Each year in Australia, the arrival of January heralds many things for our country’s occupants.
Sweltering heat, long afternoons spent capitalising on daylight savings–drink in hand, an abundance of flies, cheap trays of mangoes, trips to the local pool; the list of Australian January-isms is so extensive, in fact, that many visitors are convinced that Australia clocks off for a month, shirking the new year’s workload until February.
Beaches are full, cafes stay closed, offices are sparsely populated and beer gardens enjoy a roaring trade on Aperol Spritzes.
For some 50,000 Australians, there’s another reason to get giddy when January rolls around each year: the annual pilgrimage to Tamworth for the Toyota Country Music Festival.
While previous years have seen your reporter flown in and out via an air-conditioned hotel room, this year we did things properly; the same way most people who visit Tamworth choose to travel: from the driver’s seat of a 4×4, on a dusty road. We got a brand new Toyota Hilux Rogue, and we did the drive from Sydney, stopping at a couple of country towns, just like many road-trippers.
Staying in a tiny room above a pub on the edge of town, this year’s trip to the country music capital felt about as authentic a TCMF an experience as one could get, and despite the heat, we’re happy to report that the festival is as much fun as ever.
Though six-ish hours north-west of Sydney, Tamworth is far from a sleepy country town. Home to about 60,000 locals, and located on the Peel River–lands of which the Kamilaroi people are traditional custodians–it remains one of the most important rural centres in Australia for thousands who live off the nearby land.
And its long had a reputation for being modern and enterprising, too. Tamworth was the first city in Australia to get electric street lights. It’s also home to the Australian Equine and Livestock Events Centre, which hosts a vast number of equestrian events throughout the year, making Tamworth not just the Country Music Capital of Australia, but the Equine Capital too–this is the largest centre of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
So when a very mixed demographic of dyed-in-the-wool country music fans, families and curious tourists descend on the town each year, almost doubling the population in the process, Tamworth comes to life in a way that no beach, office or beer garden could hope to, making this rural centre, for one week, home to the second largest country music festival in the world.
City slickers are wont to categorise rural Australia as a backwater devoid of brunch spots, matcha lattes and jobs, and it’s hard to deny that Tamworth’s small-town country feel doesn’t help its reputation amongst visitors as an epicentre of activity, but any preconceived notion of Tamworth other than a diverse and culturally important part of Australia is simply wrong.
Despite braving what feels like 50 degrees in the sun, the Toyota Country Music Festival is, each and every year, more than just a chance for Tamworth’s physical and cultural vibrancy to be put on display. From the hundreds of buskers who line Peel Street for ten days straight to the dedicated hikes between venues to see but a few of the hundreds of different acts on offer, this is an Australian cultural experience that punches well above its weight.
The Drive There & Back
For most, Tamworth is as much about the trip to and from as it is hearing Lee Kernaghan sing Boys From The Bush twelve times a day. A road trip with the lads is always a welcome concept amongst most groups, and whether you’re driving from Sydney or Brisbane, the road to Tamworth is a delight.
Furnished with a brand-spankin’ Toyota Hilux Rogue, our drive was far more comfortable than that of previous years. The Rogue is an impressive beast, and a few hours behind the wheel proved it to be far more capable than its frat-boy pickup looks might suggest.
Well appointed throughout, this is a very grown-up Toyota Hilux. Though they seem to be getting larger in size every year (at first this feels like an SUV with a tray), the engines have been getting downsized as Toyota, like most marques, improve the efficiency of their engines pretty much across the board. Ours is a 2.8 litre turbo diesel which lacks initial grunt, with nothing exciting about its take-off; foot flat from standing the turbo lag is palpable and there just isn’t any go.
But hoping to drag off at the lights in this is like bringing a knife to a gunfight: this vehicle has been made to be taken off-road, and that’s where its mettle is properly tested.
Though Toyota sets up their 4×4 track every year for visitors at the festival to test a new whip on, there’s ample opportunity to get the Rogue off-road on the drive up, and this is where it shines. Toyota has perfectly balanced the 4×4 capabilities of this ride between a series of clever electric controls, and the driving experience, placing the driver in absolute control, but with a few extra safety features to keep the thing stable and gripping.
This Hilux sits quite high on its springs, making short work of shallow ditches and bumps in the road, and at no point is comfort in the cabin compromised while the wheels below are making a meal of the mud and gravel. The humble Hilux has long been a favourite amongst 4×4 ute owners, but the many iterations and formats can be confusing. Here, it feels as though Toyota has set out to make something fun and comfortable, which prioritises practicality and off-road driving experience over unnecessary features, all the while still making a vehicle that could work as a daily driver.
Ours snaked through the many country towns dotted along the New England Highway with class and aplomb; give yourself a few spare hours for the drive and make a few stopovers, or, even better, take a different route and spend some time off the tarmac, and be sure to stop off at the saddlery in Scone to pick up a hat before you get into Tammy.
Toyota Star Maker
In Toyota Park (as Bicentennial Park, which sits on the banks of the mighty Peel, becomes known for the duration of the festival), people from all walks of life congregate en masse to see a plethora of Australia’s country music elite come out to sing their songs. It’s here that the winner of Toyota Star Maker is crowned each year. Though familiar to the denizens of Tamworth, many will be unaware that Star Maker is one of the most important competitions in the Australian music industry, having launched the careers of Lee Kernaghan, Sam McClymont and Keith Urban, to name just a few.
Stronger than ever in 2019, its 40th year, it proves itself to be just an important a tool as ever for young Australians trying to break into what is an incredibly competitive and saturated scene, offering a lot more than just a new guitar and the use of a flash new vehicle.
