan), Marie Hodson, Aleyce Simmonds and many others form the Tamworth Marvia......marvellous Tamworthians (and from the suburbs of Tamworth)who regularly perform and promote country music in many varieties in the Country Music Cap. Of Australia.
There are local studios in Tamworth run by folks like Lindsay Butler (an amazing musician in his own right) that have been producing country artists for years. We only had one radio station other than the ABC when I was growing up, now there are quite a few. 2TM had the infamous Hoedown on every weeknight with John Minson, who recently passed away. Guys like Kevin Knapp, Max Ellis and Eric Scott as well as Pat Ware were incredible pioneers in Tamworth Country Music. Lots of local artists and djs are promoting country music of all types on the radio stations now.
John Krsulja and co out at The Dag Sheep Station at Nundle (just an outer suburb of Tamworth), have put together an amazing venue that hosts some great concerts and songwriting workshops. Mentors like Aleyce, Luke O’Shea, Allan Caswell, Shane Nicholson, the late Karl Broadie and many others have helped songwriters at these songwriting retreats. It has added a new dimension to the country music scene, especially for alt. Country artists.
In January, the country music can be found in just about any venue in Tamworth and the outskirts. Pubs, clubs, Peel Street, Tamworth Town Hall (where it first began), in the parks, house concerts, cafes, restaurants and shopping centres. There are extra stages set up everywhere with non-stop country music. You can go to intimate gigs with a few songwriters or you can go to big gigs at the TRECC and Blazes (Wests Leagues Club) that hold hundreds and thousands. There are a lot of free gigs at the clubs and pubs and parks. Even the bigger gigs are reasonably priced. You never know who will turn up at a lot of the gigs, they guest on each other’s shows. All 79 types of Country Music are represented, which makes Tamworth Country Music Festival unique. Most festivals only cover a certain type of country music, or some of the types. Tamworth is flexible. It welcomes all types, and the festival runs pretty much 24/7.
People camp out at the ovals and on the river side, as well as at other more official camping grounds. There are hotels, motels and some of the schools open their dorms to fans. In the late 1970’s, early 1980’s, motels were built specifically to cope with the influx of people for the festival. There used to be a joke that 40,000 people left Tamworth at festival time and 50,000 people came in. Both numbers have changed now. A lot of Tamworth people realise now how much the festival benefits the city and they have become more accepting of the festival. The numbers have gone up for the influx too. Because there are more types of music and more venues now, there may appear to be less numbers at certain gigs or in the street, but the people have more choice and they are going to other gigs. There are a lot of good gigs on at the same time....you are spoilt for choice!
The songwriter is being acknowledged more than ever at Tamworth. Sure, you still have your tributes to great American heroes like Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, etc, but there is so much original stuff at Tamworth now.
The whole atmosphere of Tamworth is pretty electric. It is hot (Summer in Australia) and crazy and full on but it is a great showcase for young talent and the more experienced mature aged legends and all of those in between. There are markets and art exhibits, lots of meet and greets and meeting up with fellow fans.
It has even now produced a mid year festival: Hats Off, each July. It only goes for 4 days and it is in the Winter, so it has a different feel. It is coming up soon, so I will tell you more then.
The Infamous Five
I have mentioned Sal a few times in Down Under Beats and featured one of her songs. Together with husband and guitar master, Alwyn Aurisch, they form a dynamic duo with great back up from the Rumour Mill. Sal covers what we call Soultry, (Country Soul). She can sing pretty much everything. It is not surprising that people like Rodney Crowell, Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt, Gram Parsons and the like come up in her influences in music. She also loves The Eagles. It is that sound that mixes with what is uniquely Sally-Anne that makes her a consummate performer and a very underrated muso in this country. She sings blues, jazz, country rock and is the expert at Soultry. Sal does a lot to help promote music in Tamworth. Sal calls her music funktry...I guess that is there too.
Allison has the most amazing voice. To be honest, I haven’t ever heard anyone that I can compare Allison’s voice with. It has a unique combination of being husky and smooth at the same time. She is one of our finest songwriters. Allison also does a lot around Tamworth to promote country music. She appears at many different festivals around the country. Her two EP’s should be joined by another one soon, with hopefully an album down the track one day. The clip that I showed of Sal one time here was of the song co-written by Allison. She is definitely Soultry, though she has called herself Punktry as well! Guided often by the wonderful Shane Nicholson, and influenced by a variety of music genres, Allison is a very special artist. She is a one off. Her music can take you on adventures, make you cry and be very uplifting. She definitely takes you on a musical journey.
Angus is one of our young guns. He joked at a performance that I went to a few years ago that he didn’t have a choice in what music genre he would follow. Angus says that his name was enough – Angus after the best kind of beef cattle and Gill for Vince Gill! Angus has quite a “modern” look (like Allison) but sings songs which follow a more traditional style. He writes, produces, sings his own material. He is the total package. He is quite an entertainer on the stage. I think that Angus is one of the smartest young artists around. He is learning all areas of the industry and he has gained the respect of many of his mentors and peers. He will be one of our big stars one day.
Ben is a country rocker who can sing the blues and some traditional style country as well. He has appeared at lots of festivals, winning the new talent last year at Mildura Festival and he has a very loyal following. He writes most of his own songs, usually about his life and his experiences. He has appeared at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show (a major agricultural and exhibition show) as well as all of the regular major country music events. He helped to organize a monthly gig for Indies at a Sydney venue for quite a while which brought a lot of people to listen who were country music starved. Ben is one of the nicest guys in country music. I think that he will be around for years to come.
The Weeping Willows:
I have mentioned this pair several times in my posts. They are truly two of the most talented people in this country. They are now an engaged couple who have produced two solid albums, the second one helping them to be nominated for four Golden Guitars this year. They were one of the busiest acts in Tamworth in January, appearing at many gigs and also doing lots of interviews and promotions. Their style is definitely folktry, though the Alt. Country Music genre claims them as well. Andy is a fine guitarist and features with Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes at times too. Laura has a beautiful voice which is pure and heartfelt. Laura’s thigh slaps in their songs are becoming infamous. Their songs range from murder ballads to dark love songs. They would have been quite at home back in the sixties.
From Whence It Came
To round off this week’s Downunder Beats, I have to give a mention to our pioneers. While country music in all of its forms has evolved and spread since the early times, we would have not been at this place in our music history, had it not been for people like Slim Dusty, Stan Coster, Gordon Parsons, Buddy Williams, The Schneider Sisters, Tex Morton, Reg Lindsay and many others. After them, came a steady songwriting belt – Allan Caswell, John Williamson, Graeme Connors and then the new breed that sparked off a huge surge in country music, particularly appealing to a younger crowd: Lee Kernaghan, James Blundell, Tania Kernaghan, Adam Harvey, Beccy Cole, Troy Cassar-Daly, Mike Carr, Melinda Schneider and others who led onto the current crop of singers and songwriters, with this lot still going strong. We will always remember from whence it came, without a beginning, there is no middle or no end.
Until next time,