TAMWORTH'S TEN-DAY JAYCO Country Music Festival is preceded by a ten-day Festival Countdown for those so excited about the impending shebang that they need the extra time to settle in and plan. That's Tourism Tamworth's thinking, anyway. Very likely it has the full encouragement of the festival's sponsor, a maker of caravans. Twenty days in that January heat and you'd be looking to ditch the tent for a van, too.
The Festival itself counts down to Australia Day, and the vans, and fans, arrive festooned with flags. Country music is by definition more nationalistic than other genres, and visitors like it to be known they're true blue – to the extent that, to those of us a lesser shade, Tamworth can seem not so much a festival of music as a festival of the flag. Lee Kernaghan, the country's biggest name in country, and Kevin Rudd's 2008 Australian of the Year, is known to use the Australian flag as a backdrop, and even to drop to one knee before it, hand on heart, as part of his act. But it's not all bad: an elder of the folk music scene, whose invitations to more hip festivals have been drying up of late, wistfully describes Tamworth as the country's most democratic music festival. He means anyone can go to Tamworth, busk on the street or hire a hall, and keep the change.
The downside is that anyone does.
This year a singer-songwriter friend of mine was planning to drive up from Melbourne and try his luck on Peel Street, the famous buskers' strip where Keith Urban, Kasey Chambers and Troy Cassar-Daley found theirs. He was taking his band's banjo player and driving up with another alt-country band mid-festival, on the Tuesday. Did I want to come along?
I was starting a new job in February, one that required me to naturalise, and I couldn't think of a sterner test of my devotion to this country. There was a red-eye flight on Friday, to spirit me back to Melbourne in time for my citizenship test.
Immigration gatekeeper: How's your day been?
– I just got back from Tamworth.
– Okay, you're in.
At the eleventh hour, however, my friend pulled the pin. Couldn't afford to take the time off work, he said. I asked if he minded if I still went, with the other band. There was a pause. 'Go ahead,' he said, but not like he meant it. I googled the other band. The Graveyard Train, according to MySpace, are purveyors of 'horror country'. They are a hirsute bunch. Spooky Records is their label, and their songs are about monsters, mummies, scarecrows, shadows, rabid dogs and randy witches. They didn't much sound like the kind of band that Tamworth types – ringers, ute hoons, grey nomads – would appreciate.
They say there has been murder
Way down on music row
Don't let them murder Tamworth
Or our country music show
– from 'Don't Let Them Murder Tamworth', by Reg Poole and Keith Jamieson
'JUST BRING A sleeping mat, some vitamins and Panadols,' advises Nick Finch, the member of the Graveyard Train with the biggest beard, and thus its leader. Over the phone he tells me we will be dossing down in a classroom. To accommodate the festival's 40,000 visitors Tamworth hires out what space it can, and the six-piece Graveyard Train have arranged lodgings at a primary school called St Nick's. Sharing the room will be another Melbourne band, a thrash-rockabilly four-piece called Cherrywood, as well as two solo alt-country acts, Eaten By Dogs and Cash Savage. Thirteen bodies, I count. Plus special guests. And no teacher. I try to remember if primary schools come with showers. 'There'll be plenty of drinking fountains,' says Finch. 'Whole troughs of them.'
We meet a few mornings later at his house, in North Melbourne, ahead of a notional 9 am departure. Tamworth is waiting, 1200 kilometres away, but Finch is slow to get going. He worked till 4 am, pouring beers at a rollicking establishment called the Old Bar, on Fitzroy's busy Johnston Street. It's where and how the Graveyard Train was formed, pretty much: two barmen, four drinkers, many sessions.
Finch looks more like a rabbi than a bushranger; his face is too young and sensitive to be framed by a beard so thick and unruly. I fetch him a coffee as he finishes making arrangements. As well as the band, there will be a 'merch girl' travelling. Finch is happy about that. 'A merch girl increases your sales,' he says. 'She'll sell T-shirts for thirty-five dollars when we'd take fifteen, and she'll sell more of them.'
We're to head north in two vehicles, a car and a people-mover, but neither is here yet. It transpires a junkie has smashed into the car overnight and stolen a case of microphones. The band members are out looking for replacement mikes and another car. Meanwhile, the merch girl, a friend of the band's washboard player, calls to say she's no longer coming. Cherrywood, the other band, who'd planned to follow in convoy, have taken off. We head south in the people-mover, then west, to Hoppers Crossing, a suburb that makes Tamworth look inner-urban, to pick up someone's dad's car. By the time we're pointing north again, it's well after midday.
Take your hands off Tamworth
Leave our country name alone
Let's get back to our roots
Not that rockin' thumpin' moan
WE SWING THROUGH the trucking town of West Wyalong early evening. It's not quite halfway. The inland plains are unusually green, though no lovelier for it. Josh Crawley, the Train's banjo player, is driving; he has done so for the past 500 kilometres and will do so for another 300 before handing over. Finch is in the passenger seat, in charge of the CD player. This is very much the way the band works. Crawley drives, Finch directs, and the rest make noise.
We stop at West Wyalong for petrol and a copy of Bacon Busters, the pig-hunting magazine infamous for its 'Boars and Babes' picture spreads. This being the band's third road trip to Tamworth, they know the unbridled, journey-breaking joy that Bacon Busters delivers when read out loud, cover to cover. This year, however, everywhere we try the magazine is sold out, as are its rivals, Boar It Up Ya and Wild Boar Australia.
Album after album goes by. More albums than towns. The Wayfaring Strangers, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Nirvana, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Little John wail us through Jerilderie, Narrandera, Parkes, Gilgandra and Gunnedah.
We catch up with Cherrywood in Dubbo and stop for a very late dinner – Hungry Jack's, because McDonald's don't do vegie burgers and Finch is vegetarian. Cherrywood's wiry lead singer, Tim Durkin, is obnoxiously drunk. He could land us in a fight in a family restaurant, let alone in Tamworth.
'Tim seems a bit jumpy,' I say once we're mobile again.
Finch nods. 'He's a bit wild.'
Beards aside (including two red beards), the Train are a tame and friendly bunch. Only 27-year-old Crawley could pass himself off as a rocker, with his stubble, scuffed cowboy boots and street smarts. Crawley, who plays dobro guitar as well as the banjo, is the country band's token country boy, having grown up in rural Victoria until his dad lost the farm and became a truckie.
In contrast, Finch went to University High, studied philosophy at Melbourne University (graduating with honours) and played guitar in a hapless garage-blues outfit called Johnny Curtin and the Pelmets. Finch met Crawley around the time the Pelmets' singer tried strangling the drummer in a recording studio, and the two barmen began toying with ideas for a new project.
'Dark country is an established genre,' explains Finch. 'Most good country albums have one or two dark songs, usually written in minor chords. Hank Williams' albums were like that. We wanted to do only those songs.'
But horror country isn't just dark; it's more bent than that. Influences include The Handsome Family, Violent Femmes, The Cramps and Nick Cave. Finch says: 'People think our songs are metaphors for stuff, but we're really a lot more lowbrow than that. The monster song is not a song about rape. It's just about a monster hanging out at a saloon and eating a woman.'
Finch and Crawley fleshed out the band with Matt Duffy, a sound recorder and double-bass player, and Beau Skowron on steel guitar. Then came Matt Andrews, an architecture student with a degree in biochemistry. 'He'd never been in a band, he was just a drinker, but he wanted to be in it so we gave him a washboard at our first rehearsal,' Finch explains. 'Then we sent him off to Lincraft to get himself some thimbles.'
Finch was also happy to rehabilitate the Pelmets' frontman, Adam Johansen. 'They didn't need a lead singer, which meant I needed an instrument, something affordable,' says Johansen. 'There's this Johnny Cash song where someone bangs chains with a hammer. I went to Bunnings, picked a length of chain and tried out different hammers till I found one I liked.'
Our pioneers would tremble up in Heaven's hall of fame
To hear what happens here on earth in country music's name
TAMWORTH'S MAIN DRAG, Peel Street, is a shrieking din of cicadas. It's a La Niña thing, evidently – locals don't recall them ever being a problem before. Or maybe it's revenge. Six hundred buskers have registered to perform over the ten days, and every second shop is fronted by a Katter-hat act of some sort. There's a yodelling woman with cowbells around her waist. There's Superman with a guitar. There are countless wannabe starlets, an eight-year-old calfboy squealing 'Country Roads', mum-and-pop karaoke acts in matching shirts and an Aboriginal dwarf who uses his voice box as a didgeridoo. It's a festival, all right.
On my first walk-through I hear 'Sweet Home Alabama', a grating song to start with, covered three times. I'm reminded of the initial episodes of Australian Idol, the ones where viewers get to laugh at the expense of the naff and the woeful. Except it's not so funny when it's unedited.
