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We've done us proud *

by Max Ellis 9/12/07

With the clock ticking down to the 36th Golden Guitar Awards and Festival here in Country Music Capital, it's a good time to pause and consider the unique partnership between Tamworth and country music, a relationship that has delivered so much for each partner since those far off days in the late '60s and early '70s.

Take a moment to consider what Australian country music would have been like without Tamworth's four decades of commitment.

For those of us who can remember back to the time before Tamworth seriously got involved in country music, it was a different world. There wasn't anything like the country music industry that flourishes today. Instead there were a handful of artists who lived and worked in a musical backwater, battling the backwash of the explosive tidal wave of rock and roll.

Our music was disparaged by most media commentators and the "Country & Western" label was used in a scornful way to suggest it wasn't really worth taking seriously. People used to say apologetically... "I just happened to be twiddling the dial when I 'accidentally' heard such and such song on Hoedown". Country music artists and writers weren't given the recognition or respect they deserved and there was little thought given by anyone to helping new talent and building new opportunities for artists.

There was no national occasion which brought country music people together in their own environment and as a result many interstate artists didn't know each other very well. Suitable venues were in short supply in most states, though clubs opened doors in others like NSW. Of course there were rays of light like the persistent handful of wonderful troupers like Slim and Buddy, Smoky, Reg Lindsay's TV show from Adelaide and the dedicated regional radio enthusiasts which included John Minson, Ray Rumble and Don Maguire. But, by and large, Australian country just didn't register on the national scene.

It took Tamworth to change all that.

Photo: Reg Lindsay (left) with Buddy Williams.

Starting with the first Golden Guitar Awards in 1973, Tamworth generated a powerful magnetic effect, pulling artists, fans and media into a compact and focused environment where country music was not just a sideshow but dominated the entire scene.

From the very first moment, visitors to Tamworth in January ate, slept and lived country music for every moment they were in town. There had been nothing like it in Australia before and it's doubtful if there is today. No wonder it rates in the top 10 music festivals of the world.

Like some enormous musical black hole, Tamworth sucked in visitors and artists, but with equally ferocious energy it radiated powerful positive signals to media all over the nation, building individual artists reputations and swelling the ranks of country music fans

From this exciting partnership, a new country music industry grew rapidly. More artists appeared, major record companies started taking country seriously in Australia and media in the cities started recognising country music talents. Instead of being a genre to be laughed at, country music took its place as one of the most significant genres in the Australian music scene. By 1999, some 20 percent of adult Australians in a national survey said country was their favourite music, while 37 percent said they enjoyed listening to it. Figures, incidentally, similar to survey results in the US. Australian country music had become respectable.

Tamworth country music brand names like the Golden Guitar Awards with 68 percent recognition, have reached a level of national awareness akin to major international car or cosmetic brands. The city's own name is a household word in every corner of the nation let alone overseas, as anyone from Tamworth can relate after a trip away.

In Country Music Capital itself there are many indicators of how the Golden Guitars have focussed attention on Australian country music.

An official Tourism Tamworth survey showed 75,000 visitors attend the 2007 Festival with more than 31,000 visitors going through the Information Centre. An amazing 67 percent had been to the Festival before while of that 67 percent, 22 percent had been seven times or more. And these figures don't take into account the tens of thousands of local and regional residents who enjoy the Festival, making it by far the biggest country music happening in the southern hemisphere and, on a per capita population basis (and probably also on sheer numbers), far bigger than any American event.

Financially, the Festival is a bonanza both for Tamworth and the industry. With an estimated pool of some $113 million being spent in the city by fans, a good percentage is distributed through shows, sponsorship and entertainment straight back into the industry.

Over and above the tangible dollars and cents is the really incalculable value of the exposure generated for country music artists and country music generally by the extraordinary, high-powered publicity machine that is Tamworth.

And there's more!! There is the incredible country music infrastructure that has grown out of our city, encouraged by the active support of the Tamworth Regional Council and Tourism Tamworth, the Chamber of Commerce and other community bodies. Over the years these bodies  have invested literally millions of dollars into Festival advertising and infrastructure.

The industry body, the Country Music Association of Australia (CMAA), started and survived because Tamworth people, working with the industry, gave it a secure base. The College of Country Music, now in it's 12th year with more than 240 graduates, (many like Sara Storer now winning Golden Guitars) provides Australian country music with a wealth of talent and an opportunity for experienced artists to pass on their wisdom.

Started in 1979, the Toyota Star Maker Quest is Australia's premier country talent search, providing a springboard for talented youngsters like Lee Kernaghan, James Blundell, Gina Jeffreys, Beccy Cole and many others. A myriad of smaller events like the Tamworth Songwriters (TSA) Awards, Tamworth Independent Artists Recognition Awards  (TIARAs), Country Capital Music Assocociation (CCMA) Talent Quest, People's Choice Awards, Telstra Road to Tamworth, Bush Laureate Awards, Golden Harmonicas and Golden Fiddle Awards, the busking and many more, cover specialist areas of activity helping to develop and expose new talent.

The Australian Country Music Foundation is building a significant archive of Australian country music whilst administering the famous Roll of Renown and the Hands of Fame. The Big Golden Guitar Wax Museum and Walk A Country Mile interpretive centre are more examples of how the city supports Australian country music, attracting thousands of visitors through the year and helping preserve and promote the history of the music.

And don't forget the Tamworth country music media spreading the word around the nation. 2TM Hoedown radio was the foundation stone of the modern country music scene, a tradition carried on by Country Music Radio (CMR) to this day. Since 1975, Capital News has been a powerful voice, going monthly in 1981 and building a national following for country music. The Independent Country Music Bulletin is another Tamworth publication with broad coverage and it's weekly internet news service, countrymusicbulletin.com.au, now attracts vast numbers of readers from all over Australia and the world. Together with other Tamworth based web sites like historyofcountrymusic.com.au, tamworthcountrymusic.com.au and country.com.au, millions of hits are generated for industry related news and information. The industry "bible", the "Directory of Australian Country Music" is published out of Tamworth and there are many other media initiatives like the Festival Guide, supporting the industry.

While Australia wide television and radio coverage of the core event, the Golden Guitar Awards, is significant among dedicated country music followers, it is dwarfed by the massive accumulated coverage the Festival, the artists and the country music industry, generally, garners from all press, TV channels and radio stations in Australia over the 10 or more day Tamworth period. This includes mainstream TV news stories, interviews, features and outside broadcasts. Radio networks, commercial, community and national, provide a similar parallel coverage. No wonder Tamworth is the best known music event in the nation.

Then there are the Golden Guitar Awards themselves, one of the longest running music recognition schemes in Australasia today. Acclaimed as one of the media events of the year, it's a glittering promotion that achieves national media coverage second to none and has been the stairway to stardom for dozens of artists including international celebrity Keith Urban.  

For almost 40 years, the city of Tamworth and Australian country music have had a symbiotic relationship with enormous benefits flowing both ways. Yet while this incredibly valuable partnership continues to flourish, it is a mutual interest that neither side should take for granted. No one can predict the future but it's clear that both sides can continue to enjoy immense benefits if they work hard to strengthen and develop this unique bond.  

And finally while many other cities might covet Tamworth's achievements, they can only dream about matching our city's incredible record of partnership with Australian country music.

It's time to salute Tamworth and Australian country music. In the words of Graeme Connors iconic song which Slim sang with such feeling, "We've Done Us Proud!!!" 

* First published in the 2008 Festival Guide, © Max Ellis 2008

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