We tend to think of country music as a domain of the Americans. The imagery it evokes – the vast landscapes you see, the families you come home to, the beliefs you hold dear – seem to be distinctly American. It was a bit of a surprise to me, then, to realize that the Australians also have a very strong country scene, and one that isn’t exactly a beat-for-beat copy of what their neighbors an ocean away do. Unlike with most of the country’s pop music, country music down under has developed on a track of its own. While music from other parts of the world also served as an inspiration, the country’s idyllic landscapes – and sometimes harsh conditions – informed and developed the movement as much.
Country music in Australia can be traced back to the folk traditions of British colonizers. As the island was developed into a penal colony, both masters and prisoners brought with them the folk ballads of the British Isles, and sang about their experiences – first of the ways of life at the time, and the personalities that developed as the colony grew; and later, of their encounters with Australia’s unpredictable climate, of the push to expand development further, and of their encounters with the Aborigines. These songs served as a way to pass down stories about early life in Australia.
Slim Dusty is perhaps one of Australia’s best loved musicians. Throughout his career of almost seven decades – he died back in 2003 – he helped set the stage not just for country music in Australia, but for all Australian music in general. He is the first Aussie to score a number one hit internationally, with “A Pub with No Beer” in 1957; he is also the first musician to ever release a hundred albums, and all with the same record label at that. But perhaps more importantly, he performed songs that solidified the Australian experience, whether it be songs he and his team wrote – including his wife, Joy McKean, herself an accomplished singer – or poems that he put into music. (The performance of him I’m posting is of “Waltzing Matilda”, widely considered Australia’s unofficial national anthem, written in 1895 by Banjo Peterson.)
Slim isn’t the pioneer of what came to be known as “bush music” – that honor goes to Buddy Williams, the first Australian to ever record country music. (He’s barely pipped to the post by a New Zealand native, Tex Morton, who would also make a career across the ditch. Initially more inspired by American imagery and styles, he would shift to a more Aussie outlook later in his career.) Despite the many changes to Aussie music, bush music continues to generate fervor and inspire some modern artists too. Redgum put an outright political spin to their music from the 1970s to their split in 1990, while the Bushwhackers, founded in 1971, continue performing to this day.
Country music reached a peak during the 1950s and 1960s, as artists such as Chad Morgan and Frank Ifield began to earn their own hits. But by the late 1960s, rock and roll had firmly taken hold, and tastes were shifting. While bush music was keeping steady, the American approach to country began to take hold, too. Still, it didn’t stop artists like John Williamson from making a name for themselves from the 1970s onwards.
Yet one of the bigger names of Australian country turned out to be Olivia Newton-John – yes, her. Originally born in England, she and her family moved to Melbourne when she was six; there she began her career performing in various pop groups as well as by herself. After a stint in England she made a name for herself in the United States, first with the surprise hit “Let Me Be There”, and later with “I Honestly Love You”, which impacted both pop and country charts. There was a backlash initially – the country community took issue with a foreigner being equated with Nashville’s finest, or even bettering them, judging from the Grammy she won – but she later became a leader of the country-pop crossover happening in the United States at the time. And all this happened before Grease. Her later career would see her reestablish her base in Australia, swinging from pop and country to Christian music, too.
Olivia’s success would pave the way for other Australian country artists to establish themselves in the United States. Sherrié Austin began her career as a teenager, with the pop group Colourhaus; she later recorded one album in her home country before moving to a successful career in Nashville. Keith Urban (actually born in New Zealand) would follow a similar trajectory: after releasing one album in Australia, he would move to the United States to become a session musician, before becoming a hugely successful country artist there, winning four Grammy awards to date.
While Australian country would later follow American trends and sounds, it still continued to reflect stories and experiences from the outback. The intervening decades would see the critical infrastructure supporting the scene be laid down, centering around the city of Tamworth in New South Wales. Local radio station 2TM would lead efforts to find new country talent, while the Tamworth Country Music Festival would be established – although when and how exactly remains a matter of debate. In 1993, the Country Music Association of Australia would be founded, consolidating efforts to further progress the country music industry.
The 1990s would see several country acts eke their way into the mainstream. Lee Kernaghan, son of country singer Ray Kernaghan, fired the opening salvo, with his hit “Boys from the Bush” topping charts in 1992. His music reflected a reverence for Australian rural culture, and his continued support for the towns outside of the state capitals – both through his music and philanthropy – led to him being named Australian of the Year in 2008. Gina Jeffreys also emerged in the 1990s, first with her breakout debut “Two Stars Fell”, and later with the 1996 album Up Close, which would become a crossover success. Troy Cassar-Daley would also establish himself with his 1994 hit “Dream Out Loud” and his subsequent album, 1995’s Beyond the Dancing. He isn’t the first indigenous Australian to pursue country music, with Jimmy Little and Dougie Young paving the way for his ilk.
By the 2000s country returned to the mainstream charts, sitting comfortably alongside the pop hits of today. It has has led to hits from acts like Felicity Urquhart, Melinda Schneider and Australian Idol runner-up Shannon Noll. Perhaps the different track it took in Australia helped. The stronger folk influences mean both genres have blended together down under: this tradition is strongest in the music of bands like the John Butler Trio and the Waifs.
It’s also interesting how country music in Australia has remained a family affair. Lee Kernaghan’s sister, Tania Kernaghan, also followed in their parents’ footsteps, for one. Two of the members of the Waifs are sisters. One of the biggest crossover names in Australian country these days, Kasey Chambers, began in a family band: her parents, Diane and Bill Chambers, performed as a duo, and she performed with them and her brother Nash Chambers as part of the Dead Ringer Band. Inspired to strike out on her own after meeting another country singer her age – Beccy Cole – she first made waves with her second album, 2001’s Barricades & Breakwalls, which made her the first country act to top the Aussie album and single charts simultaneously. She would continue to receive acclaim for her records, the most recent of which, Campfire, was released earlier this year. Throughout she has shifted her sound slightly, embracing more of the blues at some point, and in others going for wider crossover appeal.
The distinctly Australian perspective of country music from down under also persists. Critics have acknowledged Sara Storer‘s role in keeping the tradition of bush music alive, one inspired by her upbringing as a farmer’s daughter, and later her time as a teacher. She released her debut album, Chasing Buffalo, in 2000; her next two albums, 2002’s Beautiful Circle and 2005’s Firefly, saw further critical acclaim. Her collaborations with country great John Williamson and Aussie legend Paul Kelly have further cemented her position as one continuing the Australian tradition of storytelling.
Whichever way you look at it, Australian music has always kept two profiles. On one hand, it has borrowed from trends happening around the world. On the other, its relative geographic isolation has meant it is able to take into account distinct experiences and perspectives and make the styles they have taken inspiration from truly its own. Whether it be music from the bush or hits dominating your Spotify playlists, there’s this something you can’t put a finger on around Australian music… if you could recognize it, because sometimes you wouldn’t. It may sound like a contradiction, but ultimately that’s the charm of the country’s music, at least to me. It can feel like your own little secret. [NB]