The Kamilaori nation, the original inhabitants of the Tamworth region, a vast flood plain beneath the Great Dividing and New England Ranges in Northern NSW, was a collection of independent tribes that shared language and customs, including ritualised physical movement that paid deference to the Dreamtime.  This movement was guided by a loud beat created by knocking two pieces of wood together.

In 1818, NSW Surveyor-General, John Oxley, a Yorkshireman, became the first European to set eyes on what is now Tamworth.  Sheep squattors quickly claimed the land bringing British civilization with them.  Almost two centuries later, farming remains one of the region’s major industries.  The population of Greater Tamworth is over 55,000 and can almost double each January during the two week Country Music Festival.

I fly into Tamworth the Wednesday prior to the festival’s major weekend.  Tamworth Airport looks just like you expect a country airport to: wide, hot tarmac; towering corrugated iron hangars emblazoned with the QANTAS emblem; single, low bricked signal tower; and small, quiet terminal.

The taxi swings through the rural outskirts of town.  According to the driver, crowds are down this year due to the QLD and Victorian floods.  The local Peel River has ‘tipped over’ twice this Summer, however, dry, hot weather is expected for the duration of the festival.  We pass rugby grounds transformed into tent city by Country music fans.

Accommodation was organized via the festival website.  Des and his blue heeler, Ring, meet me at the front gate of their home in suburban Oxley Vale.  Des is wearing only a pair of Rabbitohs shorts and has the names of his two young daughters tattooed to his chest.  The ink work appeared at the end of a heavy drinking session on an interstate work trip.  His memory is a bit sketchy on the details.  Des is a truck mechanic, while wife Carmel, works in retail in town.  We move through to the backyard bar: stubby holders along the back shelf; NRL posters and girlie calendar on the wall; Des’s XXXX in the fridge.  There’s a Country song right there.

I’m to spend the first night in the caravan in the driveway and remaining three in the granny flat out back.

I dump my stuff and head to the bus stop.  After waiting for a while in the hot afternoon sun, a local pulls over.  Tamworth born and bred, she’s on her way home from shopping, but more than happy to drop me into town because that’s where all the shit’s on.  Once the baby’s a bit older, she and her husband are looking to make the move to Manilla for a fresh start.

Tamworth’s art-deco and Federation style CBD sits lazily back from the banks of the Peel.  Usually quiet, it comes alive at festival time with Peel Street accommodating many pubs and buskers.  Outside the chemist, a young farmer, dressed in his best RM Williams, sings Cash, filling the instrumental section with a little jig.  Opposite the offices of Independent Federal MP, Tony Windsor, The Perch Creek Family Jugband rollicks through a gospel, hillbilly set.  Five siblings, none beyond their early 20s, share vocals while playing banjo, double base, an improvised wind instrument fashioned from a washboard and empty port bottle, and a saw strummed by a violin bow.  The elder sister tap dances up the street to close the set.  Further along, a bush poet delivers outback verse, while a teenage girl yodels, an Indigenous band plays Elvis, and cicadas buzz.

In the front bar of the Court House Hotel, The Blow Fly’z bushwack through Men at Work’s Downunder.  Cowboy hats are thrown in the air and the band doesn’t have a choice about an encore.  The sign above the door reassures: There are no strangers here at the Court House Hotel only friends you haven’t met yet.  Across the road in the Albert Hotel, Saddle Rash are banging through a Country rock gig.  A group of women wearing elastic stubby holders on their wrists and uniform cowboy hats and singlets with FIFO on the front and FIT IN OR FARK OFF! on their backs, have taken control of the hay strewn dance floor.

Thursday afternoon, Dianne Lindsay and sisters, daughters of Australian Country pioneers, Reg Lindsay and Heather McKean, and nieces of Joy McKean and Slim Dusty, perform a few of their father’s recordings before a small audience at the lovingly curated Australian Country Music Hall of Fame.  Between songs, they tell of music filled childhoods with their dad’s 78s on the record player and family and friends gathered around.  Country music is family, Dianne says.  Australian Country evolved from Indigenous sounds, North American, British and Irish influences, and the ballads of Lawson and Paterson.  Tex Morton and Buddy Williams were Australia’s first Country recording stars in the mid to late 1930s.

That evening, the Outback Bar at the West Tamworth League Club is darkened save for one red light directed towards the band area.  On the wall behind Damian Howard and The Ploughboys hangs the sign Best of the Bush.  Brother of Damian and Folk troubadour, Shane Howard, joins the show and performs a few of his nature inspired songs.  Three local boys finish their beers, shake their heads and clump out: Not listening to this shit.  The intimate show ends with Sara and Greg Storer joining the Howards in Shane’s legendary Solid Rock – a protest song before protest songs were fashionable.

