So unfolds another Tamworth Country Music Festival. A ten day period where people manage to keep on smiling, while ignoring the extreme summer heat. It is a marathon to survive so seasoned festival goers plan their days accordingly.
This is the thirty-eighth Tamworth festival and as a Tamworth girl myself, I have experienced more than thirty of them. Some of those years missing were given to living in other countries. But I have managed to travel back for most of the others if living interstate or elsewhere.
Memories of my first festival, then a three day event, are somehow some of the clearest of my childhood. As a young girl wearing a long floral dress, I sat in the front row at the 1973 Golden Guitar awards at the Tamworth Town Hall. I watched the stars collect their awards, while swinging my little legs, too short then to reach the ground. I knew everyone on the stage though and every word to their winning songs.
My father was very involved in the early days of the industry and these ‘stars’ were family friends, dropping in from time to time to play music with the folks. In those days, the life of a country artist was to tour for about nine months a year, towing their caravan around this great land. Then it would be a time to rest, regroup a little and head off for the next year.
Our farm was rarely without a caravan sitting in a paddock. Buddy Williams, Stan Coster, Rick and Thel Carey, Jimmy Little, and numerous others dropped in regularly, some staying on for a few months. One morning, Thel Carey came in from her van, talking about waking at two in the morning with a new song in her head. I stood there, listening to her, and thinking how great it would be to write a song. I was about six years old. Almost three decades passed before I finally wrote my first song.
Things have certainly changed in the thirty-eight years of Tamworth festival. No longer do I recognise every second person walking down the street for example. Mind you, with all of my years of roaming, I do run into someone I know at every venue I go to. This is a great joy of Tamworth for many people, running into old friends, catching up, hearing fabulous music and sharing in the good will of the festival.
There are so many festivals within the festival too. There is the mainstream one where, if you are a follower of commercial radio and country music video clips, your wishes will be satisfied with opportunities to see all of the stars, live in concert at various places. There is also the glamour of the Golden Guitar Awards attached to that scene, with the red carpet and all that stuff.
There are poet’s breakfasts every day in the clubs. These draw a huge crowd. So do gigs for the loyal fans of traditional Australian country music, in the bush ballad scene. Both of these experiences are an integral part of the festival.
Of course there is also the rapidly growing scene of modern music in Tamworth now too, which is horrifying and enraging many country music devotees. In order to attract a younger audience to town, many popular acts from mainstream music are being invited in. The amount of energy being put into this debate is pretty interesting at the moment and there are valid points from both sides.
Personally, even though my own tastes in music are very diverse and not at all limited to country, I do miss the old flavour of the festival, with old timers singing ballads in the main street, the chook man with his menagerie of friends, the one man bands who wandered around delighting everyone and the guarantee of hearing songs you would recognise from years gone by.
As far as the debate goes though, I do find it interesting that Nashville type music has been accepted completely into the Australian Country Music scene, yet so much hoo-ha is going on about other music coming in. While the Nashville sound is not particularly to my own personal taste, I am respectful of it as music and of those who are drawn to it. There is certainly an audience for the Nashville music at Tamworth Festival. Yet this style is also responsible for hugely changing the face of the festival and has been accepted without too much debate. It is not Australian Country Music, though many artists now feel a need to sound this way, perhaps to attract a more international audience. And that is their choice.
Australian Country Music was originally more about ballads, and stories of the land and its people. But all genres are merging more and more each year. And we cannot hold back change. Change is inevitable, a guaranteed part of life.
So it is not surprising that different styles of music have been creeping in over the years. Some of the talent on Peel St is phenomenal, coming from the more indie sounds. These days, there is an audience for all types of music in Tamworth, not just traditional country music. There is definitely an audience here for indie, folk, blues, pop, jazz, rock, anything. That is the beauty of the Tamworth crowd. It may be mostly country music fans, and that is the ideal for a country music festival, but it is not only country fans anymore. These additional people also bring goodwill and money into the town.
I guess it is about finding a balance for the continued success of the festival. I don’t know all of the answers, but I do know that Tamworth is one of the most friendly and joyous festivals. And if it can be managed well, with country music still being the main theme, then the fringe festivals that are growing within the festival can still work. This will satisfy the needs of all who come to town.
The alt. country scene, for example, has been steadily growing for years and is the one I spend the bulk of my time enjoying. It blends country with blues, folk, swing and soul. The talent in this genre is fantastic, with each act developing their own sound, rather than ending up sounding like everyone else. I am always open to seeing any new music at Tamworth, but especially in this category. Check out The Junes, Cyndi Boste, Karl Broadie, or Den Hanrahan if you would like to get a feel for this music. My own music also fits into this category a little, with a folk influence.
And of course in Tamworth, we cannot forget the camping world. Some of the best music I have heard here over the years has been from the campground. As I visit friends who camp in the same spot each year, swimming daily in the gorgeous river, music permeates from all directions. It truly is a wonderful, fun time.
My own main gig this year was beautiful. I am not interested in gigging every day of the festival. I enjoy being a part of it, definitely, but I also like to enjoy some freedom of time during the ten days, to discover unexpected hidden joys. So I did a few enjoyable spots, as part of other gigs, and I loved my main gig greatly. I rarely play at pubs these days, they are just not my thing. The venue I chose was perfect, a small theatre with beautiful acoustics and a welcoming vibe. It was an intimate gig, as intended, and I loved every minute of it and the bond shared with the audience. I am so glad to have chosen to do it this way.
I sit now in a great café that serves organic tea and coffee. It is somehow peaceful in here despite the waves of music floating in from Peel St, where buskers sing day and night. By day, it truly is a cacophony. A different sound emanates from every ten metres or so. Some musicians have power and amps, some brave souls try to be heard acoustically. The tree-lined streets are closed off and pedestrians wander block after block, listening to all that Peel St has to offer. It is a wonderfully crazy thing to experience.
My favourite time to experience Peel St, however, is late afternoon or early evening. The heat of the day has departed, as have many of the poor exhausted buskers. Then there is music only every fifty metres or so. Bands set up and play for hours in the cool of the summer nights. While many people are sitting in the air conditioned clubs at this time, eating their smorgasboard dinner, I prefer to grab some noodles, wander the street until I find the right music and a tree to sit against, and make myself at home. As I did this a couple of nights ago, I was delighted to come across The Slimy Brothers, some friends from a previous festival. They entertained with their great tunes and harmonies, as the summer night unfolded all around me. After that we wandered down the street hearing more sounds, particularly enjoying the Perch Creek Family Jugband. They have been enjoying fast growing popularity in recent years and anyone who has heard them will know why.
So if you have been tempted to get yourself to the Tamworth Country Music Festival, I do hope that you treat yourself to the experience in coming years. Every January this lovely Australian country town more than doubles in size, accommodating the warmth of its visitors. There is music for everyone, even those who don’t like country music. And let’s face it, in the cities and coastal areas there are plenty of people who don’t. But in the inland areas of Australia, there are very few who do not love the sound of country tunes.
There are country skies so vast they will take your breath away, country smiles so genuine that everyone is made welcome, and of course, there are country tunes, some that even manage to sway the most ardent anti-country music types.
I hope to see you here sometime. But now, best I get back in amongst it. There are toes to be tapping. Oh Tamworth! You simply have to experience it to know it. Go on. Do yourself the favour.