Keeping Time: How Tamworth Came To be Australia’s Country Music Capital

This is a guest post

Australian cattle town Tamworth, with a population of only a little over 30,000, hosts the world’s second-largest country music festival. But how did guitars and cowboy boots take root in this rural town 420 kilometres from Sydney? And, how did a sound born in the American South find such resonance among music-lovers Down Under? Read on for a history of the city and the music festival.

Nowadays, Tamworth is home to the bustling Tamworth Country Music Festival, held in January. What started out as a talent show, ended up being the nation’s most important country music festival and the venue for the prestigious Golden Guitar Awards. Visitors will find that weekend accommodation is usually plentiful, except during the festival, when it’s essential to book ahead.

Not Always a Music Town

But the city hasn’t always been notable for music. Tamworth drew widespread attention in the 1880s because it was the first Australian city to install electric streetlights. Before that, the town was merely a service centre, and supply hub for sheep and cattle stations. However, being located on the Peel River, Tamworth had reliable access to water, which ensured the town’s longevity. Its location halfway between Sydney and Brisbane didn’t hurt either. Due to the good sense of the explorers who settled the town, Tamworth would always be on the map.

Just as Tamworth wasn’t always notable for music, Australia hasn’t exactly been known for country music.

Australian Folk Music

Australian folk music, of course, takes its inspiration from many sources. European immigrants brought their own traditional melodies and verses, which slowly mixed with the themes of Australian folklore. These themes, still present in today’s music, included the hardships of working the land and the isolation of the bush. The resulting songs circulated among the rural communities, carried from one to another by travellers, salesmen and drovers. They were accompanied by simple instruments, the kind you’d find in a horse’s pack, not in a society drawing-room. Banjos, fiddles, harmonicas, and guitars travelled well and repaired relatively easily.

By the 1920s, when wireless radio came about, the Australian folk music tradition had already bred folk ballads such as “Waltzing Matilda” and “Click Go the Shears.” But in the `20s, the airwaves brought in music from the United States, music that held to common themes of rural isolation and working with livestock. Like Australian folk music, this new “country music” featured strong storylines that were as important as the melody. By the 1930s, the first local country stars were showing the world their distinctive Australian-style country music.

Tex Morton: Father of Australian Country

Performer Tex Morton, who was born in New Zealand but lived in Australia for much of his adult life, is considered to be the Father of Australian Country. His style “Australianised” popular American melodies and stories, and incorporated yodelling like U.S. singer Jimmie Rodgers.

But it wasn’t until the 1960s that Tamworth and country music really got together. Tamworth’s local Modern Country Music Association held a talent show. A few years later, the city council and the music association joined forces to hold a country music awards show. Side attractions included a bluegrass championship and a rodeo. From there, the event has grown, fuelled by the ease of access from Australia’s two biggest cities, and the enduring popularity of music that fit in well with rural music culture.

50,000 Visitors Each Year

2Keeping Time How Tamworth Came to Be Australia's Country Music Capital

Photo by jeaneem

Now, the event has grown so large that nearly 50,000 visitors are expected annually. Even people who aren’t fans of country music come for the atmosphere and side events, such as the rodeo and bush poet competitions.

Keeping with the history of the festival, talent quests are still a focal point of the yearly festival. Not only does the Country Music Association award the Golden Guitars, but there’s the Golden Harmonica Championship, the Yamaha Battle of the Youngsters, the Telstra Road to Discovery, the Toyota Star Maker and the Coca-Cola Battle of the Bands. These competitions help ensure a supply of fresh talent and country music interest, and the event provides enjoyable entertainment for the festival attendees.

Keith Urban Image From Flickr’s Creative Commons by jeaneem

About the Author: Hannah Kelly is a former amateur country singer from Melbourne. She enjoys the Tamworth Country Music Festival for its spirit and fantastic opportunities for young musicians. Kelly reviews all types of Australian music for several online publications.

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