DEEP DOWN SOUTH: MELBOURNE

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By Lachlan Bryan

When I first began writing for Country Update, I’d just returned from a whirlwind trip to the USA (my first as a musician, though I’d been a couple of times before as a tourist).  Now, almost three years later, I find myself again at the tail-end of a US visit, and again contemplating the parallels between our own country music scene and those that exist within the borders of country’s spiritual homeland.  Back in 2011 I drew the Nashville/Austin versus Tamworth/Melbourne comparison, but these days I’m more inclined to believe that the various splinter groups of country on both continents are in fact coming together. Perhaps we are on the precipice of a new Golden Age of country music!

Think I’m being overly optimistic? Well, let me explain. Firstly, it’s come to my attention that the so-called ‘bro-country’ that’s dominated the airwaves for the past few years has not just angered the purists – it’s also begun to enflame the mainstream American press and population. Keen followers of social media may have picked up on the recent review of a certain ‘bro-country’ act in The Dallas Observer which compared watching the band live to contracting the Ebola virus. Whilst that particular article was kinda hilarious, it reflects the palpable disdain for that type of music that I noticed almost everywhere in the States – even in Nashville. Of course, recent outbreaks of violence and even rape at mainstream country music events have played no small part in turning the population against ‘bro country’ – but credit should also be given to an emerging crop of interesting new artists starting to make an impression.

Leading the charge is Sturgill Simpson, the molasses-voiced hero of indie country artists the world over. Sturgill’s self-funded release peaked at #11 on the Billboard Country Charts recently, an incredible effort for an independent artist. Sturgill writes and sings about all sorts of things – but never about tailgates and cutoffs – making him an extremely refreshing voice in modern country. He also sounds like the lovechild of Waylon– which doesn’t hurt. Simpson, Lindi Ortega, Robert Ellis and others are selling out clubs and even amphitheatres across the USA now, all the while proudly calling themselves ‘country’. And to bring the conversation back to the purpose of this article, I’m happy to say they’re playing the kind of stuff I’ve previously labeled Melbourne country.

Of course, much of the time, this kind of country gets called Americana, but lately I’ve been thinking that we’re better off just calling all of it country (yep, even the ‘bro-country’ stuff). I figure this way, the amount of great country music coming through will “take the edge off” the macho, Neanderthal stuff that’s giving us all a bad name. Which brings me (finally) to the great new country coming through Melbourne town – some of it locally produced, some of it on tour.

I’m going to start with Marlon Williams, a New Zealand native who makes Melbourne his home (most of the time). Marlon’s take on country is filtered through the world of old-time-folk (a world that I’m rather partial to, FYI).  You might’ve caught him with Melody Pool earlier in the year, or you might have seen him on the road supporting Justin Townes Earle. Regardless, you should definitely check out his double header at The Yarra Hotel on December 5th and 6th.

8-Ball Aitken (one of the most dedicated road-warriors I know) is not a Melbourne boy by any stretch – but he plays a bunch of Victorian dates starting in late November and going right through til mid-December. In a mix of ticketed and free entry shows, 8-Ball will travel from Yackandandah in the North to Warnambool in the South-West, via Sale in the East, Bendigo in the middle and a handful of inner city shows in Melbourne too. It’s all rather comprehensive, and is sure to win 8-Ball many new admirers on top of his already strong following.

As usual, the Melbourne Folk Club has a strong lineup of acts scheduled through into the new year. After hosting the likes of Mia Dyson in late November, the club has invited American Kristina Olsen to headline the December program, alongside New Zealand’s Julia Jacklin and Luke Thompson.

If you haven’t been to Melbourne’s magnificent Hamer Hall (formerly known as The Concert Hall) since it’s reopening, this December provides the perfect excuse. On the 17th, Beccy Cole and Melinda Schneider will be performing their Great Women of Country album live at the venue – as part of a short series of theatres and concert halls that the pair are hitting around the country. It’s rare to see country music at a venue like the Hamer, though I do recall the great Lucinda Williams holding Melbourne audiences spellbound there a few years back.

Of course, with Tamworth coming up, it’s worth looking at the Melbourne artists making the trek north for the festival. I’ll be there of course, with my band The Wildes, making it our sixth festival in a row. Henry Wagons will be there too, in the latter half of the second week, injecting a healthy dose of 21st century outlaw country into the festivities. Two of my favourite local lasses, Sarah Carroll and Suzanna Espie, will form two thirds of The Junes, whilst Melbourne’s favourite boy/girl combo The Weeping Willows return to Tamworth following a three year absence. You can rest assured that some serious (and not-so-serious) bluegrass-practitioners such as The Davidson Brothers, John Flanagan and Mustered Courage will also be in town, as will one of my singer/songwriter heroes, the drastically underrated Waz E James. Whilst this is far from an exhaustive list, it should give you a good starting point if you’re looking to find out what Melbourne country is all about.

As you may have noticed, none of the music I’ve talked up on these pages conforms to that dreaded ‘bro-country’ aesthetic. I like to think that those of us from deep-down-South are incapable of writing or performing those sorts of songs (though I’m sure I’ll be proved wrong sometime down the line). Either way, I’m proud of the standard and style of country music emerging from my home town right now – here’s hoping it gets the nationwide exposure it deserves!