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The Tamworth Country Music Festival 2017 - the "that's not country" section

By Dan Byrnes

One of my pet hates as both a festival visitor, and a writer on the festival who happens to have grown up in Tamworth, is the number of acts that deliberately ignore the country music theme of the festival and play music from other genres. In 2017 this trend was more out of control than usual, I tend to think the problem is not being policed, that is, people are being spoken to. So I will sound off here ...

Why is Dobe Newton from the Bushwackers wearing a rainbow coloured jacket more suitable for a vaudeville act at an opening concert, as seen in a pic in Northern Daily Leader, 23 January 2017, p. 6.

The Tamworth Country Music Festival, 2016 and Year 44 … Has the Festival matured?

Retired journalist Dan Byrnes used to write a lot about the Tamworth country music festival in the 1980s. That was then. After Tamworth has celebrated Festival No. 44, how does he feel about the festival nearly 30 years down the track? Has the festival matured?

The Tamworth Country Music Festival, Year 44 … Has the Festival matured?

For those interested, I can report that the Tamworth country music festival is in rude good health and showing no signs of getting boring. I'll argue here, the festival is held in better hands than we thought, now and for the future.

I also have to report that since Tamworth is my home town, I knew Tamworth before it ever became home to a country music festival. Today it seems from survey results that the festival has a regular attendance of 50,000-55,000, with about 33% of festival attendees drawn from the Tamworth area, the rest drawn from Victoria, NSW and Queensland. This suggests that WA, NT, SA and Tasmania leave themselves much out of the mix. About which, I wonder.

Since I knew Tamworth before it became host for visitors from Australia or further afield – I know the festival has been skilfully grafted onto a rather ordinary Australian rural city. The festival is not “real Tamworth” and I'd contradict my own life experience if I said it was. Meantime, the festival is an annual event well-worth visiting – for fun, for the musics, for really interesting people-meetings.

Tamworth is an Australian town name imported from Saxon Britain and quite unsuited to country music jive, no matter how many people try to write songs celebrating Tamworth as a focus for an imported music genre. Tamworth is a placename from Anglo-Saxon England. It was the capital of Mercia and since “worth” meant fort, it means “fort by the River Tame” to help the fight against invading Vikings. Later it became Tamworth Castle. So Tamworth is an English castle-keep word, a Saxon then a Norman military word, not a country music word at all.

If the festival has any problems today, apart from car parking problems, they are those of credibility/authenticity), and where these problems raise their ugly head, a lot of the debates had raged earlier in the 1980s. If the debates continue, it is probably because they come with the territory, with country music itself in Australia.

To be clear, historically. Country music (CM) is a set of sub-musics that came from US rural experience of pioneering since about the time the US civil war ended. Reflecting American history, it seems, US CM (if we can believe a patriotic song sung by Johnny Horton) goes back as far as 1815 (Battle of New Orleans). In fact, pioneering was done in the USA, Canada, Mexico, South America, Australia and New Zealand, but less so, as these things are measured, in Africa or India. What is regarded as “country music” did not reach into all areas subjected to pioneering in the English-speaking world.

The CM sub-musics include what are now regarded as “guitar-pickin”, bluegrass, country music songs (three-chord ballads), western swing plus country dance music (which often relied on good fiddlin') plus a dab of Louisiana (French) cajun for flavouring. Add in early rock-n-roll (rockabilly, or rock-n-roll as played by hillbillies) if you really want to talk about it.

All the pioneering has been done by now, so CM as a music genre is outdated, it is a museum piece. Time is working on it busily.

The main risk today is that the Tamworth CM festival will devolve - some might say evolve - into a general music festival with merely a strong CM flavour. But this debate is hardly new. The deeper truth seems to be that far outside Tamworth, the whole of Australia is studded with all sorts of musical respect for these US country musics, in major cities and country towns of all sizes, everywhere. The Tamworth festival is just an expression of this national respect.

So we need to ask what first gathered up all the forms of respect? (And, are the survey results true if they indicate WA, NT, SA and Tasmania remain cool to the festival?) Things were originally gathered-up by the 2TM clear channel which was allocated before 1939, and gets a strong radio signal past Papua-New Guinea north to Hong Kong. The Tamworth festival was built from the later 1960s on what this clear-channel signal and skilled radio broadcasting (about CM) could achieve. Enter, Country Music Capital, Australia.

If the festival ever becomes a general music festival, would this be a problem? I don't think so, not since the 1980s when the witty R&B bass guitarist and recording studio guru Ed Matzenik once said, “None of this (musical pluralism) is bad if it reduces the possibility we'll ever hear a bad band.”

So I've long thought: the final argument about the festival isn't about purism about CM at all, it's about not hearing bad bands!

Country Music and the debates

In the 1980s we – the few who actually cared about such issues – debated:

(1) The accent Australian CM singers should or shouldn't use? Conclusion? Don't sing in an accent you don't speak daily.

(2) What to do with, how to report, failed rockers who emigrate into country music circles and play overloud “country rock”; can't lose their rock n roll roots and never actually get to properly understand “country”, particularly not its more delicate flowers.

(3) Subject matter for songs. By the late 1980s, I thought that Australia's national CM scene badly needed many more female songbirds. And these interesting women duly appeared, such as Beccy Cole and Kasey Chambers.

(4) How the Tamworth festival should be managed, not just as a music scene but as a tourist destination, a tourism experience. Related, the role if any of currently famous US CM singers (which has always been discreetly downplayed. Somewhere, a decision was made not to encourage them).

(5) We also discussed the definitions of masculinity and femininity used in Australian CM.

It has to be said that since 1988, the Bicentennial Year, Tamworth City Council (now a regional council) hasn't let go of the festival because it's a goldmine that needs care. Tamworth Regional Council's festival involvements are now an integral part of festival-functioning.

What is the festival by Year 44? It is one of Australia's best, regularly-held and much-returned to parties. It is extremely child-safe and so family-safe and family friendly. It is a reliable annual boomer for the Tamworth economy, which becomes one of the motives for Tamworth to want to continue as festival host. If you like well-done CM, US or Australian style, it's excellent, and it's even better if you don't mind them badly done.

The festival is many things, and one of its identities is as a large-scale theatrical illusion that uses every modern technological aid to create and promote itself – except for the Australian TV industry, which sadly no longer films the festival awards and has abandoned the event except for news reporting. News is one thing, cultural life is another matter and not so easily reported.

The festival is dress-ups for grown-ups. It provides enormous scope for asking that vastly important question, “Where'd you get that hat?” (Subject of an old Slim Dusty song). It is wonderful fun for people watchers. Chatting with chance-met visitors from all over Australia can be fascinating.

Still, we need to be clear that this US CM was imported into Australia in the early days of radio (or with the case of rock n roll/rockabilly, in the late 1950s). It has remained popular in Australia because of our historically similar pioneering experience (although the old history debate about this used to be dominated by Marxists).

Today however, CM has lost much of its relevance to lived rural experience. Whatever, the festival is 44. Has the festival matured in useful ways? Mostly, yes.

As usual, if you want to know where CM in Australia is headed as the music industry based in Sydney/Melbourne sees things, check the annual Awards system, for which you have to wait for The Big Saturday Night.

Prior to which, there is always an annoying musical tumbleweed blowing through the festival … it's the zone called, “that's not country”. It gives you many reasons to stop suspending belief - like the huge polar bear that sells Bundaberg Rum. That's not country. (And it sure ain't the Arctic either. Hard to say what the bear is except a joke from an Australian advertising agency).

As with the South American panpipes players (2016 had two of them). Asians of various origins playing electric pianos. I was appalled at fanzone one day, near Tamworth post office, to hear a country rock band play the Bee Gees song, Massachusetts. That's not country and neither, by the way, by American standards, is Massachusetts a country US state. It's too far north, it's too “New England”. (Which I only mention as Tamworth in Australia is in the Federal electorate of New England.)

The doozy “that's not country” item that took my fancy in 2016 was an Aboriginal busker playing a round didgeridoo. That's right, a round didgeridoo, curled up like a witchetty grub or as purists might mention, a French horn. I've never heard of its existence before and never heard one played. Amazing.

