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– Slim, Chronicler of the Bush

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Origins of the Tamworth Country Music Festival

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The Ghosts of Tamworth...

By Max Ellis

Here marketing man Max Ellis, one of the founders of the Tamworth Festival and an active and leading participant in the industry for over 40 years remembers some of the people now passed on, who help create the Tamworth Festival we know today.

You might remember that Charles Dickens wrote of “Ghosts of Christmas’s Past” in his famous book A Christmas Carol. Now between you and me, Dickens’ ghosts were rather frightening characters draped in chains and full of dire accusations about poor old Scrooge’s past, bad behaviour.

Fortunately, that can’t be said about the Ghosts that still have a strong presence at the Tamworth Country Music Festival. Our Ghosts aren’t at all scary and their presence is surely one of the everlasting attractions of our wonderful gathering of friends. In fact you’ll hear their voices and their songs everywhere you go in Tamworth and our memories of them, are the stuff of legends.

Since the Awards and Festival was started some 39 years ago, we have lost many of the people who made huge contributions to creating this event and entertaining the tens of thousands of friends who gather here every January.

Some are famous but others are virtually unknown except to a handful of Festival insiders. So let me introduce you to some of these Country Music Ghosts who in their life times have had a powerful impact on our great event.  

One of the greatest and most important influences was of course SLIM DUSTY. Without the support and involvement of Slim and Joy, it’s debatable that Tamworth could have justified its rather ambitious claim in 1969, to the title of Country Music Capital. Slim saw immediately that Radio 2TM was offering Australian Country Music artists a unique opportunity, which could carry their music back into the mainstream and out of the exile that rock and roll had imposed on it. Slim promoted Tamworth when he went out on his long tours around the farthest corners of the nation, spruiking the Country Music Capital story and utilising artists from Tamworth like Bob Clark and Michael Cook on his show.

He and Joy kept in close contact with John Minson’s legendary radio program, Hoedown and there would be frequent, sometimes rather scratchy sounding calls, from public phone boxes in remote Western Australia or North Queensland. This was long before mobile phones, of course, or even STD!!

Over decades, Slim’s leadership of the industry and the musical heritage he left behind him were absolutely seminal in shaping today’s Australian Country Music and at Festival time you’ll still hear many of the 1,000 or more songs he recorded, echoing around the streets Tamworth.

As Tamworth’s country image grew, 2TM came up with the idea of a Captain Cook Bi-Centennial Show on Anzac Day 1970, which apart from Slim, featured a whole host of people who became vitally important to the future of Tamworth.

Among those who are long gone but still have an important presence in Australian Country Music were; SHORTY RANGER, songwriter, recording artist and entertainer from the Macleay Valley; BUDDY BISHOP, Tamworth’s own pioneer country and western star, famous for his Barnyard Yodel; BARRY THORNTON, the man who virtually invented the bush ballad style of lead guitar while working with Slim for some 19 years and then years more as a solo virtuoso and the wonderful SHIRLEY THOMS “Australia’s Yodelling Sweetheart” who as a result of the Tamworth appearance came out of (showbiz) obscurity for a new exciting recording career with Hadley Records.

Then there was GORDON "NED" PARSONS, renowned for the “Pub With No Beer”, a yodelling bushman whose songs about the bush found everlasting fame. SMILIN' BILLY BLINKHORN made one of his last ever stage appearances on that show, talking and singing about the good old days when as a young man, he arrived from Canada in 1938. Slim’s song writers, MACK CORMACL, JOE DALEY, STAN COSTER and WAVE JACKSON also appeared on stage. 

Finally, 2TM persuaded the once super star, SMOKY DAWSON, to leave his ranch on Mona Vale road where he had retired after his stellar career on radio and early TV and launch a new and incredibly successful life for himself and Dottie as a singer, recording artist, entertainer and song writer, becoming in the process, the much loved and respected elder citizen of Australian Country Music. His close association with Tamworth which he and Dot regarded as their second home, extended right up to his death in 2008. In 2012 we will be unveiling a full sized statue of Smoky in Peel Street in Tamworth as a tribute to his and Dot’s contribution to our city.

And so the Cavalcade of Ghosts moves on. By 1973 the Golden Guitar Awards were born and the new era has started.

Slim was prominent part of the very first Awards in Tamworth Town Hall winning a number of Golden Guitars (Joy, who is definitely NOT a Ghost, won the first Golden Guitar awarded for her song Lights on the Hill).

Over the decades, Slim amassed some 38 Golden Guitars and won just about every accolade and recognition that was offered in Australia. The best ever selling Australian artist, this unassuming, un-effected super star was honoured by his industry and his nation and adored by his friends and fans. His association with Tamworth reflected tremendous credit on the entire country music scene and particularly on our city. Up until his death in 2003 he had only missed two Awards presentations through ill health!

