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Australia’s Cowboys Sing Country

Until a couple of years ago, my knowledge of country music didn’t extend much beyond Dolly Parton and that Billy Ray Cyrus classic, ‘Achy Breaky Heart’. Then, one Saturday night that was conspicuously devoid of social engagements, my husband and I found ourselves at home, in front of the telly with a takeaway. As I channel-surfed hopefully for the fiftieth time, I paused for a moment on one programme, finger hovering over the control like a runner at the starting blocks. But as the seconds ticked by and my eyes remained glued to the screen, the control was gradually lowered and eventually came to rest, redundant, on the sofa. We were settling down to enjoy the Annual Country Music Association Awards, from Nashville, Tennessee.

Singing Cowboy

If you haven’t been fortunate enough to stumble across this gem amongst awards ceremonies, then I would urge you to mark it in the diary this year. With enough glitz, glamour and headline-grabbing gowns to seriously rival the Oscars, and more Stetsons than you can shake a stick at, it’s a night in that you’ll be discussing like a good night out for days.

Now I’m by no means saying that this one evening of exposure to country music made me an instant connoisseur of this vast and varied musical genre, but I at least became aware of its enormous popularity, and importance in terms of influence and music sales. So, when we found ourselves two years later, just a few hundred kilometres away from Tamworth on festival weekend, it was an opportunity too tempting to resist.

Situated in the beautiful region of New England, north of the university city of Armidale, Tamworth is Australia’s country music capital. Unaware that it had one until I was enlightened by our guidebook, and blissfully ignorant of Australia’s plethora of country stars until we bought a festival brochure in a service station, we nonetheless managed to jen up sufficiently on the drive there to have whipped ourselves up into an excited frenzy.

Wet wet wet

The entire festival lasts for a grueling ten days, but we were arriving in time for the finale weekend when things really hot up and the town moves to a country beat twenty-four hours a day. Having been laughed out of every overcrowded caravan park in town, we were finally directed to he Rugby Club, which is transformed into an enormous campsite for the duration of the festival each year. Like a city of sedentary gypsies, the place was heaving with tents, vans, buses and more than a few guitar-strumming cowboys of dubious talent. It was difficult to find any free space, but when we at last pulled in and set up camp, we were interrupted by our neighbour who stood nosily watching us from the door of her caravan, with a parrot clinging to the front of her precariously low-cut top. Just as we’d fixed the awning she said, “Wouldn’t leave that up, hail forecast this afternoon, storms and hail”.

We thanked her for her useful, if slightly delayed, advice and ignored it, deciding instead to go straight into town and soak up some country atmosphere.

The centre was packed with a motley collection of country fans and every shop window was crammed with posters of local acts, the big make-up and Hollywood poses no doubt the work of some normally idle local photographer, now rubbing his hands with glee. Singers and musicians lined both sides of the street, separated by just the space taken up by amplifiers, and they were all singing a slightly different from of country, from folk to rock-influenced. Every pub, café and inch of pavement was bursting with the slightly eccentric to the just plain weird and, as we appeared to be the only sober people in town, we decided it was definitely time for a beer. We hoped that by knocking the edge off our sobriety, proceedings might lose that slightly scary, overwhelming edge. Complimentary cowboy hats helped enormously and we strode into our chosen pub feeling stupid but appropriately so, a feeling that seemed to deplete in direct proportion to the number of beers we drank. The musical accompaniment was provided by a group called ‘Problem Pony’ who were actually pretty good and an impressive introduction to the Australian country music scene.

The evening was spent back in the centre of town and, in particular, one pub where a man and his guitar were providing the evening’s entertainment for a rowdy but friendly bunch of locals. Errol Gray was the performer and we squeezed our way through to the bar to get nearer the action – and the alcohol. Most of the clientele appeared to have been knocking back the drinks steadily since opening time and impromptu dancing began as Errol belted out classics such as ‘My Oil Stain’s Sill on Your Driveway’ and ‘Why Do All Car Names Begin With A?’. By the time we left the pub, the weather forecast had revealed itself to be late, but very accurate. We got back soaked to find we were now camped on a muddy swamp. To top it off, the family opposite appeared to have no qualms about sitting out in the wet all night, drinking neat spirits and trying to murder a couple of guitars. They finally called it a night at five the next morning, which gave us a whole hour of uninterrupted sleep before the neighbours started their generator up.

Having spotted a small ad in the brochure for a Dolly Parton tribute at a pub up the road, the following night was pretty much sorted. Tickets procured we arrived in plenty of time to get good seats though the venue was more suited to a bingo session than a gig. We were the youngest there by quite a noticeable number of years and were also conspicuous by the absence of flashing guitar badges about our persons, an accessory which seemed to be ‘de rigor’ for this particular concert.

The lovely Donella

Donella Plane was the lady who promised to transform herself into the petite First Lady of country and after performing a couple of her own songs, she went ‘backstage’ to lift, tuck and bouffant. The results were pretty amazing and she also had the voice, moves and mannerisms to have you almost believing you were in a little Nashville dive, watch ing Dolly herself. Of course, rum and coke is a great helper but we were almost star struck by the end of the performance and a photo with Donella just put the finishing touches to the evening. Weeks later, I was still waking up with a medley of Dolly’s classics whirling around my head and, if not a liking for, then a definite appreciation of country music.

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