You've only got to turn around at the festival and you'll strike something that's “not country”, even if it's a screenful of Keno results, a tennis game, or horse or dog race results in a pub or a club.

But at this festival by day or by night I have also seen genuine, pure US country talent, visitors such as gifted fiddlers, guitarists, harmonica players, plus scratch bands thrown together for fun, all just magnificent – and real country music. Often at the Tamworth festival, what you see is what you get, and that's that … (WYSIWYG?)

The “that's not country” jibe works away inside the authenticity aspect of the festival and I have always wondered: what sort of authenticity did people ever want or expect from a music style that has been imported from the USA since WWI? Does anyone ever actually think about it?

Finally, the jibe of “that ain't country” fails because when it is discussed, the conversation usually descends into silly jokes. Finally, “that ain't country” ain't a problem; it just becomes a reason to stay good-humoured.

Growth potentials

By the 1980s the festival had deliberately been designed with an open weave, so to speak, that has happily continued, so that new events can be generated, plugged into the festival mix, and grow if they survive. This has continued, and it seems that Sideshow Alley Australia has lately decided to open some business down on Kable Avenue. I went down there and saw my first -ever festival Ferris Wheel. Gobsmacking. It's not country but it's fun.

I'm interested in the folkloric aspects, and have never been unrealistic enough to expect anything from Australian CM except a few hybridizations – never expecting they might surface of all places in my own home town.

Nearby are the purely musical, stylistic aspects which interest guitarists, fiddlers, piano players, those involved in the old arguments between country singers vs country rockers, plus singing stylists.

Odd products arise out of the hybridizations that people pretend to see as normal … and apparent contradictions arise. I rather like Lee Kernaghan's adaptations of Texas kick-ass music but his moves into old zones of Australian patriotism (Anzac memories fresh in our minds) make me for one feel plain embarrassed. What practitioners of an imported brand of music need have to do with standard, rather unimaginative types of Australian patriotism I have never been able to understand, except that they have imported right-wing-style US patriotism along with samples of various kinds of US folk music.

Valued aspects of the Tamworth festival have long been various anarchic senses of humour (such as from those battered-hat blokes who used to ride camels about the festival). Jug band humourists, the inimitable Chad Morgan, I enjoy.

The festival has long reflected social changes. Years before 2016 I was commenting on the numbers of festival folks with tattoos, which we saw less of in the 1980s. The 2016 festival seemed conspicuous for lack of the presence of Aboriginal Australia. Where the many Aboriginal showcases of the 1980s have gone I don't know, but something has happened in Australia's national cultural life to render Aboriginals much less encouraged by the Tamworth festival. (Maybe they have all gone onto outback TV shows now hosted by SBS, such as NITV?)

Folksingers, singers of protest materials, are also now rarely seen at the festival, a trend set in motion since 1988-1989 when cattleherder music (right-wing) won out over sheepherder music (more left-wing, folkie music) – another music-political topic no one ever wants to go into due to fear of.

Musically, meantime, the festival could easily advance by a simple-enough tactic – wider adoption of western swing music? This might involve little more than throwing some extra jazz chords into the usual country music mixes. Anything could happen here, and I hope it does soon. (It seems songbird Felicity Urquhart from Tamworth is going in this direction.) Australian jazzer western swing – a whole new musical flavour, danceable too, and I'd love to see it.

The festival as must-see

The Tamworth festival seems to be a must-watch for everyone in the music industries, including those not interested in CM itself, but who know enough to keep a weather eye on trends. It's also a must-visit for many of today's musicians, performers and singers, again some of them not interested in CM itself (such as Guy Sebastian), but part of keeping an eye on trends (including trends in the use of sound amplification gear), and to keep close to the public,

It's also a guide to the use of new technology (including the Internet). If in doubt here, just watch the Peel Street buskers. The younger these buskers are, the more they are attentive to using new technology; they know they do not want to live or work without it. Meaning, older people who don't get it should go away and stay away. (In 2016, about 400 buskers registered with Tamworth City Council for their contest, Amazing!)

But what the Tamworth festival isn't? It might be dress-ups for grown-ups, but you only have to be a visitor who has their suspension of belief fail a few times, and its vibe is as convincing as an 8-year-old boy putting on a Superman suit, or a Davy Crockett hat. Not very.

There are also old things that are no more, that now live only in the memories of old timers. The hilarious Noses of Fame spoof on the Hands of Fame induction ceremony was held at the rear of Joe Maguire's Pub. Unfortunately, several of the main 1980s spoofers are deceased by now. It's just, so sad.

General ambience? Change due to technological change? Temperature, in and out of air-conditioned spaces, or, pick your festival space according to your age, state of health, time of day, and thank God for modern science. A cooly-managed room temp helps you enjoy that good old country music no end. Good temperature control also has to do with the proper tuning of instruments as musicians move around different Tamworth venues.

And new technologies in 2016? Even the whip cracker, and he was good and a crowd pleaser, wanted us to like him on Facebook. Modern marketing style, yum! Sock it to me with the Internet. I think today, you can't fully enjoy this festival unless you are Internet savvy. In which case, Tamworth needs more NBN than it's currently got.

But the festival participants who have always given me the greatest grief as a journalist-observer are the performers or audience people who seem to experience themselves as ersatz Americans. Who come to the Tamworth festival much as in the 1960s, Sydney suburban people (so my Sydney cousins from Rose Bay would say) used to go to King's Cross on weekend nights to see all the weirdos at King's Cross.

And now for some issues for the future? Tribute concerts: do we need them or not? Does Johnny Cash need another band praising Johnny Cash? What about all the artists or bands that don't exist anymore, what steps should we take to remember them?

Australians are so fond of US CM and its Australianized offshoots they will come to Tamworth in their thousands to hear their music done well or badly, to hear every possible mix and nuance of sound. This national fondness is as much at the heart of the maturing of the festival as is the desire of Tamworth and its many festival stakeholders to put on a good show, to give people a memorable holiday time in an inland town with, really, not a lot else to say.

It has to be said, across 44 years now, Tamworth has spent vast energy practicing on hosting its regularly-improving festival. Today it's all as enjoyable as it was in the 1980s, and maybe more so because so much of the air conditioning is improved.


In praise of Max Richter

A review 2015 by Dan Byrnes of music by minimalist composer, Max Richter.
(Written 28-12-2015)

And first, gentle reader-persons, a confession. For years my views about minimalist music have been prejudiced by my dislike, nay, disapproval, of Philip Glass (born 1937), who generates interesting musical ideas, and then fails to let them develop; the results I mostly find frustrating and I hate the sense of musical inhibition Glass cultivates.

Although, some music by Glass does seem more interesting, such as his “opera”, Akhnaten. Glass's music for the film Powaqqatsi is at times interesting/unexpected. Other noted minimalists are La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Young and Riley I haven't tried yet. Reich I have tried and I sometimes find Reich boring. In my usual player for music files, I find Reich's tracks “Dolly, and a few tracks titled drumming have already been labelled boring. Some of Reich's work is quite listenable, but too often he is too much the experimentalist to be enjoyable. Often, Reich's work feels like music for movie scenes yet unfilmed and possibly, unfilmable.

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“Minimalism” seems a music label that minimalist composers seem to want to escape. Glass, influenced by modernistic European composers as a youth, and later by Indian music and culture, calls himself a writer of “music with repetitive structures” (and the repetitiveness is something else I also don't like about Glass's work). Max Richter I much more approve of, as he seems emotionally richer, more elaborate, a more musically-skilled composer in general than many minimalists. I discovered Richter by conventional means, although no one has ever specifically mentioned him to me. An Australian TV network began marketing Richter's latest production, a multi-track CD offering entitled Sleep (nine CDs, 8-hours long). So I followed-up Richter.

