By Lachlan Bryan
For a while now I’ve proclaimed that the state of country music in Victoria is healthier then ever. If my Facebook feed is anything to go by, local country artists are occupying just about the same space as Womens’ AFL football, American politics and the latest Springsteen tour – they’re front and centre with their talk of new records, upcoming gigs and, of course, their reflections on the recent Tamworth Country Music Festival. Of course many of my Melbourne friends wear the ‘alt’ or ‘Americana’ tags proudly, but these days I’m of the belief that it’s really all just country music – the sub-genres are just a handy way of organizing your iTunes library or Spotify Playlists. For me, the church of country music is broad and inclusive – even here in Victoria – and that was demonstrated once again in Tamworth this year.
It would be remiss of me not to begin this column at Tamworth, particularly as the 2017 festival was my favourite yet. My good friends The Weeping Willows an act I have championed since I first started this column, were up for no less than FOUR Golden Guitars, so I spent a lot of the week enjoying the much-deserved attention that these two received. Whilst they left the Awards empty-handed, they did put on a stellar performance of their track ‘River of Gold’ before a sell-out crowd at The TRECC, having already won over a small army of new friends during the festival with performances at The Tamworth Opry, Country Cares Concert and The Dag Sheep Station, to name a few.
In recent years, Late-Night Alt has become a staple of my festival calendar. This time round, the event migrated from The Tudor Hotel to the basement room at The Services Club and occupied all of my late Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights (not to mention my early Thursday, Friday and Saturday mornings). Perhaps some of the grunge was lost in the move to the new location, but it was more than made up for by the great sound, decent seating options and air conditioning. Queensland’s Jen Mize, a frequent visitor to Melbourne in recent times, played a stellar ‘album launch’ set on the Wednesday night, whilst my pal Henry Wagons and I flew the Victorian flag with an impromptu ‘Outlaw Country Set’ in the early hours of Friday morning, ably assisted by fellow southerners Shaun Ryan, Pete Fidler and Damian Cafarella – as well as honorary Melbournite Shane Nicholson.
Perhaps the best thing about ‘late night alt’ is not the music, but the sense of community that has emerged amongst the night owl participants and delighted observers. There’s no doubt in my mind that this community spirit spills over into the daytime goings-on at Tamworth, contributing to the feel-good vibes that seemed to be everywhere this year. Most of us artists value the friendships we make in this business above all else. I reckon the late night sessions are producing and cementing these friendships in record numbers. Furthermore the boundaries between what’s ‘alt’ and what’s not are getting more and more blurred – and that can only be a good thing!
I should note that for a select handful, the Tamworth CMF starts a couple of weeks early with the Academy of Country Music. I had the privilege of being a tutor at this year’s academy and was impressed with the talent coming through. It was a pleasure to help mentor two young Victorian-based artists – Laura Byrnes from Nathalia and Riley Catherall (originally from Tumut, now studying in Melbourne). Laura is a quality up-and-coming singer-songwriter in the mould of Sara Storer or even Fanny Lumsden, whilst Riley brings a jazz background and great musicality to his work as a guitarist, singer and songwriter. I’ve no doubt that both will feature in this column in the future.
Speaking of the future, I should move on from what was a truly excellent and inspiring festival and chat about what’s coming up over the next few months here in my home state. February and March are busy months for touring artists, beginning with Kasey Chambers and Bernard Fanning, who will perform regional shows in Shepparton, Bendigo and Ballarat on February 17, 18 and 19 respectively. In early March, The McClymonts will creep over the border for a Mildura show and on March 18 Troy Cassar-Daley will play York on Lilydale. On the festival front, The Port Fairy Folk Fest (March 10-13) will host country-ish acts such as Bennett, Bowtell and Urquhart, Don Walker, Sarah Carroll and The Left Wing and The Waifs.
Dori Freeman, a young singer-songwriter from Virginia in the USA, will also perform at Port Fairy. I was first exposed to her acoustic-guitar driven country-folk songs late last year via a Spotify-playlist and I was immediately taken with the subtle, understated production – not to mention her good songs and gentle vocal delivery. Like many of her “Americana” contemporaries, Freeman appears to draw inspiration from the 1970s ‘golden age’ of singer-songwriters – I have little doubt she’ll find a receptive audience here in Victoria and I’d be surprised if her shows at The Caravan Music Club and Thornbury Theatre are anything less than full houses.
On the recording front, 2017 is shaping up as a strong year for Victorian releases. Greta Ziller’s long-awaited debut album is, as I understand it, in the final stages of completion at Woodstock Studios in St Kilda. Having recorded her debut EP with Matt Fell a few years ago, Greta has kept it local for the album, and I can’t wait to hear what she’s come up with. I also have high expectations for Jed Rowe’s new release – so too the upcoming records from Paul Hicks and Mitch Dean. In an age where so much music gets made and relatively little of it really gets heard, I’ll be doing my best to make sure readers are exposed to the strong body of work coming out of this state, despite the fact that the artists are far from household names.