I’m one of those people who have said (more than once): “I listen to all kinds of music — except country.”
Honestly, I’ve never really tried to listen or understand it. But as a music lover and guitar player (albeit lapsed), it seems remiss that I’ve never gone to Australia’s biggest musical gathering: the Tamworth Country Music Festival (TCMF).
The TCMF boasts that it brings more than 700 performers to an audience upwards of 300,000 people over 10 days. The emphasis is on Australian performers, with little to no international headliners.
I recognise some of the festival’s Australian headliners by name — Beccy Cole, Adam Brand, Lee Kernaghan, Troy Cassar-Daley — but I’m yet to be gripped by the snippets I’ve heard from them.
But Australian country is booming — partly thanks to international success stories like Keith Urban and Kasey Chambers — and it’s an exciting time for the genre. A census report published in 2019 by the Country Music Association of Australia (CMAA) revealed that Australia is the third-biggest market for country on Spotify, and that the genre constitutes a whopping 14 per cent of new release music on Australian commercial radio.
It was time to get to the epicentre and find out what all the fuss was about — before I missed the bandwagon.
Even before leaving Tamworth airport, I saw someone busking by the baggage carousel. I soon came to realise that for these 10 days each year, any flat surface in Tamworth becomes a stage. If there’s room to swing a guitar, then someone will set up and twang.
So began my 48 hours in Tamworth, coinciding with Tamworth Country Music Festival’s opening weekend.
My first stop was the free opening-night concert, held on the festival’s main stage, in Bicentennial Park — an inviting, open space nestled between the CBD and the Peel River.
Whether auspicious or a coincidence, the night began in a sopping downpour of rain, which brought some relief to an area that has been ravaged by drought.
An estimated 5,500 country music fans braved the wet for a line-up that featured Andrew Swift, Ashleigh Dallas and host Pete Denahy.
Some fans lined the front of the stage for a closer look at their heroes, others sat back and took in the cooling rain, and many felt compelled to get up and dance.
There were clear favourites: Blake O’Connor (who won last year’s Star Maker competition, for emerging artists) played to an adoring crowd, and the seasoned showman Adam Brand capped of the evening with a set of heart-racing and soul-searching songs.
The unexpected highlight was one-man-band Rhys Crimmin, the TCMF 2019 busking champion, juggling guitar, vocals, harmonica, foot percussion and a didgeridoo.
There was space for everyone to celebrate the music in their own way. It felt like good, safe fun for all ages.
Over the next two days, I set out to understand the festival and the music by talking to the experts — from insiders to outsiders; from established country artists to emerging artists with big dreams.
Perhaps no-one better epitomises Australian music’s conversion to country than Andrew Farriss, a core member of INXS and one of the great songwriters of the 80s New Wave, whose career took a twist when he stepped out from behind the synthesiser to become a solo country artist.
Around 10 years ago, Farriss listened back to some of his earlier songs that hadn’t found a place in commercial pop to try and deconstruct why they hadn’t worked, and realised that they actually sounded a bit like country music.
He’s since immersed himself in both the history and current culture of the genre, and recently released two singles ahead of his first solo country album, out in May.
Still, there’s something incongruous about seeing the ex-rocker dressed in the clothes of a rancher from the American South, in the bar of the fancy hotel in Tamworth where I met him
Farriss is in Tamworth to soak up the festival and perform at the Stars Under The Stars concert on Friday January 24.
“As a songwriter, I’ve always admired the simplicity of what a country song is. Some of them don’t have a lot of chords. Some of them don’t even have a lot of lyrics … they can say a lot with quite little if they want to,” he tells me.
Farriss says country music affords a lyrical maturity that lends itself to channelling loss or pain on any scale — something he has learned through first-hand experience.
His wife Marlina Neeley (whose family hail from Dayton, Ohio, about a five-hour drive from Nashville) has stage-four metastatic breast cancer (fortunately, it is currently stable).
On top of this, he owns a cattle and grain farm close to Tamworth, where the drought has hit hard.
“I do feel — you can take this however you want — but whatever I’m doing now in a really weird way, spiritually or whatever, is somehow connected to that drought,” Farriss tells me.
