Michael Waugh is a household name in Australian Country Music. He is nominated for two Golden Guitars in 2020; Alternate Coutnry Album of the Year and Male Artist of The Year. He recently took the time to chat about all things Tamworth and Toyota Country Music Festival.
Can you briefly explain your history with TCMF?
When I first arrived in Tamworth in January 2016, I initially thought that they should be paying Victorians danger money for coming here in the middle of summer. I remember walking towards the stiflingly hot main drag with the sound of ‘Wagon Wheel’ rolling down Peel St. It was overwhelming. Spread out at about 2-3 metre intervals were buskers, competing for ear drums and spare change, hope in the eyes of everyone that I saw, hungrily open guitar cases, and little home recorded CDs bursting with big dreams of golden guitars.
I stumbled into the Tudor Hotel – the sound of a Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band rising like a bad moon in the front bar. Regardless, the lure of the air conditioning and the promise of a cold VB drew me in. Pushing through to the back, set up on an impromptu stage in between the door to the toilets and the pokie machines, Gretta Ziller was playing. She was truly awe inspiring. Regardless of the cover band playing out front and the pokie machines pinging out the back, Gretta sang original alt-country songs that told stories and broke my heart. It was a religious moment – by the second chorus, I was converted. Later, I would discover Lachlan Bryan, The Weeping Willows, Allison Forbes, Brad Butcher, Jen Mize, Paddy McHugh – and so many more. It was in the air conditioned splendour of The Tudor Hotel that I discovered that Tamworth is noisy because it is a church that worships country music – and the church is vast and wide, and the choir is passionate and loud. And whoever you are, hiding in the back in the least salubrious of venues, is the holiest sound you’ve ever heard.
The first show I played was on a stage set up by the Tamworth Songwriters Association to support new writers. There were 7 people watching. I thought that this place was too noisy for these little songs and stories from Gippsland. But one of the people in the audience was Alan Caswell (who gave the world ‘On the Inside’ – and a host of other classics). One of the people was Pat Drummond (a storytelling troubadour entertainer who needs to be seen!). One of the people was Roger Corbett (legendary performer of The Bushwackers fame – and a true champion of the Country Music Association of Australia). They bought CDs from me. And then, it felt as if they stopped people in the streets and just started telling people about me – that didn’t literally happen, but everyone that I spoke to said that they had heard about me from one of those men.
When I came back twelve months later, I had been nominated for a Golden Guitar and was playing in the TRECC to an audience of 7000 people. It was an extraordinary experience to go through all of these extremes. But that’s the other thing I’ve discovered about Tamworth; it’s a place of extremes.
As an artist, what do you love about TCMF?
I’m relatively new in Tamworth – but what I love is that strong sense of family that I already have there. On that first trip, I booked a farm stay in Woolbrook (nearly an hour out of town) because I booked very late and wasn’t able to find a motel room at such late notice. I became really close friends with the farmers, Tony and Pauline Kenelly, and every year I come back, I stay on that farm. Music has been an excuse to spend time with my new friends there – and I love that Tony is now also making the trip into town to share his songs.
Shane Nicholson, who has produced these last three albums, has become a very dear friend and someone that I admire greatly. As a songwriter, there is no greater joy than to hear Shane play your songs. I love watching Shane’s show at The Pub (usually on the Wednesday night in that final week). His band (The Faceless Men) includes the best musicians in Tamworth – and, I think, the best musos in Australia. It is so inspiring to see this person that I love in his element playing with extraordinary musicians. Apart from being moved as an audience member, it teaches me so much about the generosity and thoughtfulness that is the essence of astonishing musicians.
I feel in particular that I’ve found a little home with other songwriters at The Dag sheep station in Nundle. Johnny Krsulja hosts some incredible performances in a place that is 20 minutes out of phone reception. Who needs to check your phone when you are surrounded by so much goodness? It was here that I first met Felicity Urquhart (though we’d talked on the phone many times) and Scott Lamond. These presenters from ABC Saturday Night Country continue to be two real champions of country music – and people that I love and respect. And their house concert at The Dag is a TCMF highlight. Scott flew to Melbourne to be emcee at my last CD launch. Felicity came to sing on my new album, ‘The Weir’. Those friendships forged in the crucible of New England in Summer live long.
And as someone who has played many festivals, what sets it apart and what makes it world-class?