A national memorial to this outstanding Australian and country music icon has been built in his birthplace in Kempsey. He is still sorely missed by Australian Country Music.

Another Ghost on that first Awards stage in 1973 with Smoky and Slim was GEORGE DASEY, father of songwriter Coral, He was a prolific country writer who is also remembered for his hit song, “They’re A Weird Mob”. 

One of the main reasons Tamworth was so successful in building a national image, was through the work of Sydney based, public relations man DAVID DOUGLAS. Appointed by 2TM in 1974, Dave quickly became an important part of the promotional team, helping to organise our highly successful visits to capital city media every January.

With Warwick Bennet, the then Mayor, I as Awards CEO, got the opportunity to talk about the event on just about every radio and TV station and national newspaper in Sydney. Dave’s involvement meant we could work closely with journalists and producers and in many cases win them over to Country Music. Dave who was also well known for his PR for the Westfield Ultra Marathons in the 1980s, worked with the Festival until 1995 and his success in publicising the Awards and Festival in those early days is still underpinning our fame today.


ROCKY PAGE was another early artist who recognised Tamworth’s potential and his pink coat was often to be seen surrounded by fans. I well remember Rocky the old showman, in 1980, stepping up without hesitation to help throw out some punch-throwing yobbos who were probably 40 years younger than he was at that stage. 

Pioneer TIM McNAMARA was an early convert and even recorded a fantastic song for 2TM called “I’ll Meet You All in Tamworth”, which was complete with the then Awards sponsor’s name; the Commonwealth Bank. No wonder he’d been such a successful entrepreneur. When I released a CD called “T for Tamworth” a couple of years ago, it featured Tim’s song along with Smoky’s classic, “Everyone Knows why Everyone goes to Tamworth”. They knew how to promote to the fans in those days!!

 After a year or so BUDDY WILLIAMS joined the gang in Tamworth and his presence and his dry wit enriched the Festival for over a decade until his death in 1986. For years he used to call John Minson on 2TM Hoedown and as often as not his reports would be about cars getting bogged or breaking down and other “on the road” disasters. In person however, his wry smile and quiet charm demonstrated how be became so popular with the fans. With his wife Grace, Buddy would stay in the Paradise Caravan Park and there would be a constant stream of people dropping in for a chat. The Festival was more relaxed in those far off days!! There’s a bust of Buddy in the park and he’s in the Roll of Renown and Hands of Fame where he, Tex and Smoky were the first to be inducted in 1977.

In 1969 Slim Dusty and John Minson appeared in a show about Tamworth in the ABC Big Country program, introducing us to another long time friend, ABC broadcaster COLIN MUNRO. Col who died in November 2010, later became the head of the ABC’s Rural Department where he was a great supporter of country music and started the popular ”Australia All Over” radio show, which continues to this day with Ian “Macca” McNamara at the helm. In 1979, 2TM asked Colin to be Chairman of the first Star Maker judging panel and he held the position with great enthusiasm, integrity and distinction until he retired in 2005. Also a judge of the Golden Guitar and the Bush Laureate Awards for many years, he was renowned, especially in the bush, for his ability as a raconteur … a story teller supreme, who could have audiences rolling in the aisles with his tales and comments. With close friends in every corner of this land, Colin was loved and respected by all who knew him.

We can’t forget, REG LINDSAY either. He won his first Golden Guitar in 1974 and was elevated to the Roll of Renown in 1984. His last moving appearance on the Awards was as a presenter in 1996 after a stroke in 1995 had finished the career of this talented entertainer who had worked in the US and pioneered Country Music TV in Australia.

No story about Country Music or Tamworth would be complete without TEX MORTON. He was a charismatic, larger than life character, with an inexhaustible fund of fascinating stories about his incredible life and the equally incredible people he had known. He first appeared at the Awards in 1974 when he got a Golden Guitar for singing the Wallace/Hauritz classic, “The Goondiwindi Grey”.

We were always a bit in awe of Tex. He had done so much both here and in the US that we feared the Tamworth Festival might have seemed small beer to a man who packed out Carnegie Hall and knew Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers and most of the Country greats in America as close friends. But Tex loved coming to Tamworth. Among many other things, this versatile genius was a big top tent expert and once when called to stage to make a presentation, he was nowhere to be found. Tim McNamara sprang up… “ I’m not Tex but I have the same initials so I’ll have to do”, he told the laughing crowd. Later Tex appeared. He had just been checking the guy ropes to make sure the tent wouldn’t blow away!!!

