Every year 50,000 country music fans descend on the NSW town of Tamworth for Australia’s biggest country music festival. With a band of alt-country desperados, John van Tiggelen made the pilgrimage, to discover the mystique cuts much deeper than yodel and twang.
Last year a singer-songwriter friend of mine was planning to drive up from Melbourne to the Tamworth Country Music Festival and try his luck on Peel Street, the famous buskers’ strip where Keith Urban, Kasey Chambers and Troy Cassar-Daley found theirs. He was taking his band’s banjo player and driving up with another alt-country band mid-festival, on the Tuesday. Did I want to come along?
I was starting a new job in February, one that required me to naturalise, and I couldn’t think of a sterner test of my devotion to this country. There was a red-eye flight on Friday, to spirit me back to Melbourne in time for my citizenship test. Immigration gatekeeper: “How’s your day been?”
“I just got back from Tamworth.”
“Okay, you’re in.”
At the 11th hour, however, my friend pulled the pin. Couldn’t afford to take the time off work, he said. I asked if he minded if I still went, with the other band. There was a pause. “Go ahead,” he said, but not like he meant it. I googled the other band. Graveyard Train, according to MySpace, are purveyors of “horror country”. They are a hirsute bunch. Spooky Records is their label and their songs are about monsters, mummies, scarecrows, shadows, rabid dogs and randy witches. They didn’t much sound like the kind of band that Tamworth types – ringers, ute hoons, grey nomads – would appreciate.
“Just bring a sleeping mat, some vitamins and Panadols,” advises Nick Finch, the member of Graveyard Train with the biggest beard and thus its leader. Over the phone he tells me we will be dossing down in a classroom. The six-piece Graveyard Train has arranged lodgings at a primary school called St Nick’s. Sharing the room will be another Melbourne band, a thrash-rockabilly four-piece called Cherrywood, as well as two solo alt-country acts, Eaten By Dogs and Cash Savage. Thirteen bodies, I count. Plus special guests. And no teacher. I try to remember if primary schools come with showers. “There’ll be plenty of drinking fountains,” says Finch. “Whole troughs of them.”
We meet a few mornings later at his house in North Melbourne, ahead of a notional 9am departure that becomes well after midday. We swing through the trucking town of West Wyalong by early evening. The inland plains are unusually green, though no lovelier for it. Josh Crawley, the Train’s banjo player, is driving; he has done so for the past 500km and will do so for another 300 before handing over. Finch is in the passenger seat, in charge of the CD player. This is very much the way the band works. Crawley drives, Finch directs and the rest make noise.
Album after album goes by. More albums than towns. Wayfaring Strangers, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Nirvana, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Little John wail us through Jerilderie, Narrandera, Parkes, Gilgandra and Gunnedah.
Tamworth’s main drag, Peel Street, is a shrieking din of cicadas. It’s a La Niña thing, evidently – locals don’t recall them ever being a problem before. Or maybe it’s revenge. Six hundred buskers have registered to perform over the 10 days, and every second shop is fronted by a Katter-hat act of some sort. There’s a yodelling woman with cowbells around her waist. There’s Superman with a guitar. There are countless wannabe starlets, an eight-year-old calf-boy squealing Country Roads, mum-and-pop karaoke acts in matching shirts and an Aboriginal dwarf who uses his voice box as a didgeridoo. It’s a festival, all right. I find a bloke flogging his book among it all. It’s a good way to stand out and he’s busily signing copies. The book comes with an endorsement from Charles Wooley, the RM Williams tragic from 60 Minutes: “His stories remind us that the intrinsic Australian values – mateship, perseverance, self-reliance, loyalty, community spirit and ironic humour – were all hammered out on the harsh anvil of the bush.”
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It’s 10.30am, too early for Graveyard Train to make an appearance. I grab a scalding coffee at a corner cafe. Behind me, a woman in a waistcoat and Akubra starts up: “I’ve been around Australia, and the kangaroo still bounds…”
I duck into the town hall to catch The Bushwackers. I was 13 the last time I saw them, when they visited my country high school. It’s a bit early for a bush dance, now as well as then, but that doesn’t stop the punters. There are hundreds heel-and-toeing. Dobe Newton, the singer, is wearing a paint-spattered yellow suit. He offers to raffle off his trademark lagerphone – a stick rattling with stubby tops – for flood relief. Newton co-wrote [with Bruce Woodley of The Seekers] an Australian anthem, the one that goes, “We are one, we are many… I am, you are, we are Australian”, but he’s more true-bull than true-blue. He has a bolshie irreverence that is lacking among his fellow Tamworth patriots. He dresses badly intentionally, for one thing.