There is no overarching organisation or curation of the festival. A variety of venues and promoters around town host their own shows - from bowling clubs to huge sponsored events in the park that draw thousands of people. There is a festival guide – though, often people just follow their noses. It is absolutely a world class festival though because, despite all logic, it is a big, messy, glorious melting pot of humanity and every size, shape and smell of Country music. It is deeply Australian. It is at once strange and familiar. And everywhere that you go there is music. From country rock to the bush balladeers to the storyteller Alt-Country and Americana music that I love – Tamworth is a cluster-festival of country-music majesty.
How would you describe it to someone who has never been there?
So many people that I know make huge assumptions about what Tamworth is like. I’m still discovering it myself, to be honest. All that I can say is ignore your preconceptions. Whatever your taste in music, Tamworth has something for you. The power of song and story is palpable. The joy of Tamworth is in the discovery. It is less a festival than an experience.
Do you have any insider tips you can share about how to get the most out of TCMF?
The Dag – because you’ve never seen anything more genuinely relaxing, beautiful and authentically country Australian. It is glorious. The ABC Saturday Night Country House Concert there (usually on the first Monday before the Australia Day Long Weekend) is a standout. But every day there is something on. And it is beautiful.
The Service’s Club Tamworth is a traditionally very Aussie club vibe. Playing in a songwriter’s round is one of my favourite types of experience. You are matched with two other songwriters and go for song for song. Every morning, the services club hosts a songwriter’s round that goes for two hours. People eat their breaky or enjoy a coffee and check out songs. Given that it’s a club, it is a surprisingly focused listening room – everyone hangs on every word because they are desperate to hear the stories.
The Press is the most incredible whiskey bar. It is like a 1920s New York speak easy in the middle of Tamworth. You have to buzz in at a door that is almost hidden off the street. And as you descend into the air conditioned splendour below, the best musicians play little sets. The music is free. The Scotch is extraordinary. The atmosphere is incredible.
Can you share a special moment or favourite memory of this festival for you, either from playing there or being in the crowd after/before your set?
One of my songs, ‘Heyfield Girl’, tells the story of my mum’s battle with cancer and how my dad stood by her even when cancer took part of mum’s body and the chemo took all of her hair. A few years ago, I was contacted by a woman from Gippsland who told me that she had been born in Heyfield, and that the song had become her anthem. Her name was Tamworth. She told me that she was too ill to travel to see me play in that town which she had been named after. On a trip to play in Traralgon, I met Tamworth, gave her a big hug – and played her ‘Heyfield Girl’.
In October 2017, I was contacted by Tamworth’s husband, Ian, to tell me that Tamworth had passed away. He was planning to make a pilgrimage to Tamworth Country Music Festival in Tamworth’s honour, accompanied by Tamworth’s son. He asked if I was playing anywhere. I told him that I was playing at The Dag in Nundle at the Saturday Night Country House Concert. The show was sold out, but Johnny K found two free spots for Ian and Tamworth’s son.
The two men travelled from Toongabbie in Victoria, drove for 13 hours to Nundle. When I played Heyfield Girl that day, I told the audience that I was playing the song for a very special girl from Heyfield: ‘this is for Tamworth – because it’s her festival’. While I sang, Ian stood with his hand on his heart. No one else in the audience knew why, except for Felicity Urquhart, Scott Lamond and I. It was such an honour to be a part of this moment.
And then the two men got in their car and drove 13 hours back to Toongabbie.
Whenever I play Heyfield Girl in Tamworth, I play it for a woman who was so loved that two men would drive for 26 hours just to hear a song played in her honour.
You’ll have a new album under your belt by the time the next event comes around, how does this changes your set/shows for next year and the crowd’s response to new stuff at TCMF. Being such a well-loved act, how does it feel sharing new songs with the crowds of the festival?
I don’t think that I’ve ever played a show without playing ‘Heyfield Girl’ or ‘Paul’ – but the thing about Tamworth audiences is that they are there to celebrate songs and stories. I featured ‘This Song Reminds Me’, ‘Born Here’ and ’50 words’ from this new album at a few shows in Tamworth in 2019. The response was electric. I have loved every album that I’ve made with Shane Nicholson, but ‘The Weir’ is something very special. I can’t wait for people to hear the rest of what Shane and I have made on this album in 2020.
Michael Waugh Will Be Playing at Tamworth Country Music Festival: