Living and Breathing Tamworth

The double-bass player parks the people mover outside The Imperial, heads in through the sticky-floored front bar and out the back to the baking, concreted beer garden. It’s late morning and already dark, wet rings have formed under his arms and a line of sweat runs down his left cheek. His beard is flicked with silver and he resembles a middle-aged high school Art teacher on summer holidays.

As usual, the Grey Nomads have arrived early and claimed the undercover porch area. The stage is protected by a canopy and I’m sitting under the eaves of an outdoor bar, one of the few remaining shaded areas.

The double-bass player sets up behind River Mountain Riot, a young hillbilly group up from the city. When they self-consciously start picking and scraping through a few old-time gospel numbers, he edges forward, whispering encouragement and direction to the mandolin and washboard players who are also on vocals. Reluctantly, uncomfortably, they move closer to the microphone. When they forget to introduce guest performer, Montz Matsamoto, the superb and serene Japanese banjo player, the double-bass player does so. Eventually, River Mountain Riot grow in voice and confidence and settle into their set and he eases back, standing like a big tree in the forest.

During a break, I sense someone slip into the seat beside me. An older, dark-skinned woman says Gday, pulls out her festival program and pen and starts circling and ticking off shows. As you do in Tamworth, we start chatting about who we’ve seen and who we’re hoping to catch. We’ve both experienced 8 Ball Aitken, a Country Blues banger from the American Deep South, with long red hair and slow drawl, and shake our heads and puff our cheeks at how good he is.

The music starts again and between songs we talk about other stuff. She looks like a Joan, or Pearl, or Marge, but tells me her name is Angeline. Angeline, Angeline, Angeline. I like the sound of it and run it over in my mind. Later, a Google search reveals it’s Greek for God’s Messenger, or angel.

Angeline has been coming to the festival for longer than she dares to remember. I used to come with friends, or my sisters, but they’ve dropped off over the years, she says. I wouldn’t miss it. I live and breathe Tamworth.

Angeline is born and bred Gunnedah. Been there her whole life except for a few years in Brisbane back in the day. She drives the two hour round trip everyday of the festival and finds contemplative the silence in the car and the brown, dry landscape.

Angeline had her first child aged 17. Her husband shot through when the sixth was on its way and Angeline was about 30. He floated around for a while, showing up for birthdays and Christmas, but he and the money he provided eventually faded away.

I ask Angeline if she is Indigenous due to her complexion. No. Irish and English, she replies laughing. I spend too much time in the sun.

With the help of a pension, Angeline brought the kids up on her own. Unlike her, all finished school. The boys played rugby league and the girls were good enough to reach state level gymnastics. Angeline spent countless weekends driving them across New South Wales. No one else was gunna do it for me. Things were tough but you do what you’ve got to do.

The kids entered university and the workforce. Half have stayed in and around Gunnedah, building careers in the mining industry, while the others have moved on. A daughter is in the Middle East, while a son is a high-flyer in IT and living down south in the Docklands. Angeline says she’ll visit one day.

Gunnedah used to be busy, bubbling with family, friends and community. These days it’s a bit flat, she says. With less opportunity, most youngsters leave once school is done.

Angeline went to work in aged care when the kids were sorted and takes her holidays each January for the festival.

Music has been her savior, a constant, never failing to lift and rejuvenate her during tough times. She can’t name her all-time favourites at Tamworth, but loves acts who take the time to connect with an audience. Kris Kristofferson came out one year. Angeline saw his show but was disappointed when he rushed through his set without bothering to create a rapport.

As Angeline speaks, I imagine her as a young single mother, seeing the kids to bed, putting on a soothing old record and sighing back to life. I also recall our own family gatherings as kids around the record player. We still laugh at the memory of Uncle Rob’s Chad Morgan impersonation.

Mountain River Riot are packing up and the Grey Nomads are moving onto the next gig. Before we go our separate ways, Angeline and I pull our phones out and I show photos of Eloise at her ballet concert, while she offers shots of cheeky grandkids at a family picnic. She keeps flicking and finds a fading black and white photo taken about 1970, just after her first was born. Angeline is striking, dangerous, with full, long beehive hair and could easily pass as one of The Sapphires. Her head is buried in the chest of Normie Rowe, popstar of the day, in town for a gig after national service in Vietnam. He stands upright and proud with long hair and big collar. Behind them is a canvas sign emblazoned Gunnedah.

I keep this to remind me of when life was good, Angeline says.


  1. Grand story Andrew. Grand sentiments.
    Eloise at a ballet concert? My don’t they grow up quick. You’ll qualify for grey nomad status soon enough.
    The lady’s name reminds me of my hero Emmylou Harris at a very young age doing “Evangeline” as part of The Band’s final Last Waltz concert. Crystalline voice then compared to her mature vibrato.

  2. Andrew Starkie says

    Peter, it will be interesting to see how the festival is travelling in 10-20 yrs when this generation of nomads have moved on and up. They really sustain it at the moment.

    Yes, Eloise loves her ballet. Not sure whre she gets her confiednce from. Too young to be self-conscious. Concert was hysterical; she saw me filming from the front seats and stopped mid ‘dance’ and ran off for a cuddle and then ran back. have it all on my phone. Gold.

  3. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Nice one Starks,
    My maternal grandma’s name was Evangeline. Powerful and symbolic name which can also mean a ‘blessing’. Sounds like you are blessed with young Eloise and Tamworth. Cheers

  4. Sounds good Andrew. Tamworth has been on our radar for a long time, but we’ve not yet managed to get there.

    Next week we’re of to sunny Echuca for the Riverboats Festival. Dan Sultan, Adalita, amongst the performers. Looking forward to it.


  5. Andrew Starkie says

    Glen, if I had a dollar for everytime someone said ‘I should go to Tamworth’. Don’t dream, do..

    Enjoy Echuca.

  6. Today we have the Whittlesea Country Music Festival. Six years to the day since Black Saturday. The event used to run over 3 days, now it’s just 2 days. Mark Seymour is the headline act tonight, so i’ll pop down and catch some of his performance.


  7. John Butler says

    Always love your Tamworth pieces Starkers.

  8. Good story, Andrew, real good. Salt of the earth story.

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