“I don’t know why. There’s something much bigger than me out there that would understand that … and maybe it is my education to not take things lightly, and to understand other people’s difficulties.”
I ask him if he knew Glen Hannah, a musician and much-sought-after producer in the Australian country music industry who committed suicide in May 2019.
While they weren’t personally acquainted, Farriss has talked to people who were affected by Hannah’s death.
“Sadly, I do understand suicide … my brothers and I were pallbearers for Michael Hutchence’s coffin when he committed suicide. And when you do something like that it definitely brings [home] the tragic nature of it and how it affects a lot of people around.”
He stares right down the barrel of my eyes, and speaks pointedly: “I think from a media perspective, it must be sort of scintillating and fascinating to observe something from a distance and speculate. But when you’re really, really close to the epicentre of things like that emotionally, it feels entirely different.”
He straightens his waistcoat, part of an outfit that consciously harks back to entertainers from the golden years of US country music and vaudeville.
“I’m not really a huge fan of the music business; I love music. The music business, if you’re lucky in it, you’ll keep your sanity, make some money and get your music out. If you’re unlucky, bad things could happen.”
For Andrew, the move to country has unearthed a lot of history that encompasses human struggle, and it’s served as a re-education. He’s delving into the past and poaching from the best bits of the present in order to make something that leads him into the future.
“My wife Marlina will get upset if I don’t say this. A lot of the songs on my new album are not just songs about the past, I think I’m also singing songs about now.”
Loren Ryan, a Tamworth-born up-and-comer with a Beyonce-style vocal that somehow complements her country-style guitar accompaniment, took out a centre spot on Peel Street on Saturday morning. She sang a portion of her set in her traditional language, Gamilaraay.
The Gamilaraay nation is vast, stretching from the Hunter Valley to southern Queensland, and Tamworth sits within its border.
“For a long time, we weren’t allowed to use our language. A lot of people are doing a lot of groundwork in the restoration and revival of languages,” Ryan tells a reporter for ABC New England and North West (where she is also undertaking an internship).
“And to be able to share language through song really promotes it, really gets it out there. It even becomes a resource for learning.”
She tells me that the First Nations population in Tamworth has felt pushed to the fringes of the festival in the past.
“It’s harder to get a start if you do have an Indigenous background. Especially within the country music industry, it’s not got the biggest reputation for being an inclusive industry.”
Tamworth Country Music Festival has programmed an annual Aboriginal Cultural Showcase since 2008, but in previous years it was held in venues that could be seen as out of the way.
“You only really knew about it if you were an Indigenous person looking for Indigenous music,” Ryan told ABC.
For the last few festivals, the Showcase has moved to the FanZone in the centre of Peel Street, right at the heart of the festival — and occupies a prime-time slot.
Tamworth didn’t become the country music capital of Australia by accident: it was the work of a small group of dedicated locals.
One of these was Max Ellis, who had moved to Tamworth in the 1960s to work in the newsroom at local radio station 2TM.
2TM played a variety of music, but the country and western show Hoedown was the clear audience favourite. The station had such a clear signal that fan letters requesting more Australian country music were arriving from Queensland, Tasmania, New Zealand and even Papua New Guinea.
By 1972, Ellis was the station manager, and it was clear to him that there was an untapped commercial market for Australian country music — so he and his peers decided that 2TM and its affiliates should stage a country music awards, as an incentive for musicians to perform in Tamworth. It came together in 1973 — the inaugural Golden Guitar Awards — and this is now considered to be the first Tamworth Country Music Festival.
“We were very nervous that year … we really didn’t have a big grasp on what we were doing,” Ellis tells me.
But as the festival grew, it became clear that Tamworth had staked its claim as the epicentre and seized the market.
And this growth led to diversity.
“When you say country music is a very distinct genre, it is, but there are a lot of sub-genres: bluegrass, bush ballads, contemporary country music, Americana — which is really more folky and traditional by our standards. There’s alternative country music, which is pretty rocky. There’s country rock. So there’s a mass of different sub-headings under the word country music,” Ellis explains.