I find a bloke flogging his book among it all. It's a good way to stand out, and he's busily signing copies. The book comes with an endorsement from Charles Wooley, the RM Williams tragic from 60 Minutes: 'His stories remind us that the intrinsic Australian values – mateship, perseverance, self-reliance, loyalty, community spirit and ironic humour – were all hammered out on the harsh anvil of the bush.'
Ah yes, that Aussie spirit. Two spots down is a man by the name of Dirty Pierre, well known for his 'classic Aussie humour' T-shirts at rodeos and festivals throughout inland Australia. His biggest seller: 'Wipe Ya Eyes Princess and Harden the Fuck Up.'
It's 10.30 am, too early for the Graveyard Train to make an appearance. I grab a scalding coffee at a corner café. Behind me a woman in a waistcoat and Akubra starts up: 'I've been around Australia, and the kangaroo still bounds...'
I duck into the town hall to catch The Bushwackers. I was thirteen the last time I saw them, when they visited my country high school. It's a bit early for a bush dance, now as well as then, but that doesn't stop the punters. There are hundreds heel-and-toeing. Dobe Newton, the singer, is wearing a paint-spattered yellow suit. He offers to raffle off his trademark lagerphone – a stick rattling with stubby tops – for flood relief. Newton co-wrote an Australian anthem, the one that goes, 'We are one, we are many...I am, You are, We are Australian', but he's more true bull than true blue. He has a bolshie irreverence that's lacking among his fellow Tamworth patriots. He intentionally dresses badly, for one thing.
Emerging from the hall into the full glare of Tamworth, I run into Finch and Crawley. They're scouting Peel Street for a busking spot, but there aren't many left. The band hasn't slept much. We'd rolled into town around 2 am, with only police and drunks left on the streets.
The Train once thought it would never return to Tamworth. 'It's very much a love-hate relationship,' says Finch. 'I guess it's mutual. Some people love us, and we make good money on CD sales. But some people don't like us at all.' Last year, following complaints from other buskers, a council officer came to check their decibel output and moved them on.
Crawley selects a spot, in front of a novelty-wear shop that specialises in Elvis gear. It's tight, but it will do. There's a young bagpiper in place on the kerb. 'He'll have to go,' Finch says. As they set up, the piper steals several glances at the band, their amps, the hammer and chains. He goes.
Across the mall is a cover band, four men dressed as ringers. They can't play very well. Perhaps they are ringers. To the Train's right is a pot-bellied giant who calls himself Poppie O'Whooosely and whose guitar is painted, faux Aboriginal-style, like a Qantas hostie's uniform. To their left is a rotating trio of bush balladeers. Their CDs are displayed on a card table, and they have a merch girl: Marilyn, from Queensland, who's in her sixties. She watches me browse. 'When you buy an album like this, all you get is pure bush ballads.'
I ask if they're originals. 'Oh no,' says Marilyn. 'It's all dinki-di. Alan, Len and Jeanne do the Slim Dusty stuff.'
I pick up a CD with an Australian flag on it. It's titled Don't Let Them Murder Tamworth and claims to be inspired by 'a ground swell of fair dinkum Australian traditional country music followers'. Marilyn tells me the song is up for Country Ballad of the Year. She gestures at the Train. 'That lot there is what the song's about. The rockers. Alan and these fellas are getting outnumbered now by these guys that play the big thumping music. And that's not what we come here for; that's not country, it's not Australian.
'Traditional country is pick-and-strum, pick-and-strum style. That's what Slim did. It's not this' – she flails her hand up and down.
THE GRAVEYARD TRAIN are joined by Cherrywood, Cash Savage and Eaten By Dogs. Busking is intense and the plan is to rotate. Cherrywood's double-bass player is an Irish stoner called Rob. He's staring open-mouthed at a festivalgoer's neck tattoo of the Southern Cross above the words 'Aussie Mayhem'. 'This place makes me feel very conflicted,' he says. 'It's awesome, but I'm not sure it's for the right reasons.'
The miscreant male choir that is the Graveyard Train roars into being, hammering, chanting and whooping, with Crawley's plinking banjo lending an especially delinquent edge. People stop; a crowd gathers. Beau Skowron struts and thrusts himself at passers-by, pouting and flicking his tongue like a wino impersonating Mick Jagger. Not everyone's amused, but Skowron knows when to back off.
After a half dozen songs of hell-raising, it's Cherrywood's turn. On drums, mandolin, double bass and guitar, they're tight and fast – perhaps too fast for this crowd, which quickly dissipates. As if scripted, a man in a singlet ambles past with a mate and shouts something barely audible.
