It’s Tamworth 2013 and the Peel Street buskers now have to apply for a spot on the street before they can set up – and set up they do, with a number having sophisticated amplification systems that would rival those in many indoor venues. And most have merchandise to sell. There are kids not much bigger than their guitars, fresh faced and innocent, thumping out songs about heartbreak and regret for the damage that a bottle of booze has done with no hint of irony. There are grandfathers who’ve been coming year after year, battered Akubras jammed on bald heads, strumming ancient Matons just slightly out of tune, singing Slim (Dusty and Whitman) and breaking into a yodel that never quite cuts it. And then there are the cute young teens all blonde in bling, with push up bras, more makeup than Dolly Parton and a repertoire that veers wildly from pop to country to rap, delivered with the confident assumption that they will be noticed by an astute talent spotter and end up next year on the main stage of the biggest venues in town.
And one of them was heaving when I walked in, as it almost always is during Country Music Week, for the West Tamworth Leagues Club is one of the focal points of the festival with several of the biggest acts in country music choosing to play there. I went to see Beccy Cole play to almost a full house. She was, as usual, very good. She’s a consummate professional with a gifted comic’s innate sense of timing and a well constructed act that rarely feels forced or contrived. And she started out on Peel Street, busking, with Kasey Chambers.
But Beccy’s almost full house was, from several reports, not indicative of the average attendance figures at most performances this year. While some of the biggest acts at the festival reported good houses, many others reported a decline in numbers, some by as much as 15%. Committed country music fans, most of whom are probably over 45, continue to go to the festival despite the increasing cost of attending. Accommodation in town during the week is expensive with most motels raising their prices, some, I was told, by as much as 200% and tickets to the CMAA Awards on the final Saturday night of the festival aren’t cheap – mine cost me around $120 each. I suspect it’s the younger audience, the under 35s, who have declined in numbers in recent years and for many of them the festival has been all about having a good time, getting smashed and getting laid. The music is simply an accompaniment to the social activity and not the principal reason they are there.
While attendance figures may have been down the diversity and quality of performances was remarkable and what constitutes music appropriate for a country music festival continues to be redefined. In common with other genres there seems to be a quite a number of very good young female writer singers starting to make an impact. Those I heard were remarkably mature writers and were far more impressive than their male counterparts.
The CMAA Golden Guitar Awards night was very good. Professionally stage managed, well paced, good sound, excellent performances, carefully chosen presenters and, fortunately, well briefed recipients who kept their speeches short and to the point. Some of the “behind the scenes” cuts to the back stage area went on a bit long but these were minor issues in an otherwise enjoyable night. Pete Denahy’s brief but very funny Instrumental of the Year acceptance speech was followed a little later by an equally humorous but touching tribute to Geoff Mack whom he brought on stage to receive his Lifetime Achievement Golden Guitar. Geoff has lost none of his dry, quick wit despite having just turned 90 and not quite so steady on his pins these days.
In my previous essay I asked several questions to which I thought this festival might provide some answers, principal of which was the issue surrounding the relationship between the CMAA and Tamworth Regional Council. From what I understand, this year’s awards night would not have gone ahead but for the active participation and financial support of the Council. The CMAA had a major sponsor withdraw in the lead up to the awards night ensuring that for the first time in some years the event was not televised. Many in the audience said the evening was all the better for not having to meet the needs of a production company trying to create a TV show for a lounge room audience. The 4,000 or so people in the audience had a great night but it does mean that the hundreds of thousands that TV can reach won’t get to see the industry’s major showcase and one of its best PR vehicles.
From the brief conversations I had with CMAA members and several local identities it is clear that there is some way to go before a productive working relationship is developed between the council and the board of the CMAA. One former board member, and another current one, lamented the focus on matters unrelated to music and the member’s needs that consumed far too much of the board’s time. Getting that balance right will be quite a challenge when the CMAA has such limited financial resources and is almost entirely reliant on the Council to keep it afloat. Each has different agendas. The Council will want to maximise the promotional opportunities inherent in the festival to drive the local economy. The CMAA’s agenda is far broader. It needs to grow the industry and thus its membership. Without growth it will simply become the promotional arm of the Regional Council.
The CMAA must find a way to remain relevant to the younger country market. The Awards will continue, the Council will see to that. For many of the younger country performers the kudos tied to a Golden Guitar is the only reason for engaging with the CMAA at all. And even then the music they are exploring is, in many instances, several steps removed from what that older demographic defines as “country music”. A limited few young performers, usually no more than 22 each year, will get the opportunity to attend the Country Music Academy, (which has been deliberately accepting applicants who not more than 7 or 8 years ago might not have been considered appropriate for a country music school) but for most who profess to be country singers, they have no compelling reason to engage with the CMAA from one January to the next.
Underpinning any discussion about the future of the CMAA is the bigger question; where is country music in Australia going? Touring is less profitable than it used to be for most country performers – even the biggest names are experiencing a drop in audience numbers. (That said it isn’t only country acts that are finding it tougher. Everyone is.) Where once it was possible to pull a decent audience in provincial Australia on a weeknight, now concerts focus on two or, at most, three nights of the week. For many acts concert receipts just about cover the touring costs. Merchandise sales provide the profit.
Ironically, venues in country towns are better than they have ever been. There is usually a licensed club with a good entertainment room and many towns having a purpose built concert hall or refurbished old theatre with good production facilities and excellent acoustics that are versatile enough to cater for a wide range of performances.
Country music in Australia is still a minority art form – albeit with a very passionate following. The fact remains that the biggest proportion of its audience is provincial. Few performers pull big enough numbers in the cities to justify the costs of mounting a large-scale concert – when they do play the cities it’s usually in small, intimate venues. I know one very good, relatively young, female singer who deliberately chooses to not use the term “country singer” in most of her promotional activity believing it might limit her work opportunities. She sings and writes what could best be described as country music but is quite capable of genre hopping in much the same way as Linda Ronstadt did during her long and very successful career. And I suspect that Melinda Schneider’s move into the urban market with a show built around her love of the music of Doris Day is a deliberate attempt to broaden her market in the face of a stagnant or declining “country” audience. That it has proven to be a success is no more than confirmation of her talent as a performer. You can put whatever tag on her you like, she’s just a very fine singer who also happens to be a good songwriter in the country idiom. All of which suggests that in Australia, with our small market, few can afford to lock themselves into the country niche if they want a long and financially rewarding career – a willingness to expand your horizons is almost mandatory.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the genre definitions are blurring at the edges (Gram Parsons did it a long time ago). They have been for decades now. I delight in pointing out to any who doubt the veracity of that observation that one of Slim Dusty’s most successful songs was written for him by the great Don Walker, Cold Chisel’s principal song writer and keyboard player. In fact, along with Khe Sanh, one of my favourite songs is a stunningly sparse, haunting country song he wrote called Silos.
The music I heard at the Tamworth Festival this year was very different to the music you might have heard had you been at the first festival in the early 70s. It’s called a country music festival but go next year and you will find everything from bluegrass to pop and everything in between. The diversity is enormous and heartening in the willingness of so many younger performers to explore the music of many different genres and cultures.
While the Golden Guitar awards remain more conventionally “country”, there is now a category called Alternative Country Album of the Year. While this year’s winning album was very good it was still very much within the conventional definition of what is “country music” but it does suggest an acceptance by the CMAA that the changes that have begun to take hold within the industry need to be acknowledged. Maybe in time the winner of that award will be a much more adventurous expression of the term “country music”. I hope so.
To conclude: country music will continue to evolve driven by the willingness and enthusiasm with which younger performers will explore wide range of genres. They won’t feel constrained by the inherent conservatism of the older market. Some of that evolution will be driven by purely commercial considerations, although with the continuing decline and consolidation of the large recording companies and the power of the internet that imperative has begun to disappear. There will be many more performers who will find an audience for their music simply because they will be able to harness the power of the net. It may not be a big audience and whether it will be large enough to sustain a financially successful, lengthy career is debatable. I suspect there will be fewer “super stars” and many who hit the heights may find the descent happens far quicker than it might have in the past.
And for the CMAA? It has a very difficult task. It must quickly work out how to engage with its audience and grow its membership. At the moment it needs the Tamworth Regional Council more than the council needs the CMAA. If it is to engage with the Council on an equal footing it must regain its credibility. It must be seen as the genuinely active voice of country music with the power and authority to speak for a united membership. That said it would be unwise of the Council to assume that it holds all the cards. The Council needs a strong, financially stable CMAA capable of investing in the future of the market it represents and for which it speaks. It will be a measure of the management skills of the mayor and those councillors tasked with building a workable relationship with the CMAA as to how successful they are in creating a mutually sustainable future for the festival and the industry. The new chairperson and the CMAA board will be similarly judged. I hope for the future of the industry that both parties are up to it. I remain cautiously optimistic that they will succeed. The music will survive, of that I have no doubt.