On January 26, 1788, a cadre of British sailors and naval officers rowed ashore in a bay they’d named Sydney and claimed the Eastern seaboard of Australia in the name of the King of England. Ah, imperialism. Life was so simple then. Apparently (and when I say that it usually means I’ve consulted Wikipedia), the mission was to establish a penal colony – a move made necessary by the loss of a certain chunk of ground near and dear to us Americans called, um, America.
Two hundred and twenty five years later, I found myself sitting at a pizza cafe in Tamworth, New South Wales watching people stroll about with blue flags covering all sorts of body parts as they celebrated Australia Day, commemorating that nation-launching excursion. The celebration coincided with the peak of an annual gathering known as the Tamworth Country Music Festival, a sprawling, cacophonous and unpretentious congress of fans and musicians.
We were in the Country Music Capital of Australia to stage the first ever road trip edition of Music City Roots. The regional council that puts on the festival invited us to be one of the rare Nashville voices at an event that’s always been nearly purely about Aussie artists. My take on what happened with the show is HERE. This post is more about my personal impressions and my ramblings at this most unusual event.
I’ve had a lot of experience with music festivals, and this was unlike any I’d ever attended or worked on. It’s almost un-designed, with only a scant set of “official” venues and no coordination among the scores of spaces hosting live music. It’s every hotel bar, club and restaurant for itself, and there’s no single program guide. This creates an atmosphere of jovial chaos and great diversity, at a cost perhaps of the kind of curated experience one is used to. It was most like South By Southwest, but without the industry hangups and less guile. The fine and the foolish play on right next to one another, and it takes some flexibility and curiosity to sift the one from the other.
Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of TCMF is its buskers. For years, musicians from very young to quite old have set up on or around Peel Street. I saw bush balladeers, folk poets, aspiring 9-year-olds and hat act wannabes. I heard covers of Eddie Cochran, the Eagles, Old Crow, Taylor Swift and Adele. But this year I was told had a different vibe, because for the first time the Peel Street scene was regulated by festival organizers. Where there was once crowded cacophony and competing PA systems, this year slots were rationed for time and territory. I can’t compare, having seen only this new model, but I’ll say it was easy to focus on one performer at a time without being too bombarded by anyone else. And most of what I heard, while hardly all country music, was either pretty good or just hilariously/adorably/strangely endearing. The word I kept coming back to about the TCMF was that it felt participatory. Got a song in your heart and a guitar to strum? Well then upload a video and if you bring anything better than completely awful, you’ll get a slot. And the guitar cases and buckets I saw at each station all had a few bucks in them – or more.
I didn’t have much time to catch indoor shows, but the two I enjoyed most came from bluegrass bands, proving the high lonesome has a toehold in Oz. At a party after Music City Roots on Thursday I met some of the guys from a band called Mustered Courage, notably guitarist Julian Abrahams. He’s a jazz-schooled guitarist who’s traveled into bluegrass. I’m the opposite. So we had a bunch to talk about and I loved their sensibility. It would have been a tragedy indeed if I hadn’t loved their music, but on a warm and lovely Friday afternoon with the windows open at a Peel Street bar, they jammed. Banjo man Nick Keeling – the lone American in the group, though he’s been living in Australia for years – has a ridiculously strong and winning voice. He reminded me a lot of Nolan Lawrence of the Hillbenders, with his rich baritone. Truly astonishing was mandolinist Paddy Montgomery, who rocketed out of the gate with speed and timing and touch that could hold its own alongside the best mando pickers in the states. But it was the ensemble coherence and entertainment factor that helped them bring a packed joint to a fever pitch. They played smart original material, some standards and a speedy take on “Rocky Top” that sounded really good 9,100 miles from my Tennessee home. I spoke with Abrahams and Keeling for a podcast piece I’m putting together for this weekend.
The other show I very much felt the need to catch was The Davidson Brothers, one of Australia’s leading bluegrass bands. I’ve known brother Lachlan for some time through IBMA and Music City Roots. Clever me, I thought I'd walk to it, you know, to see the other side of town. It proved to be ages away and very hot, but at least I ran across an Aussie Day sheep shearing contest. Eventually I got there, and it was great to see more than 400 people pay $15 each to catch the Davidsons' signature show during Tamworth. The venue was one of these "leagues" clubs that seem popular over there, where a loose membership system gives you access to horse race betting and slot machines in a sort of supper club environment. Its “Blazes Showroom” looked like something from a Love Boat cruise, but at least it had good sound and lights and an emcee who laid it on thick. Imagine a super-thick, subsonically enhanced Aussie voice through the PA saying: “When it comes to bluegrass, they’re the duck’s nuts. The Davidson Brothres!” Because that’s what happened. And lo, I learned a new superlative.
They’re a four piece – Lachlan on (mostly) mandolin, brother Hamish on banjo, fiddle and etc., with a guitarist left and a bass player right, whose names I didn’t catch in my notes. Because I really wasn’t trying all that hard. I was enjoying the Davidsons’ blend of Grisman-esque acoustic adventurism and truth-telling traditionalism, plus their borderline-standup stage banter, which was saucy indeed. They made wanking jokes to an audience with plenty of elderly folk, and seemed to get nothing but laughs and smiles. They gave a roast chicken away to the audience member who found a carrot under his seat. It was at times like seeing a hot picking band fronted by Eddie Izzard. My favorite tune of the set was their interpretation of “Lights On The Hill” by Slim Dusty, because it covered Australia’s greatest country legend with a go-go back beat and a thick layer of blues. Another treat was the onstage invite to a young guitarist/singer named Daniel Watkins. They performed a fine “Doin’ My Time” and then delivered a surprise. Watkins had been selected to receive the Davidson’s new annual bluegrass scholarship, worth $1500 plus a recording session. (A nice story about that moment here.) You could tell the Davidsons had carved a confident place for bluegrass music in a land where it’s a niche of a niche. And they’ve been able ambassadors of Australia in the US too, with multiple IBMA appearances and ongoing relationships.
We wrapped our stay with a big dinner at our house on Saturday night, where lamb was grilled (expertly by our Roots boss John Walker), guitars were passed and wine flowed. To be in Nashville’s new Sister City with our new Aussie brothers and sisters was truly something I’ll never forget. Thanks mates.