Emerging from the hall into the full glare of Tamworth, I run into Finch and Crawley. They’re scouting Peel Street for a busking spot, but there aren’t many left. The band hasn’t slept much. We’d rolled into town around 2am, with only police and drunks left on the streets. Crawley selects a spot, in front of a novelty-wear shop that specialises in Elvis gear. It’s tight, but it will do. There’s a young bagpiper in place on the kerb. “He’ll have to go,” Finch says. As they set up, the piper steals several glances at the band, their amps, the hammer and chains. He goes.
Across the mall is a cover band, four men dressed as ringers. They can’t play very well. Perhaps they are ringers. To the Train’s right is a pot-bellied giant who calls himself Poppie O’Whooosely and whose guitar is painted, Aboriginal-style, like a Qantas hostie’s uniform. To their left is a rotating trio of bush balladeers. Their CDs are displayed on a card table and they have a “merch girl”: Marilyn, from Queensland, who’s in her 60s. She watches me browse. “When you buy an album like this, all you get is pure bush ballads.”
I ask if they’re originals. “Oh no,” says Marilyn. “It’s all dinky-di. Alan, Len and Jeanne do the Slim Dusty stuff.”
I pick up a CD with an Australian flag on it. It’s titled Don’t Let Them Murder Tamworth and claims to be inspired by “a groundswell of fair dinkum Australian traditional country music followers”. Marilyn tells me the song is up for Country Ballad of the Year. She gestures at the Train. “That lot there is what the song’s about. The rockers. Alan and these fellas are getting outnumbered now by these guys that play the big thumping music. And that’s not what we come here for; that’s not country, it’s not Australian. Traditional country is pick-and-strum, pick-and-strum style. That’s what Slim did. It’s not this” – she flails her hand up and down.
Graveyard Train are joined by Cherrywood, Cash Savage and Eaten By Dogs. Busking is intense and the plan is to rotate. Cherrywood’s double-bass player is an Irish stoner called Rob. He’s staring open-mouthed at a festivalgoer’s neck tattoo of the Southern Cross above the words “Aussie Mayhem”. “This place makes me feel very conflicted,” he says. “It’s awesome, but I’m not sure it’s for the right reasons.”
The miscreant male choir that is Graveyard Train roars into being, hammering, chanting and whooping, with Crawley’s plinking banjo lending an especially delinquent edge. People stop; a crowd gathers. Beau Skowron struts and thrusts himself at passers-by, pouting and flicking his tongue like a wino impersonating Mick Jagger. Not everyone’s amused, but Skowron knows when to back off.
After a half dozen songs of hell-raising, it’s Cherrywood’s turn. On drums, mandolin, double bass and guitar, they’re tight and fast – perhaps too fast for this crowd, which quickly dissipates. As if scripted, a man in a singlet ambles past the band with a mate and shouts something barely audible. “What?” Tim Durkin screams into his mike. The rest of his band plays furiously, nervously, on.“That’s not country!” The lout repeats, as he raises his middle finger.
Anywhere else, “That’s not country!” might be considered a compliment. But in Tamworth, and elsewhere where country music fills a cultural void, the accusation cuts deeper: “It’s un-Australian!” The rockers are not merely impostors: they are invaders. Inland people cling to Australian country because it celebrates and cements their place in this land in a way that history and climate do not. To knock country is to knock the sentimental notion of Australia, the bush-poetry version, the true-blue, green-and-gold, red-blooded, orange-sunsetted, rose-tinted version presented every Sunday on Macca’s Australia All Over. And that’s just not on. Mockers and rockers don’t belong here; they should stay down south, in un-Australia.
Yet an outsider can’t help being curious. As far as I’ve seen, the Aussie values spouted ad nauseam are pretty much global values. More to the point, what is Australian about taking oneself so seriously? Isn’t this conceivably un-Australian? How about over-Australian? Maybe it’s just American. After all, much of so-called Australian country music is overtly American in its style, sentiments and even, in many cases, accents.
For enlightenment I seek out Mrs Dusty, better known as Joy McKean, the woman behind Slim Dusty’s extraordinary 100-album career. Arriving at her suite at Tamworth’s grandest motel, the Powerpoint, I’m taken aside by her friend Max Ellis, who is keen to have a word. Ellis is now 80 and ran the festival in earlier years, and he fears it is losing its way. He’s especially upset with organisers’ recent attempts to broaden the festival’s appeal to younger generations, an issue that flared in 2010, when pop idol Guy Sebastian was invited to perform.
“Eighty per cent of the crowd here is 35-plus,” says Ellis. “No 18-year-old would want to come to Tamworth if they can go to Byron [for its Easter Blues and Roots Festival]. People grow into country music and we need to recognise that our core audience is older.”