Richter (born 1966 in Germany) with his German name grew up in the middle of England and undertook his young-adult formal music studies in Edinburgh, at Royal Academy of Music, then in Florence Italy. He became a “post-minimalist” and has produced, eg, seven music albums, plus music for movie soundtracks and well, just short compositions. Sometimes, Richter works on real or imaginary stories or histories (the chasm between lived experience and imaginative musings), and with the imaginary stories he perhaps reminds me of the writing of the Argentinian, Jorge Luis Borges - abstract, allusive, philosophical, and if you have a mind for Borges' kind of fun, delightful. Richter also has musical plangency.
Eg., Plangent, re a sound, loud and resonant, possibly mournful in tone, plaintive (eg., a bell or harpsichord), reverberating/expressive. (The sound of a string quartet at a funeral might be plangent. BBC TV once described the voice of US bluesman BB King as plangent.)

And FYI, a definition of Minimalist Music … a reductive school of music arising in the 20th Century (1960s New York), utilizing simple sonorities, rhythms and patterns, minimal use of elaboration or complexity, maybe using protracted repetition, obsessive structural rigour, delivering a pulsing, hypnotic effect. It is non-narrative, non-representational.

Minimalism utilises consonant harmony, steady pulse (maybe uses drones), stasis or only gradual transformation, reiteration of musical phrases according to strict rules. According to Kyle Gann in 1994, himself a minimalist composer, minimalist music features a lack of “goal-oriented European associations” and meant a return to simplicity after excess complexity in earlier musical forms. According to David Cope in 1997, it might feature silence, guiding concepts, brevity, slow modulation, phase, pattern and repetition.

Something is possibly owed to Moondog of the 1940s and 1950s (counterpoint stretched statically over steady sound pulses in unusual time signatures) or Denis Johnson's composition, November (1959). No one quite knows who first coined the phrase, “minimal music”, but perhaps it was pianist Michael Nyman in a 1968 article he wrote. Nyman is an Englishman, born 1944, who wrote the marvellous music for the movie set in nineteenth century New Zealand, The Piano. One inspirer was perhaps the composer John Cage.

Suffice to say, minimalist music has found its way into more-modern types of rock-n-roll (eg, Krautrock). A deliberate striving for musical beauty is said to be a strong component of minimalist music, but I often find music, let alone beauty, lacking with minimalism.

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To be repaid for my pains, finally, by Richter, whose music is often hauntingly beautiful. Some of Richter's more beautiful tracks, short or longer than shorter, I find to be well exemplified, interesting-to-beautiful, by his album, La Prima Linea. Being a poet, I quite approve of some of Richter's titles for his compositions, short as many of them are. Among them are: 24 postcards in full colour (an album title) and track titles such as: broken symmetries, I was just thinking … tokyo riddle song, return to Prague, cascade, Northern Lights, haunted ocean, I swam out to sea, written on sky, shadow journal, fragment, lines on a page, sofa chess, interior horses … all intriguing sets of words, or intriguing music.

For booklists

Michael Schulman, Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep. Faber and Faber, 2016. (An unauthorised biography but one that Streep herself apparently is not against.)

Rozzi Bazzani, Hector. Arcadia, 2016. (A biography of famed Australian TV producer and industry developer, Hector Crawford)

At times, Richter is hauntingly beautiful. He can also at times be consoling vs worrying, surprising, arresting, problematical, but almost always interesting, and often, surprisingly full-bodied for a so-called minimalist composer. In all, I'd call Richter a composer of extremely short and high-quality pieces of music, musical essays, except for one thing – he so often uses the standard ways of minimalist music, he has to be called, a minimalist or post-minimalist composer. He says himself, by the age of six he was often “reconfiguring” music. Two of his favourite influences are Bach and The Beatles. He'd be a classicist if he wasn't so modernistically electronical. He tries, he says himself, to find surprises in his works-in-progress to be developed/redeveloped.

It might be better just to call him “Richter” and let time and tide sort out his reputation. Which ought to be – a reputation for quiet musical magnificence, I think. Real magnificence. Dan Byrnes (Australia), December 2015.

(Ends review)

Note: You can find an excellent music-and-recording history timeline (if it still appears online) at: http://history.acusd.edu/gen/recording/notes.html -

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