Melbourne Country


With Lachlan Bryan

Even if you’re familiar with Melbourne’s inner-city, you’d be forgiven for not knowing much about Clifton Hill. I must admit that even I, an urban-veteran of this town having been here off and on for over a decade now, had only a vague idea of how to get to this little suburb until a year or two ago. Of course, once I did arrive in Clifton Hill I found places like Some Velvet Morning (a tiny, hole in the wall venue that specialises in off-beat country) and even the relatively-famous Clifton Hill Hotel. Aside from those two landmarks there’s a few hip cafes, a handful of restaurants and even a very grandiose-incarnation of a well-known fast food joint (you’ll understand when you see it). Your GPS will show you that the suburb is wedged in between Brunswick, Northcote, Abbotsford, Carlton and Fitzroy North – but in truth it’s country singer Jemma Rowland that’s putting this place on the map, via her band Jemma and The Clifton Hillbillies.

Rowland has assembled a fine band of even finer local pickers to make her debut, self-titled album, including Sean McMahon on guitars, Ben Mastwyk on banjo, Cal Walker on baas, Josh Duiker on drums, Jason Bunn on fiddle and Ben Franz on pedal steel.  It’s a release that follows a well-received EP which yielded a couple of singles and helped the band build a strong reputation on community radio and the local circuit. For me, the album (produced by McMahon) has a distinctly early-70s flavour and has earned itself a finalist spot for the 2015 Best Country Album gong at The Age Music Victoria Awards (won last year by the author of this column, as a matter of fact). Jemma is definitely worth a listen – several in fact.

Whilst we’re on the subject of those awards, it would be remiss of me not to make mention of the other finalists. Mustered Courage and Marlon Williams are hardly surprising contenders, given their established profiles not just in Melbourne, but also Australia-wide. The other two in the running include the above mentioned Ben Mastwyk and Raised by Eagles – another country rock act who’ve rated several mentions in this column. The band, led by singer-songwriter Luke Sinclair, are heavily influenced by the 1970s, with guitar-laden instrumental breaks and soaring harmonies the order of the day.  Mastwyk, on the other hand, represents a pure classic-country sound – surely influenced by the likes of George Jones, Gram Parsons and Kris Kristofferson.  His record, Mornin Evenin, is one of the most enjoyable listens I’ve had in recent times.

Whilst these artists are all based here in Melbourne, the changing shape of Australian country music means it’s likely you’ll see them soon at festivals and shows all over the country. I’m pleased about that, because I’m well aware that the journey down to Melbourne is a long one for many of our most passionate country music fans. In the same breath, the journey to Tamworth is a very long (and very expensive) one for emerging Melbournian country singers and pickers, meaning oftentimes they choose to forgo the annual pilgrimage to the country music capital.

Earlier this year, my friend Chris Snow approached me with the great idea to take a team of Melbourne’s finest to Tamworth for the 2016 Tamworth Country Music Festival.

Chris presents Q-Country, the specialist country music program which airs on Sunday mornings (and into the afternoon) on Joy 94.9 based right in the middle of Melbourne’s CBD. I first met Chris when he interviewed me back in 2012 and have since become a huge fan of the show, not least because of Chris’ determination to present the best of Australian (and American) country music, regardless of whether it fits the mainstream or alt/Americana descriptions. Nobody supports Melbourne country music more than this guy – not only does he spruik the talents of our local artists, he also provides a fantastic platform for the interstate and international acts that come to town.

The final list of artists joining me for Deep Down South 2016 includes Jemma Nicole, Brooke Russell, Matt Alford, Tom Dockray, Emilee South, Gretta Ziller and Andrew Swift. That’s everybody that we could fit in the tour-van, but I assure you, there is so much going on in and around the country circles down here we probably could hire and fill a double decker bus! We’ll be playing three shows during the festival – Tuesday the 19th of January at The Family Hotel (7pm), Wednesday the 20th at The Tudor Inn (3:30pm) and Thursday the 21st at The Dag Station in Nundle (3pm) – as well as turning up for a number of special guest spots around town. I’m hoping that these Melbourne artists will continue to grace Tamworth stages for many years to come, and I’m excited at the thought of festival punters finding new favourite acts amongst these southerners, and hopefully leaving with fists full of new CDs.

Speaking of new CDs, I had the pleasure recently of getting my hands on a couple of good new ones. The first was Inner Western, by former Queenslander Dan Lethbridge and the second was Bill Jackson’s The Wayside Ballads Volume 1. Both these guys tread the thin line between country and folk music, and Lethbridge even shuffles toward indie-pop on occasion. So in essence, the work of both artists is hard to categorize, but there’s certainly enough country in there to satiate the thirst of readers (not to mention writers!) of this column. Whilst the two records were made here in Australia, Jackson is a frequent visitor to Nashville. Rumour has it that the next installment – Wayside Ballads Volume 2 – is already in the can, having been tracked in Music City during Jackson’s last sojourn a month or two ago. I for one can’t wait to hear how a bunch of hot Nashville session players have interpreted such distinctly Australian work, but if one thing’s for sure they’ll have a hard time outdoing the Melbourne posse heard on this first instalment.