This year’s Tamworth Country Music Festival was all about Melbourne. I met nary a festival-going soul who was not quick to volunteer a few mellifluous words of praise for the Victorian capital’s vibrant country scene, and it seemed that my every step under the blazing Peel Valley sun drew me, inexorably, toward Lachlan Bryan-curated Melbourne country showcase Deep Down South at The Family Hotel.
I would note at this juncture that this is not an essay about Melbourne – in the same way that Moby Dick is not a book about…a whale. Melbourne projects a healthy enough image of itself without this starry-eyed Sydneysider adding fuel to the fire. But to drive 500 kilometres north of Sydney only to hear the name of Melbourne (1,100 kilometres to the south!) shouted from every rooftop certainly got me thinking about…Melbourne. Or, more particularly, about the idea of place in general, and about the ways in which a particular place might shape the art that is made there.
Tamworth is always a site of thrilling discoveries – it’s not long since a little-known (Melbournian) slide-guitarist by the name of Courtney Barnett could be found in the shade of Peel Street’s Nazarene palms, performing with Melbourne cosmic country collective Immigrant Union – and Deep Down South threw up festival revelations aplenty in 2016: the powerhouse vocal stylings of Gretta Ziller, the effortless charm of Mr Alford Country, the raw feeling of Jemma Nicole, the politically-alive songwriting of Les Thomas (‘do you know the names of the first men hanged here in Melbourne town? he asked at the outset of his set, with all the force of a challenge) and – a personal highlight – the astounding presence, lyrical flair, and comedic timing of Tom Dockray, whose ‘Monopoly Money’ closed-out the evening in unforgettable singalong style.
All of which got me thinking: why do so many great country acts seem to come out of Melbourne?
Climate may play its role, I ventured. What better way to shut out a bleak winter’s day in Melbourne than to drain $5 cleanskins and write sad country songs on a battered acoustic guitar? Geography, too, I thought, might have a part to play. Do Melbourne’s beaches routinely compel the city’s creative denizens to waste what might otherwise have been a productive afternoon? Because no one, I suspect, wants to stay home to write songs in Sydney when it’s 38 degrees outside and the city’s world-famous beaches are within spitting distance (does the distance actually conveyed by the phrase “spitting distance” vary depending upon the volume of $5 wine one has consumed?) All of which led me to the inevitable realisation that I was both betraying my ignorance – what do I know about the beaches in Melbourne, or the motivations of the people who live there? – and, worse, betraying the legion of phenomenal country artists with whom I share a city: several of whom may be found performing on any given night of the week at The Gasoline Pony, Lazybones Lounge, Marrickville Bowling Club, or any number of venues within a (conservative) spit of home.
Which begs just one question: how is it that Sydney was not also represented with a Tamworth showcase at this year’s festival? Perhaps the answer to that, I concluded, is actually geography after all: while “Deep Down South” conveys the promise of a not-to-be-missed country bonanza, “Sort of Halfway” hasn’t quite the same caché.
Speaking of bonanzas: Country Update favourites The Weeping Willows have a string of East Coast dates lined up in the coming months, as they tour their exquisite sophomore album Before Darkness Comes A-Callin’. The duo are at the Snowy Mountains Country Music Festival in Thredbo on 5 and 6 March, Harmonie German Club’s Friday Night Live in Canberra on 1 April, Marrickville’s Django Bar on 2 April, the Lass O’Gowrie in Wickham on 3 April, and Jane’s in Wollongong on 4 April.
And with two country airplay Top 40 singles already to his name, the Illawarra’s own James Stewart Keene is set to launch his new single ‘Ready to Please’ at the Heritage Hotel in hometown Bulli on 12 March, kicking off at 8:00pm.
The Metro hosts Steve Earle & The Dukes (US) on 17 March, while Rhiannon Giddens (US) is at The Factory in Marrickville on 21 March, Tweedy (US) on 22 March, and violin-wielding neo-folk adventurer Jaron Freeman-Fox (Canada) on 24 March, with support from the Arctic Circle’s own The Jerry Cans – an alt. country outfit hailing from the Canadian town of Iqaluit, Nunavut, who frequently incorporate throat singing and lyrics sung in the Inuktitut language into their output. Tedeschi Trucks Band (US) is at the Enmore Theatre on 22 March, and Jason Isbell (US) on 3 April.
And it’s all happening in Newcastle: Shane Nicholson is at Lizotte’s in Lambton on 11 March, before Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band (US) pay the venue a visit on 30 March, Canada’s Gordie Tentrees on 6 April, The Pigs on 8 April, Ryan Bingham (US) on 24 April, Adam Harvey on 29 April, Luke O’Shea on 14 May, and Beccy Cole on 29 May.
27 March finds local bluegrass mainstays The Morrisons at The Basement in Circular Quay, performing Smoke on a Foggy Highway: The Bluegrass Albums of Paul Kelly, before Tony Joe White (US) takes to the venue on 11 March with support from Henry Wagons.
Rooty Hill RSL has an unbeatable lineup slated, with Steve Earle & The Dukes (US) playing the venue on 16 March, Kaylens Rain on 18 March, Adam Brand & The Outlaws on 19 March, Kirsty Lee Akers on 1 April, Brothers 3 on 15 April, Pete Denahy and Celeste Clabburn on 16 April, and Aleyce Simmonds and Paul Costa on 29 April.
Otherworldly alt. folk artist and Marlon Williams collaborator Aldous Harding (NZ) plays Newtown Social Club on 8 March, before Ruby Boots on 18 March, Frazey Ford (Canada) on 23 March, and Daniel Champagne on 3 April. Also in Newtown, Katie Brianna plays the Midnight Special on 2 March, while Charlie Horse rock The Vanguard on 8 April with support from Sam Shinazzi.
Narelle Evans’ The Rockabilly Women: A Salute to the Trailblazing Women of 50s America returns to Marrickville’s Django Bar on 26 February, before WA’s Davey Craddock & The Spectacles pay the venue a visit, joining forces with Tim Easton (US) and Sydney’s own Sam Shinazzi to present Ramblin’ Nights: A Night of Alt Country, Americana & Folk on 28 February. Also performing at Django Bar are rising alt. country star Imogen Clark on 24 March, and the always wonderful Katie Brianna on 2 April. Sister venue Camelot Lounge has Truckstop Honeymoon (US) on 3 March.
Petersham Bowling Club hosts Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band (US) on 3 April, while The Bunker at Coogee Diggers continues to stage Karl Broadie’s regular Tuesday night Songwriter Sessions from the end of February onward.
And down south (though still a good deal closer to the Sydney GPO than to St Kilda or Collingwood), Cronulla’s Brass Monkey hosts blues doyen Charlie Parr (US) on 1 March, Hotel California: A Tribute to The Eagles on 4 March, Adam Harvey on 12 March, The East Pointers on 7 April, and Ryan Bingham (US) on 23 April.
As always, if you have a gig to plug or an axe to grind, please feel free to get in touch with the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viva Sydney!