Next morning, a dusty, tired busker shelters from the sun under a tree near the gospel tent.  His battered guitar is held together by masking tape.  He’s going ok – he made $5 yesterday thanks to a few guys who loaned him their amp.  From South Grafton, he didn’t think he’d make it to Tamworth this year;  he spent two weeks smelling flood before the water finally subsided.

The Tamworth Shopping World foodcourt is humming with its usual Friday lunchtime crowd.  Red Rooster and Donut King are busy and the cash registers at Woolworths are backed-up.  At the entrance to the foodcourt, the one hundred or so plastic chairs set up in front of a makeshift stage were filled by mid-morning.  Even more onlookers form a horseshoe around the sides.  The mostly older audience have waited patiently through a growling set by Luke Dickens, runner-up in Australian Idol 2008 and this year’s Star Maker winner.  Most are here to see Chad Morgan.  We just love him, the woman beside me says.  He doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves.  He gave John Williamson his start.

Chad wobbles up the two steps side-stage, sits on the stool, adjusts the microphone, straps on his guitar, and takes a breath.  He’s wearing bright pink pants, an aqua western shirt, neckerchief and signature floppy hat.  Chad slips naturally into I’m the Sheik of Scrubby Creek and I don’t care…, just as he has countless times since 1952.  Much of the performance is lost in the lunch crowd din, however, Chad’s loyal audience wraps him in a familiar embrace.  Mrs Morgan is selling CDs backstage.

At the Family Hotel, James Blundell hosts a Songwriter Speaks session.  Young female artist, Tenielle, explains how she wrote many of her songs while working as a night-shift train driver.  I need you to be my man crystallised while stopped at a red light.  A bloke at the bar in a checked shirt is a songwriter who has cancelled a gig on the coast to come to Tamworth hoping someone will pick up his songs.  James has promised him some time and a beer.  Keith Urban is in town in April and James knows someone who knows someone close to Keith.  Tamworth is about contacts.

At the Concert for Flood Relief in Bicentennial Park, a minute’s silence is held for flood victims, followed by a shaking rendition of the national anthem.  Lee Kernaghan sings about a bloke who chooses a dodgy ute over a girl.  He asks for the lights to be dimmed and encourages the crowd to hold their cigarette lighter flames into the night air as he and Collin Buchanan perform We’re Missing Slim.  In Tamworth, Slim is King.

Saturday afternoon on Peel, the host in the local AM radio station caravan is fudging for time.  Indigenous Country veteran, Jimmy Little, was due for an interview late morning, postponed to mid-afternoon, and is again running late.  You can do that when you’re a living national treasure, folks, says the host.  Jimmy arrives a bit out of breath, and his publicist takes his hand and helps him into the caravan.  Jimmy sits down, takes his guitar and smiles for photos.  With a halo of white hair and neatly dressed in bolo tie, dark slacks and shirt, Jimmy looks like an elderly rural priest.  He talks eloquently about his foundation dedicated to Indigenous health issues such as diabetes, of which he is a sufferer, before slipping into a few old favourites: You wrote me a letter today saying you wouldn’t be back to stay… The crowd swoons and free concert tickets are snapped up.

Interview over, Jimmy is led away.  I approach, shove my hand towards Jimmy and mumble something about how great it is to see him.  Jimmy wraps both hands around mine and replies: There’s greatness in all of us.  There is an aura around this man.

The crowds and buskers have started to drift away from Peel Street on the final Sunday of the festival.  A man dressed as a North American Indian poses for photos with passersby and kicks his hat forward.  In front of Crazy Clarkey’s Homeware, where he’s been all festival, a handsome, middle-aged Indigenous artist insists:

They say Country’s in decline

I say they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about

Country’s been here all the time.

Tamworth Country Music Festival celebrates its fortieth birthday in 2012.


  1. John Butler says:

    Andrew, love it.

    FIFO. We’re such a charming country at times. :)

  2. Andrew Fithall says:

    Thanks for the insight Andrew. Wonderfully told. I am intrigued by the accommodation arrangement. You obviously survived it.

    I have read that Damian Howard and The Ploughboys have been playing at the Casterton Cup every second year for quite some time. Sounds like a worthwhile destination for a road trip – a mix of music and racing.

  3. Rick Kane says:

    Great read Andrew. From your piece I get everything I’d love attending the Tamworth festival … and everything I’d find hard to take. It is, along with Byron, one of the few festivals I would fully delight in.

    I haven’t seen Chad since the the late 80s. He looked pretty old and busted then. But he was funny and cheeky and had the songs. The Bogga Wogga Wedding (“til someone spilt a jug of beer and then the fights were on”).


  4. Geez, Andrew, you are a fine writer. Your articles about Tamworth and the country music festival are some of the best I’ve ever read… very atmospheric. I enjoy your Tamworthian prose poems. Well done… Congratulations!

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