As I packed away my notebook, I asked him if he was going to catch any music later in the day. He mumbled sheepishly: “Maybe … I’m not really a fan of country music. I much prefer classical.”
Intermission: Tamworth tapas
I didn’t spend the whole Tamworth Country Music Festival chatting, every spare moment was filled with live music.
On Saturday afternoon, I found myself at a gig called The Family Circle, presented in a format known as a “writers’ round” at a venue called The Pub. A group of established performers sat in a circle with the audience surrounding them, and took it in turns to play originals.
It was a great way for a country newbie like me to test my ears on multiple performers at once — kind of like a Tamworth tapas.
The program for Tamworth Country Music Festival is humongous, and if you don’t know any of the names in it, it’s utterly overwhelming. I ended up going to three writers’ rounds over the weekend, and these really opened a gate for me, leading me further into country music.
I was intrigued by what Ellis had described as “alternative country”, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant or sounded like — so I sought out an expert.
Charlie Collins was born and bred in Tamworth, and was recently described by music site Tone Deaf as “the new alt-country act of the moment”.
She joined me at The Pub, after The Family Circle gig. By its reputation, I’d imagined The Pub as some kind of edgy Mecca on the fringes of town for the greasy underground alt-country scene. Instead, I was met with a family-style bistro attached to a sports bar, and the biggest chicken schnitzel I’ve ever attempted to digest. Was this really my doorway to alt-country?
Collins played her first-ever gig at The Pub — first in what was to become a stellar career that would score her an ARIA nomination for Best Country Album in 2019.
As a teenager she fronted Chasing Bailey, a country pop band, with her siblings. She was then part of Tigertown, which was more folky to begin with. But after they signed to Atlantic Records in the US, she found pressure to conform and she felt they were being driven towards pure pop music, minus the country.
The band ended, and she switched back to being a solo act so she could sing and write with her own voice and guitar. She wanted to go back to storytelling.
“For me, I don’t feel like I’m chasing anything anymore, I’m just so happy doing what I’m doing.”
I had a listen to Collins’s 2019 album, Snowpine. Considering she grew up in Australia’s country music capital, to my ear there was very little country music in there, apart from some of the instrumentation.
“My music has country elements, and country roots of where I’m from, what I grew up on, and that’s incorporated into my music. But also, it has got that indie rock side to it too,” she tells me.
“In terms of getting through the music industry, something I’ve learnt is to be true to who you are. Because if you’re not and you try to shift yourself to suit a manager or a label or anything, it can go on for a while but it’s never going to feel good.”
The next generation
As my 48 hours in Tamworth neared their end, I went to watch the Star Maker competition, a prize that has boosted the careers of Aussie country stars like Beccy Cole, Keith Urban and Lee Kernaghan.
Townsville singer-songwriter Sammy White would go on to take home the prize, but each performer had something that I really latched on to. Maybe they were all fantastic — or perhaps I’d just finally caught the country music bug.
In one sense, I found what I expected to find in Tamworth: a swarm of musicians and enthusiasts.
What I didn’t expect was the diversity.
A Country Music Association of Australia report states that “80 per cent of male and female artists and 90 per cent of fans have rarely or never felt unsafe or uncomfortable at a country music gig”.
What I witnessed in my 48 hours was an inclusive space, where all ages can sit and listen or get up and dance down the front. No mosh pit or sweaty raves, but polite, hand-on-shoulder, old-fashioned partner dancing for all ages.
And then there was the diversity of sounds. It wasn’t just a place for boot scootin’ with your six-string while your lady rides shotgun and drinks whiskey. I heard Bowie covers, Beyonce covers, blues, folk, rock, jazz, and a lot in between.
It struck me was there was barely a synthesiser in sight. Country music is a truly manual effort. A person with a guitar strips away all the technological trappings of music and creates something that harks back in time, while also looking forward. It’s palpable and immediate. There is the audience, there is the performer.
I think back to my chat with Andrew Farriss.
“As much as I really admire — and have used — a lot of technology myself, within music, I think a lot of younger people simply like playing instruments live, and singing again. Just in real time.”
Tamworth Country Music Festival runs until January 26.