Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tamworth: The Nashville of Australia, kind of

Posted By on Thu, Dec 18, 2008 at 7:31 AM

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Not exactly Dolly Parton (Courtesy of Fairfax Media)

On the other side of the map, in the New South Wales town of Tamworth (pop. 42,000 and some change) Keith Urban may have gotten his start, locals say, plucking and crooning like any other sad-sack in Nashville, desperate for a look at the Tamworth Country Music Festival. It began in 1969, when a local radio station that played country decided to anoint Tamworth the Country Music Capitol. Nearly 40 years later, its 2007 event drew 50,000 enthusiasts, tramping into the small town for a taste of rural America--or at least the Australian perception of it. It has its own version of Broadway--called Peel Street--where shoppers investigate street-side stores and sidewalk crooners croon. It's called "busking" in Australia, too.

Country music in Australia has been something of a struggling art form, subjecting its practitioners to derision even when they don't imitate an American accent--God forbid. Popular acceptance has been grudging. To raise that profile, Australia's version of the CMAs--the Golden Guitars--is now broadcast nationally, with country musicians swaggering down a red carpet.

A rookie reporter at the Tamworth Country Music Festival--a bit new to this whole glitz and glam thing--asked performers over and over, "Who are you wearing." I think the reporter was greeted with roundly nonplussed expressions. But country music in Australia may be on its way up. As the music we all know and love is bastardized into some weird amalgam of pop-country, they're seeing crossovers just like we are, which could mean more transcontinental transplants like Urban.

Locals are concerned that their beloved festival is becoming too commercial--sound familiar? Everyone's out to make a quid. Which, I suppose, isn't that surprising. After all, they have a little problem we aren't quite as sensitive to: Drought. Even though it's the Music Capitol of Australia, they still have livestock to feed.

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