'What?' Tim Durkin screams into his mike. The rest of his band plays furiously, nervously, on.
'That's not country!' repeats the lout, raising his middle finger.
Durkin throws down his guitar, bounds across and gets right in the man's face, arms down, fists clenched, veins popping. The man raises his right fist and stands there, nose-to-nose, unflinching.
I feel weak with the realisation we're expected to jump in once Durkin goes down. Fortunately, perhaps seeing numbers are not on his side, the man's arm comes slowly down. He threatens to return with his mates. As he swaggers off, I notice the Southern Cross tattooed on his shoulder. Durkin plays two more songs, but keeps glancing down the street. 'I'm packing,' he admits. Meanwhile the balladeer next door goes on, and on, and on. Pick, strum, pick, strum, pick, strum.
ANYWHERE ELSE, 'That's not country!' might be a compliment. But in Tamworth, and elsewhere where country music fills a cultural void, the accusation cuts deeper: 'It's un-Australian!' The rockers are not merely impostors: they are invaders. Inland people cling to Australian country because it celebrates and cements their place in this land in a way that history and climate do not. To knock country is to knock the sentimental notion of Australia, the bush-poetry version, the true-blue green-and-gold red-blooded orange-sunsetted rose-tinted version presented every Sunday morning on Macca's Australia All Over, like the proverbial technicolour yawn. And that's just not on.
It is an enduring paradox that the people who claim to love this country most are those who think it's gone to seed. But that's the thing about patriots: they're forever on the defensive, because in their hearts they're less secure than the rest of us. Under siege from floods, droughts, native title, immigrants, Canberra, globalisation and now metropolitan rock music, to them Tamworth is a bastion of Australiana, a place where the bush stereotype can reign without fear of dissent. Mockers and rockers don't belong here; they should stay down south, in un-Australia.
Yet an outsider can't help being curious. As far as I've seen, the Aussie values spouted ad nauseum are pretty much global values, other than that male friendship tends not to be valued above other forms in countries such as the one of my birth. More to the point, what is Australian about taking yourself so seriously? Isn't this conceivably un-Australian? How about over-Australian? Maybe it's just American. After all, much of so-called Australian country music is overtly American in its style, sentiments and even, in many cases, accents.
For enlightenment I seek out Mrs Dusty, better known as Joy McKean, the woman behind Slim Dusty's extraordinary hundred-album career. Arriving at her suite at Tamworth's grandest motel, the Powerhouse, I'm taken aside by her friend Max Ellis, who is keen to have a word. Ellis is now eighty and ran the festival in earlier years, and he fears it is losing its way. He's especially upset with organisers' recent attempts to broaden the festival's appeal to younger generations, an issue that flared last year when pop idol Guy Sebastian was invited to perform.
'Eighty per cent of the crowd here is thirty-five plus,' says Ellis. 'No eighteen-year-old would want to come to Tamworth if they can go to Byron [for its Easter Blues and Roots Festival]. People grow into country music, and we need to recognise our core audience is older.'
The way Ellis defines country music, it's a bit like identifying yourself as Indigenous: you've got to regard yourself as country, others have to accept you as country and you've got to have a bit of country in you. Crucially, the songs should also have a narrative element. 'No peppy, crappy love songs,' says Ellis. 'And patriotism, that's got to be there. I say patriotism, not chauvinism. Slim remains the standard-bearer. He was an immensely unifying element in country music, and his departure has left a vacuum at the top. People look to Joy to fill that role now. Thankfully she takes that responsibility. We call her the matriarch.'
McKean appears and waves Ellis away. 'Max is a firebrand,' she says sprightly. 'People say Slim would turn over in his grave to see what comes here in the name of country now, but I'm pretty sure he'd continue to support this festival if he were still here. The media attention this festival gets has always attracted what we call the bandwagon-hoppers. In the past it didn't ruffle the surface too much. Some of these acts have a genuine respect for country, and come here in part to pay their respects. I love country rock, for instance. That's been a great influence.'
It's country pop she abhors. 'All that soft contemporary stuff coming out of Nashville is just mush. Australian country is starting to go that way. Some of our major artists are writing songs to a template, with a marketing plan, to win awards.'
I ask McKean for her take on country. 'Country is not about putting a pedal steel or a fiddle in it. It's not all about dying dogs and cheating women. It's not all sooky. It's like what Louis Armstrong said about jazz, "If you can't feel it, you just don't know it." The writer has to know the life they're writing about. That's what Slim and I did; we were always travelling and we wrote about what we saw and heard and felt. Australian country music has a rawness and an earthiness.'
