Lachlan Bryan's Guide to Alt-Country
23 October 18
Whilst the heavyweights of Australian country would never miss a Tamworth Festival, it’s what goes on underground that keeps me coming back.
Americana, country-blues, country-folk, outlaw country, rockabilly …I’m not really sure if these are all different sub-genres or whether they fall under one big ‘alternative country’ umbrella. Either way, Tamworth in January is home to the finest Australian exponents of each and every branch of country music you can imagine.
These alternative (for want of a better word) country styles have been shaped as much by those outside of country music as those within it. There were the folkies like Woodie Guthrie in the 50s, then Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell in the 60s – just to name a few. Later on, when the likes of Ryan Adams, Wilco and the Drive By Truckers came along, this sub-genre finally got a name – albeit a broad, loose (and sometimes ill) fitting one, much like the term ‘country music’ itself.
Here in Australia, we’ve had alt-country in some form or another kicking around for decades. Often it’s sprung up in the inner-city bars of Brisbane, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide – and especially in my hometown of Melbourne. At first it was just twangy rock n roll, until brave, pioneering songwriters stood up and wore their country colours with pride, fronting bands that had traded Les Pauls for telecasters and Marshall stacks for pedal steels.
When my band and I first came to Tamworth (nearly a decade ago), we quickly found a bunch of likeminded artists to play with and to look up to – folks like The Flood, The Huckleberry Swedes, The ReMains and The Junes, as well our first ‘Tamworth friends’ (and virtual tour guides) Melody Pool and Caitlin Harnett - who were already veterans of the festival by their late teens. Just as importantly, we found that the festival audience was broad-minded, more than willing to sit in a pub and listen to unkempt and undercooked boys from Melbourne on the same day that they took in a polished theatre show from Beccy Cole or Troy Cassar-Daley.
We haven’t missed a Tamworth since, and I’ve noticed an influx of acts like us making the annual pilgrimage - rough diamonds, some fresh out of high school, some weary from the road; Ragged storytellers, telling tales that cross social and political boundaries; transcendent songs of love, loss, humour and hope for everyday people and weirdos alike.
It’s these artists, many of them largely unknown among the mainstream, that keep country music vital – and make Tamworth just about Australia’s most epic, energising and unique musical events. I’ve little doubt that they, and I, will return every year to honour an art form that is as diverse as it is timeless.