Even casual music fans are familiar with Australian exports like AC/DC, The Little River Band and Air Supply. Such fare, good or bad, doesn’t necessarily represent Australia’s homegrown music scene, which is as diverse and entrepreneurial as those in, say, England or Japan. The lineup at this year’s Australian Festival, held next weekend in Centennial Park, corrects the notion that success down under hinges on acceptance in the West. The largest of its kind in North America, the festival brings together many of Australia’s best performers. Some, like The Greencards and Pru Clearwater, are familiar to Nashville audiences, but others might not be, such as festival headliner Ross “The Boss” Wilson.
This is Wilson’s first solo appearance in the United States, though he’s long been one of Australia’s most influential and visionary musicians. In 1971, his band, Daddy Cool, had the country’s first platinum-selling rock record, “Eagle Rock.” The song inspired Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” and paved the way for later Aussie rockers like AC/DC and INXS. Along with The Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind” and Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning,” “Eagle Rock” was voted one of the top three Australian songs of all time by the Australian Performing Rights Association. Wilson has remained a force in his homeland. During the ’80s, he fronted the chart-topping pop band Mondo Rock and has since produced third-generation Aussie bands like The Skyhooks and The Screaming Jets. Wilson’s new solo material is country-tinged, recalling that of traditional bush troubadour Slim Dusty.
Likewise, Neil Murray is well known in his native land but has little name recognition in the States. A songwriter and environmentalist, Murray co-founded the Warumpi Band, an aboriginal rock group that influenced Midnight Oil. His song “My Island Home” was a regional hit for Christine Anu in 1995 and has since become an unofficial national anthem.
Other festival participants—The Greencards, Catherine Britt, Pru Clearwater and Nessa Morgan—have careers more closely tied to the U.S., even though their respective sounds remain markedly Australian. Nessa Morgan’s latest album, Sex & Poverty, is slick R&B with a debt to Anita Baker and Nina Simone. Morgan, who’s of Maori descent, tempers her hip-hop-influenced grooves with the distinctive lilt of the indigenous rhythms of New Zealand. U.K.-Aussie hybrids The Greencards, on the other hand, borrow from American bluegrass and British pop as well as music native to Australia. Having recently moved to Nashville from Austin, the trio have been opening shows for Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and currently have an album at No. 3 on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart.
Nineteen-year-old country singer Catherine Britt got a career boost from Elton John, whose public support led to a major-label record deal in the U.S. Her full-length debut, Too Far Gone, was co-produced by Keith Stegall and Bill Chambers, the former being Alan Jackson’s longtime producer, the latter the father and producer of Australian singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers. Britt’s traditional sounding record is too country for country radio, a fact that works against potential airplay but says a lot about her musical vision.
Nashville resident Pru Clearwater is best known for dutiful performances with vanity projects like The Naughty Skoolgirls and The Big Happy, but her solo work is more distinctive. Her latest record, Butterfly, is wraithlike pop with an adult dose of Clearwater’s acerbic—and typically Australian—sense of humor.
Tying this lineup together is renowned Australian folklorist and performer Warren Fahey. A pioneer in the collection and preservation of indigenous sounds, there’s no one more familiar with traditional or popular Australian music than Fahey, who will wander the festival grounds, providing context for a musical diaspora that’s proving increasingly varied and influential.
Hosted by the Nashville Kangaroos, an Aussie rules football club, the festival will also feature sporting events, food and drink, activities for kids, an Australian Pavilion and an exposition of all things Australian.