She smiles. 'It's got grit. It's got story. And it's got heart.'
McKean and Ellis are off to a concert by Sara Storer at the Tamworth Regional Entertainment Centre, and invite me along. Storer is a darling of Australian country music. She has lived the life, as McKean puts it, having grown up in the bush and taught at remote Aboriginal schools. She's not your classic country-music beauty, adds Ellis, by which he must mean she's not blond, for she is quite radiant. She is also heavily pregnant and has her brother co-starring on stage. Apparently it goes with the genre, this display of family. Mini-dynasties rule: the Kernaghans, the McClymonts, the Chambers and, of course, the Dusty family, with their daughter Anne Kirkpatrick.
Storer is a natural storyteller with a warm, clear voice and a broad Australian accent. Her brother, unfortunately, just has the accent. His contributions aside, most songs are gently, genuinely affecting. At one stage, during a song about a man she knew as Buffalo Bill, I catch myself with a lump in my throat. I'm not alone; glancing about, I see people dabbing at their eyes. And suddenly, finally, I think I get country. The audience adores Sara Storer, but not as in other genres. Not as a star. They feel a warmth for her as one of their own, a warmth that goes beyond love, to pride. They love her as a daughter of this land. Of their land.
Backstage after the gig, Joy hears I'm flying out the next morning for a citizenship test.
She looks shocked.
'How long have you been here?' she asks.
'Oh, you lazy creature!'
BACK IN PEEL STREET, I find the Melbourne gang at the pub. They're done busking. The Graveyard Train have been offered a midnight gig at a speakeasy called Jake's Place. Cherrywood, meanwhile, were offered $25 to leave town. 'We thought about it,' says Durkin, who is wearing a Bundaberg Rum flag as a cape.
Beau Skowron is in polite conversation with a bull rider from Texas, Queensland. The rodeo man is trying to explain where it is. Skowron looks blank. 'You know, I'm from Melbourne. I don't get out of the city much. Hell, I don't get out of my suburb much.'
The bull rider draws his attention to a posse of sponsorship girls. As well as Bundy girls handing out flags, there are Jim Beam girls, VB girls, Carlton Natural girls, Peter Jackson girls, Tooheys New girls and even Iced Coffee Flavoured Milk girls doing the rounds. The bull rider solemnly imparts that the XXXX girls didn't make it this year, because of the Queensland floods. 'A tragedy,' he says. 'They're always the pick of 'em.'
He perks up when he finds out the boys are in a band. 'No shit! What do you play? Country or pop? Pop's killing country!'
A man in a Graveyard Train T-shirt introduces himself. He says he bought the shirt for the gun-and-bones motif. 'I don't know if it's country what you fellas play, but it's fucking good though.'
Skowron looks up in mock shock. 'But if we're not country, then what are we? We're not blues, we're not rock.'
'Youse are a concept band,' replies the fan.
'What country band isn't?' asks Skowron. 'The hats, the boots, the buckles, the tassels – everyone's playing dress-ups.'
Six hours and countless beers later, we blunder off in search of Jake's Place, a second-floor photo studio cum bachelor pad, done up saloon-style, up a discreet set of steps. There are cowhides on the floor, vinyl records on the ceiling and Australian flags on the wall. The women are invited to sit on stools made out of saddles. Our host, Jake, has an enormous moustache. He shows me his book, which is titled Shot by Jake and has Slim Dusty on the cover.
The party is struggling for noise and vigour. A duo calling itself the Immigrant Union and featuring the drummer from the Dandy Warhols gets up to play, but the Dandy seems too spaced out to do his thing, or even to figure out what that thing might be. The Graveyard Train take their place, squeezing in the members of Cherrywood to make a ten-piece.
What follows, most raucously, is as fine a testament to Aussie values as Tamworth is ever likely to see. Mateship, resilience, bravery in the face of adversity, irreverence, the banjo – it's all there. Only thing is, hardly anyone sees it.
Leaning on the bar next to me is Finch's friend, Eaten By Dogs, also known as Chris Lichti. He's a man of few words who works out considerably on his body and, it turns out, on his mind. 'You know, I came here last year with these guys, and I left hating it, vowing never to return. I blamed Tamworth for my bad time. For not understanding my music. But it wasn't this town's fault, you know. What the crowd here wants is what country music is.'