The way Ellis defines country music, it’s a bit like identifying yourself as Indigenous: you’ve got to regard yourself as country, others have to accept you as country and you’ve got to have a bit of country in you. Crucially, the songs should also have a narrative element. “No peppy, crappy love songs,” says Ellis. “And patriotism, that’s got to be there. I say patriotism, not chauvinism. Slim remains the standard-bearer. He was an immensely unifying element in country music and his departure has left a vacuum at the top. People look to Joy to fill that role now. Thankfully she takes that responsibility.
We call her the matriarch.”
McKean appears and waves Ellis away. “Max is a firebrand,” she says sprightly. “People say Slim would turn over in his grave to see what comes here in the name of country now, but I’m pretty sure he’d continue to support this festival if he was still here. The media attention this festival gets has always attracted what we call the bandwagon-hoppers. In the past it didn’t ruffle the surface too much. Some of these acts have a genuine respect for country and come here, in part, to pay their respects. I love country rock, for instance. That’s been a great influence.” It’s country pop she abhors. “All that soft contemporary stuff coming out of Nashville is just mush. Australian country is starting to go that way. Some of our major artists are writing songs to a template, with a marketing plan, to win awards.”
I ask McKean for her take on country. “Country is not about putting a pedal steel or a fiddle in it. It’s not all about dying dogs and cheating women. It’s not all sooky. It’s like what Louis Armstrong said about jazz, ‘If you can’t feel it, you just don’t know it.’ The writer has to know the life they’re writing about. That’s what Slim and I did; we were always travelling and we wrote about what we saw and heard and felt. Australian country music has a rawness and an earthiness.”
She smiles. “It’s got grit. It’s got story. And it’s got heart.”
McKean and Ellis are off to a concert by Sara Storer at the Tamworth Regional Entertainment Centre. Storer is a darling of Australian country music. She has lived the life, as McKean puts it, having grown up in the bush and taught at remote Indigenous schools. She’s not your classic country-music beauty, adds Ellis, by which he must mean she’s not blonde, for she is quite radiant. She is also heavily pregnant and has her brother [Greg] co-starring on stage. Apparently it goes with the genre, this display of family. Mini dynasties rule: the Kernaghans, the McClymonts, the Chambers and, of course, the Dusty family, with their daughter, Anne Kirkpatrick.
Storer is a natural storyteller with a warm, clear voice and a broad Australian accent. Most songs are gently, genuinely affecting. During a song about a man she knew as Buffalo Bill, I catch myself with a lump in my throat. I’m not alone; glancing about, I see people dabbing at their eyes. And suddenly, finally, I think I get country. The audience adores Sara Storer, but not as in other genres. Not as a star. They feel a warmth for her as one of their own, a warmth that goes beyond love, to pride. They love her as a daughter of this land. Of their land.
Back in Peel Street, I find the Melbourne gang at the pub. They’re done busking. Graveyard Train has been offered a midnight gig at a speakeasy called Jake’s Place. Cherrywood, meanwhile, was offered $25 to leave town. “We thought about it,” says Durkin, who is wearing a Bundaberg Rum flag as a cape.
A man in a Graveyard Train T-shirt introduces himself. He says he bought the shirt for the gun-and-bones motif. “I don’t know if it’s country what you fellas play, but it’s f**king good, though.”
Beau Skowron looks up in mock shock. “But if we’re not country, then what are we? We’re not blues, we’re not rock.”
“Youse are a concept band,” replies the fan.
“What country band isn’t?” asks Skowron. “The hats, the boots, the buckles, the tassels – everyone’s playing dress-ups.”
Six hours and countless beers later, we blunder off in search of Jake’s Place, a second-floor photo studio cum bachelor pad, up a discreet set of steps, done up saloon-style. There are cowhides on the floor, vinyl records on the ceiling and Australian flags on the wall. The women are invited to sit on stools made out of saddles. The party is struggling for noise and vigour.
A duo calling itself the Immigrant Union and featuring the drummer from the Dandy Warhols [Brent DeBoer] gets up to play, but the Dandy seems too spaced out to do his thing or even to figure out what that thing might be. Graveyard Train takes their place, squeezing in the members of Cherrywood to make a 10-piece.
What follows, most raucously, is as fine a testament to Aussie values as Tamworth is ever likely to see. Mateship, resilience, bravery in the face of adversity, irreverence, the banjo – it’s all there. But hardly anyone sees it.
Leaning on the bar next to me is Finch’s friend, Eaten By Dogs, aka Chris Lichti. He’s a man of few words who works out considerably on his body and, it turns out, on his mind. “I came here last year with these guys and
I left hating it, vowing never to return. I blamed Tamworth for my bad time, for not understanding my music. But it wasn’t this town’s fault, you know. What the crowd here wants is what country music is.”
Edited extract from an essay that first appeared in GriffithReview Edition 32. griffithreview.com
Tamworth Country Music Festival, January 20-29. tcmf.com.au
Source Qantas The Australian Way January 2012