Deep Down South – Melbourne Country

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With Lachlan Bryan.

Despite the fact that I’ve always called Melbourne my home town, these last few years I seem to have spent more time away from the city than in it. Such is the life of a touring musician I suppose – I rarely spend more than a handful of consecutive nights in the same State, let alone the same bed. Lately, however, things have been a little different for me. I’ve been recording a new album with my band here in Melbourne, as well as producing albums for a couple of other local folks, so I’ve been enjoying the rare luxury of time at home. An added bonus of this temporary lifestyle change has been the chance to check out even more local music than usual – and I’m happy to say that the country scene in these parts continues to go from strength to strength.

It appears that new venues that support country music are springing up every month or so, with fairly recent additions such as The Yarra Hotel in Abbotsford and the cleverly named Beast in Brunswick East cementing themselves alongside traditional country meccas like The Union, The Retreat, The Gem, Some Velvet Morning and The Old Bar. Of course, if you’re after a ticketed show there’s always a chance you’ll catch some twang at The Northcote Social Club (The Snowdroppers and Jess Ribeiro are both there in Northcote) or even The Corner Hotel. I’d go as far as to bet that you can catch some kind of good live country music every night of the week in Melbourne these days – I’m not even sure if Nashville can always make such a promise.

Pleasingly, the strength of our local scene is being reflected on a national level. For instance, we Victorians are well represented at the Gympie Muster this year, thanks to Wagons, Deep Creek Road, The Davidson Brothers, Pete Denahy and Ross Wilson – just to name a few. It’s a long trek for southerners to get to Gympie (I know this because I did the drive in a single twenty-two hour stint one time) but it remains a favourite festival amongst artists and fans alike. I remember going there for the first time just five or so years ago when the backstage area was just a dusty carpark – now there’s a VIP bar, dressing rooms, snacks and even good(ish) coffee(!) on offer. I’m not making the journey this year but hope to be back in 2016.

Mustered Courage are another Victorian act heading to Gympie for the muster, continuing on with the incredibly hard work they’ve put in over the last couple of years. At the time of writing, the boys still have a couple of weeks left on their epic, 60+ date USA tour, which included a mainstage performance at the Telluride Music Festival in Colorado and has seen them traverse most of North America. The guys return with a new album which by all accounts stretches the definition of bluegrass just about as far as it’s ever been stretched, with orchestral instruments, drums and electric guitars all making an appearance. First single ‘Honesty’ is out now, and the guys will be launching it at Gympie, as well as with special shows at Northcote Social Club in Melbourne (August 21), Newtown Social Club in Sydney (August 27) and Black Bear Lodge in Brisbane (August 30).

Of course, the Mustered Courage lads are not the only Victorians with records coming out – many of my favourite locals have been in the studio of late. I had the pleasure of producing an album in July for Tom Dockray and his band at Tender Trap studios in Northcote. Tom’s songwriting and delivery sits him somewhere between John Prine, Don Walker and Chad Morgan, whilst the band’s sound conjures up Old Crow Medicine Show. South of the river, at the incredibly well-equipped Black Pearl Studios in Moorabin, Jemma Nicole has put down tracks for her debut LP. Jemma’s one of several local folks that made their way to Nashville last September for the Americana Music Association Festival and Conference. She followed it up with her Tamworth debut in January, performing in Bicentennial Park for the Americana Showcase alongside the likes of Dan Waters, Ruby Boots, Jenny Queen and The Weeping Willows. The subjects of Jemma’s songs tend toward the darker side of country – hopefully she’ll leave plenty of dirt intact despite stepping into such a high end studio.

I mentioned The Weeping Willows back when I first started writing for Country Update, and in the two years since, the pair have truly established themselves both as performers and organisers within the country and Americana scenes. You may well remember that they compered that above-mentioned Americana in the Park show last summer and for a year or so they also presented Tennessee Me, a weekly country radio show on Melbourne’s Southern FM. Seems they’ve made a lot of friends and fans on stage and off, as evidenced by them really crushing their crowd-funding target of $10,000 to go and record their new album in Los Angeles. Rumour has it that they’ll be tracking the album in September at the Los Angeles home studio of acclaimed producer Ryan Freeland.

Of course, the big international acts continue to hit Melbourne’s great larger venues, including the Forum Theatre (where Ryan Adams performed recently) and The Palais. The latter played host to a stunning performance from Emmy-Lou Harris and Rodney Crowell in June, with Queenslander Harmony James earning a rapturous reception for her opening spot. Harmony hasn’t played a lot of Melbourne shows, but she’s starting to build momentum down here – she writes and sings the kind of songs us Melbournians are fond of. Upcoming major overseas acts include Mary Chapin Carpenter, who plays the National Theatre on September 4 and my favourite venue, The Caravan Music Club, on September 5. Joan Baez will also hit town in September, playing the stunning Hamer Hall on Thursday September 24.