At the presentation of the first Roll of Renown Award in the Town Hall Tex a great raconteur, told us how he had been picked up for vagrancy, sleeping under the Peel River Bridge during the Depression. Later he talked of the time in the thirties when he had raced back to Tamworth by plane to headline his show on a site where Number One Oval now stands. Arriving at dusk he buzzed the tent and the audience had rushed out into their cars and driven over to the airstrip at Taminda, lining up on each side of the runway with headlights blazing so Tex’s plane could land in the dark. Then a cavalcade back to the tent for the climax of the show!!

That Roll of Renown presentation absolutely wowed the many young record company executives to whom he was just a historical footnote. Next day unveiling the plaque at 2TM in front of a huge crowd we were rather disconcerted when he pointed out we had his birthday wrong! It was soon corrected. Tex was never anyone’s footnote and by 1982 he was again at the top of the bill when we staged the incredible Tex Morton Show with 4,000 people in the Big Top during the Festival. It was the last of his major performances before he died in ‘83. In 1991 a committee erected a larger than life bronze bust of Tex in Bi-Centennial Park and of course you can see his Roll of Renown plaque at TREC.

One ghost that springs to mind when talking about Tex is that of JAZZER SMITH, the author with Keith Blinman, of the Book Of Australian Country Music. Jazzer was editor of Capital News at 2TM and carved himself a very special niche. His story of how he interviewed Tex for the magazine, interspersed by stops at pubs every few miles along the hot January road to Tamworth, was a classic. At every stop Tex would gather the locals around him for a chat and a drink making the five hour trip last all day and half the night. Jazzer’s courageous battle with cancer, which he finally lost in 1987, was an inspiration to us all.

As well as Jazzer and Buddy Bishop, Tamworth has many more of its own Ghosts to honour.

GEOFF BROWN was not only a famous recording artist with releases on RCA and Hadley but over the years he played a vital part in bringing country to Tamworth, particularly in his role in the early days with the Capital Country Music Association.

Names like FRANK JONES also spring to mind while musician and technical wizard DAVE BYRNES made a giant contribution to the Tamworth scene through both his music, his recording facility and his involvement with Prime TV in covering the Awards for many years.

Stan Coster became a local in the early '70s, establishing a base in Manilla until his death in 1997. He was a mate of NORM BODKIN who was one of CMC’s first pedal steel guitarists and who was an influential musician and producer for many years, recording and touring with many stars of the day. Norm even had a stint of music retailing!

From the start, fan and Capital News correspondent NEIL BEEBY from Canberra became a Tamworth regular and it wasn’t January until Neil had called into our office.

In 1981, Tamworth was shocked by the death in a car accident of GLEN GREEN and ERIC NEWTON, two of country’s rising stars. It was a tragic blow losing these two talented and dynamic young men.

MORT FISK was another musician turned NDL newspaper man who left an indelible mark on the Tamworth country music scene before he left us in 1998.

BRIAN KELLY was one of the pioneers at 2TM in the late '60s and with his band The Capital 3 Ranch Band was one of the first to utilise the new title for Country Music Capital. He was also active in the CCMA and  the TSA before moving to the Gold Coast. He died in 2012.

The list of special Tamworth Ghosts goes on.

ALAN HAWKING, who is remembered with brother Russ at the Roll of Renown and on a plaque outside the Country Capital Motel, was another true friend and supporter of Country Music Capital.

RITA SCHNEIDER, RICK & THEL CAREY, TEX BANES, MAX & ROSS KETTLE, PETE & MIKE HAYES, LAURIE ALLEN, DON GRESHAM, DAVE PINCOMBE, BRIAN K KELLY, REX BARRY, ATHOL McCOY, ROB POTTS, GEOFF "TANGLETONGUE" MACK and even the first Mayor of Country Music Capital, NORM MACKELLAR, are just some of the many enthusiasts, now gone, who grabbed their guitars or whatever and made the Tamworth Festival the resounding success that it is today.

I hope you will forgive me if someone you feel is worthy, isn’t mentioned. There are just so many generous contributors. This story pays tribute to all those people.

Without their input, their loyalty and their persistence, Tamworth in January would be just another dusty country town sweltering in the mid-summer heat. Their talent, along with the hundreds of their companions who are still with us, made Tamworth happen.

That’s why when the crowds roll in, the streets fill with music and old mates say good’ay, I’d like you to give a thought to the Ghosts of Tamworth Country Music who will be watching over it all. They’ll probably be laughing over a cold beer, strumming a guitar or telling stories about the good old days and feeling proud that the world-class event that they helped to create, is still giving pleasure to thousands of fair dinkum Australian country music fans every year.

 We salute them all!

– Max Ellis  

Updated, 2017. First published in the Tamworth Festival Official Guide January 2011

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