Deep Down South – Melbourne Country

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By Lachlan Bryan

This edition of my column comes to you live from a different south – the south of the United States. I’m here in New Orleans for Country-Fest, a spin-off of the iconic New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and a welcome home this year for myself and my bandmates. Whilst in town we’ve had the pleasure of catching Sturgill Simpson, Allison Kraus and Ryan Adams on the JazzFest main stages, and we’ve shared the bill with our new friends and heroes Gal Holiday and The Honky Tonk Revue, Gregory Good and Kelcy May.

But it’s not my job to wax lyrical about a famous American city – rather, I’m here to pump up the tires of a place closer to home. Thankfully, Melbourne has been living up to its reputation as Australia’s premier music town, and upcoming record releases and events look set to solidify that position.

I’ve mentioned northern-suburbs band The Stillsons before on these pages. British-born Justin Burnasconi and his partner (in both life and music) Cat Canteri are an industrious pair to say the least. Last year, outside of the band, both released solo records, with Burnasconi’s Winter Pick and Canteri’s When we were Young each scoring great reviews and very honorable mentions in Top 10 lists. This year they’re already busy, playing a bunch of shows around the country and also contributing heavily to Jed Rowe’s new album. It’s this record, The Last Day of Winter, to which  I want to draw your attention.

Jed is something of a quiet achiever down here in Melbourne. He lives in the mountains with his family and, like so many of our best local artists and musicians, relies on teaching music for his living. But Jed still tours whenever he can, and last year embarked upon a successful twenty-five show tour of Europe. Now he’s ready to release the new album, produced by the legendary Jeff Lang and with The Stillsons’ Burnasconi and Canteri as his backing band. The album still features Jed’s trademark storytelling, but has an uplifting, euphoric feel that will endear it to listeners even more than his very fine previous effort, The Ember and The Afterglow.

Another fine local songwriter, Dan Waters, has been busy of late too. Dan’s debut album La Vita E Bella, won him the The Age Music Victoria Award for Best Country Album in 2013 and new material from the John Prine-influenced raconteur has been hotly anticipated ever since. Whilst he’s been working on the new album with members of iconic Melbourne band Wagons for quite some time, Dan’s found plenty of opportunity to get out on the road – including a recent national tour opening for the USA’s Kevin and Dustin Welch. Dan’s songs and stories – particularly the brand new ones – matched up well to the work of the master songsmith he was supporting, winning over a bunch of new fans and causing this columnist to hassle him for a release date. “August/September” came the reply from Waters, and I’ll be holding him to that.

Speaking of studio news, folky-country duo The Weeping Willows have some that will make many of their fellow artists jealous. The pair will be heading to Los Angeles, California in September to record the follow up to their debut album Till The North Wind Blows with none other than four-time Grammy-winning producer Ryan Freeland. Freeland’s credits include Ray LaMontagne, Bonnie Rait, Justin Townes Earle and The Carolina Chocolate Drops – essentially, he gets to work with any credible, authentic artist he wants, so it is a great thrill for the Melbourne pair to have attracted his attention. The Willows are crowd-funding through Pozible.com to raise money for the project, with all donations greatly appreciated.

As far as major country music events go, Melbourne continues to attract the big shows from major internationals and Australian country stars. At the end of May, Iris Dement will be in town to play The Thornbury Theatre, supported by the aforementioned Weeping Willows. Emmy-Lou Harris and Rodney Crowell will be at the beautiful Palais Theatre on June 25 (with Harmony James opening), whilst highly regarded Americana-act The Milk Carton Kids make their way back to us to play The Athenaeum on June 30. Then, in July, The Forum theatre will play host to two shows from the mercurial Ryan Adams and his new band The Shining. Adams has been touring Australia since 2001 and has always been particularly well received in Melbourne, where his blend of intelligent country songwriting with a punk-rock attitude and eclectic, unpredictable performance style makes him fit right it.

For smaller shows, the number of great local pubs and clubs encouraging country sounds continues to increase. The Yarra Hotel and The Gasometer are both new inner city venues with a penchant for country picking, whilst The Retreat, The Post Office, The Union and The Gem, all located in the Northern suburbs, continue to support the genre in all its incarnations. Even The Espy in St Kilda has been getting in on the act lately, hosting the City Bound series of country shows that have recently featured Tasha Amarosi, Aleyce Simmonds and Luke Austen – however the famous venue has now closed for renovations for a few months . Hopefully we’ll see more country inside its hallowed walls when it reopens in Spring.

And one final thing. Earlier this year I was thrilled to hand a Golden Guitar over to my friends and home-boys Mustered Courage. Whilst they get plenty of coverage in the Bluegrass section of this publication, I just wanted to mention how proud I am of the lads for scoring a main stage spot at the Telluride Festival in Colorado in June. This is a real achievement for any act – particularly a bluegrass band from Australia – and forms part of their long term ambition to establish a strong career in the USA. It’s a dream I share, and I congratulate the guys on their success. Needless to say they are Melbourne boys through and through (apart from Nick, who moved here from America, but that was a fair while ago).