“Whenever I’ve needed anything during my career, I’d only have to contact someone from Star Maker, and they’d be there”, recalls Lyn Bowtell, who won the competition in 1997, and whose current act, Bennett, Bowtell & Urquhart, won the Regional Australia Bank Vocal Collaboration of The Year Golden Guitar this year for their track Every Hello.
“Whether it was a story in Capital News, or promotion for a show … I’ve always felt a real sense of belonging, and there’s also that huge feeling of pride about being part of such an iconic institution in Australian country music”, she continues.
“It means a lot to have won Star Maker, and everyone knows it.”
Brad Cox, who made the 2018 Star Maker stage his own with the instant hit Too Drunk to Drive, has enjoyed a year of consecutive successes since his win of twelve months ago. His debut album, which was released in May, shot him to the top of the Australian Country Music charts, with his newly established fanbase all getting behind his follow up hits Lake House, Red Light and the incredibly powerful Water on The Ground, which speaks to the ongoing suffering faced by Australian farmers during lengthy times of drought.
His fans, who comprise an energetic crowd at his sold-out solo show, in the back of the Albert Hotel, wear t-shirts emblazoned with: “BRAD COX – A DRINKING BAND WITH A MUSIC PROBLEM”, and carry stubby holders that simply say “I (heart) COX”. It’s crowds like this that suggest the stereotypical grey nomad may be the Tamworth pilgrim of the past, but a new guard of rising talent has helped bring a new country music fan to the table: one who wants to have fun.
And he uses his popularity to affect social change, too. Last year, upon accepting the Star Maker award on stage, he fought back tears as he reminded the crowd that just a few days earlier a girl named Dolly, known to many Australians as the face of Akubra hats, had taken her own life after a speight of cyber-bullying, urging the audience to look out for each other.
This year, he took to the stage wearing a “Dolly’s Dream” trucker cap, in support of the charity which has since been set up, to raise awareness about bullying.
This year’s Star Maker winner, Blake O’Connor, follows Brad’s win in a similar vein. His music eschews the humdrum Australiana endemic to the likes of John Williamson, and brings a fresh sound to the stage: something with a distictly American twang, without losing its identity. This is the future of Australian country music, and, for many, it’s plenty reason to get excited.
The Golden Guitars, held on Australia Day each year, mark the official end of the festival. Once again, a smattering of the same faces–some of whom have graced the stage for decades–is being broken up by a younger style of musician. 2012 X-Factor hopefuls The Wolfe Brothers have enjoyed many successes in the past few years, including touring with Lee Kernaghan, but have now forged their own path, one which netted them four Golden Guitar awards this year, of the five for which they were nominated–including Country Album of The Year for their hugely celebrated Country Heart.
This year’s entrant into the Roll of Renown, the highest honour bestowed upon any country musician in Australia, went to 1987 Star Maker victor James Blundell, though the presentation wasn’t without its blunders: the artists name had been misspelled as “Blundle” on the big screen as he walked up to the stage–a bungle lending itself to a headline for a local rag which would have written itself, had anybody the heart to point it out.
A changing of the guard is refreshing to see, and probably overdue. Williamson, who at 73 is still performing True Blue in plaid shirts to retirees (a stable he should arguably join), sports a tuft of spiked grey hair at the front of his clearly balding pate. As music royalty to many, he can still command a stage in his own diminutive, honest-Aussie-blue-collar way, but this is not what draws new listeners to Tamworth.
The crowds who once flocked to see Williamson, Slim Dusty and Anne Kirkpatrick are sadly dwindling, and musicians like Cox and The Wolfe Brothers are a much needed shot in the arm for Australia’s largest festival.
Young attendees, too, have very different habits when it comes to multiple days of live music. It would not be insane for the organisers of the festival to slowly transition to a more concise and targeted offering, at least in terms of crafting a new offering to entice the hordes of young people fleeing country towns in regions like this.
What to Do
Planning a day in Tamworth is no small feat. Hundreds of acts appear not just across multiple stages, as is expected, but in multiple venues. Several large pubs operate up to four stages each; some gigs have a cover charge, others are free, and most have live bands from 10am to 2am.
While older attendees wander between gigs, pull-out chairs and mini-Eskys in-hand, younger crowds prefer a more consolidated experience, where the music they like is presented to them in one place
Lying in bed at 1am in a tiny room above a pub, the bassline from Wagon Wheel or Chicken Fried rattling the windows for the umpteenth time that week (probably), it’s hard to not feel a great deal of affection for the infectious sense of revelry spilling out into the streets below. XXXX Gold flows freely from newly tapped kegs into plastic disposables, and tinnies of Bundy & Cola are essential fodder to a dancefloor filled with young folks singing a chorus of Teenage Dirtbag, along with the late night covers band (who are always pretty good, all things considered).
And though every single venue, it seems, is playing live country music from the wee hours through to the wee-er hours, it’s important to remember that you’re not in the middle of a muddy field in the middle of nowhere, music festival or not you’re still in Tamworth, a thriving regional centre with more amenities than you can point an Akubra at. Restaurants of every kind abound, and intrepid music fans make a sport of uncovering the many “unofficial” underground bars which pop-up for the duration of the festival, which is about as outlaw country as you can get. Willie would be proud.
While it’s been more than 25 years since Lee Kernaghan first heralded that the boys from the bush would be returning to town, The Toyota Country Music Festival is still giving the boys (and girls, for that matter) from the towns as decent an excuse as ever to head to the bush, and experience one of Australia’s most important cultural moments each year on their own terms.
Because at Tamworth, there’s something for everybody, you just need to know where to look.