Features September 2, 2016

In Focus: Australian Country Music – part one

Former Editor

“Three chords and the truth.” Country Music Hall of Fame’s Harlan Howard once claimed this is all an artist needs in order to be a success. 

As an Australian whose impact in the US still stands as an anomaly, Keith Urban spent enough years trawling the bars and clubs in America to demonstrate that success in country music isn’t at all about this idealistic formula. Urban’s overseas success is yet to be mirrored by another Australian artist, and so the focus in country music circles is now on success in our own backyard. And while its current players are an undeniable force, the Australian country music industry is still as misunderstood as ever.

Country Was King

By 1930, country music in Australia had attracted the ‘wider audience’ that radio had been plugging for almost a decade. Through radio-recruited singers, amateur hours and talent quests, the industry followed the lead of America where – as it remains today – country was the largest format. For all the unique ideological framework that surrounds Australian country music, the industry is consistently influenced by US formulas. From its early roots, artists like Slim Dusty, Tex Morton and Buddy Williams adopted cowboy monikers, complete with fictional lone-ranger biographies skewed to the backdrop of the Australian outback – for example, Morton was known as ‘the singing boundary rider’.

Before 1947, pre-format, it was an incredible time for country in Australia and although it didn’t develop characteristics of a true industry until the 1970s, country music was a heavy part of the Top 40 mix. Photo: Ken Leanfore Photo: Ken Leanfore

Rob Potts, CMA board member and owner of international industry services company Rob Potts Entertainment Edge, remembers the eclectic mix on radio before the FM format emerged in ‘75. “Growing up, I would hear Johnny Cash’s Ring Of Fire, it would be the #22 track of the week. It wouldn’t be, ‘Oh here’s a country song’.”

When Australia emulated the US album-orientated radio format, the country didn’t have FM radio receivers, forcing the government to restructure programming in order to pique the nation’s interest.

“Immediately they went ‘jazz music’s not cool, we’re not going to be playing blues music, we’re not going to play country music, we’re not going to play gospel music, we’re not going to play folk music, we’re just not going to play all those things that would have all been included if they had have been a hit’,” Potts tells TMN. “Something like Tijuana Brass, they had a big #1 instrumental hit on Top 40 radio, well that never would have seen the light of day on the original FM radio stations.” And just like that, the hand that fed the industry became a tight-fist.

Country’s Current State

By 1980, country music had become quite naff in metropolitan Australia. Its palate was limited compared to the influx of synths and glassy, futuristic sounds in pop music, the bush ballad ceased to resonate with anyone outside of regional Australia, and radio programmers developed a vested interest in the success of the more lucrative rock music market.

Despite efforts by 2TM DJs Max Ellis and John Minson – who, after a visit to Nashville in the ‘70s, created a self-aware country scene around Tamworth and initiated the Tamworth Country Music Festival and Songwriters’ Association – city and country ideologies were portrayed as disparate ethical existences.

Australian artist Catherine Britt tells TMN that the genre doesn’t garner enough respect. “There’s still very much a stigma in Australia that country music is very uncool. What they think is ‘cool’ a lot of the times is borderline country music, or country that is disguised as cool”, she says. “It’s laughed at, and looked down on, and that all needs to change. “I think the idea of what country music is, is all wrong,” Britt continues. “That’s the problem, [people are] uneducated. That’s where we need the exposure, to educate. They still call it ‘country and western’ for God’s sake.”

While country is a dirty word for a lot of people, there’s no denying the healthy fanbase that worship the genre’s seasoned, Gold and Platinum-selling acts, such as Troy Cassar-Daley, Lee Kernaghan, Beccy Cole and Adam Harvey. However it’s the newcomers who struggle to sell out shows or spin their records into Gold.

Tim Daley, Program Director at Country Music Chanel, uses 35-year-old independent artist Amber Lawrence as an example: “Here’s an artist who’s on her fourth album; she’s been going for a decade. Five years ago she might have gotten 300-400 people if she did a regional tour, and now she’s struggling to get 200-300 people […] We’ve seen this at The Annandale, The Lansdowne, The Sando, that’s just the Sydney music scene – there’s not as much going on as there was fifteen years ago.”

The golden age of Australian country may lay dormant on our commercial radio airwaves and in our live venues, but our ARIA Chart received a recent country injection with Troy Cassar-Daley and Adam Harvey’s traditionalist collaborative LP The Great Country Songbook debuting at #1 on the ARIA Album Chart this June – before a recalculation saw Kanye West’s Yeezus knock it down to #2.

The record reached Gold status in just five weeks and topped the Country Albums Chart for fifteen weeks. Unfortunately The Great Country Songbook is an anomaly; despite Cassar-Daley’s ties to a major label (SME), it’s a long, hard climb for country artists fighting for attention on major label rosters packed with international pop artists. Granted the pop-crossover model is still the road much-travelled for those after radio success, but not since Kasey Chambers’ 2002 mainstream hit Not Pretty Enough – which topped the ARIA Singles chart, selling double-Platinum – have we seen anything like it from an Australian act.

As Cassar-Daley tells TMN, the reception of The Great Country Songbook says more about the Australian public than the present corporate realm. “It just shows that there are a lot of people out there that do enjoy country music – and this is traditional country music too, by the way, so it takes on a different angle when you say it’s traditional”, says the 44-year-old. “You really have to appreciate the loyalty of the country audience, they don’t move on like Kanye’s [fans] who’ll move on an quick as anything to something else that’s got a hot vibe.”

Cassar-Daley, like most Australian country heavyweights who passed up the chance to break the US market, believes he writes with a different mentality than those overseas. The hit-driven, cutthroat machine that is the Nashville recording industry is so well oiled that those who don’t fall in line slip off the cogs into anonymity. Photo: Ken Leanfore Photo: Ken Leanfore

“There’s a lot of people that feel they have to write that three-and-a-half minute sugary hit that people want,” says Cassar-Daley. “I respect all that and I really respect what they do in Nashville because it’s such a hard thing: getting a cut on a record these days. They have to write on a knife-edge all the time for radio and one thing I love about the industry here is it’s not really dictated to by radio. We can write what we want here; you can go on your merry way and at least still be an artist instead of a businessman.”

Cassar-Daley has been recording and touring for more than two decades. Chasing a career in country music since his first Tamworth Country Music Festival at the age of eleven, his work ethic and modest approach to success mirrors the Australian way. While he’s content with the current industry, as is his glass-is-half-full disposition, he admits there are a few holes that need filling.

“We could do with some more airplay,” he says. “We could do with some more local support in regards to country music clubs, that give kids an opportunity to get on stage with a band. I don’t think enough gets put in to the local country music clubs because a lot of people think they’re daggy. There’s people holding them together with shoestring budgets and it would be great for the government to put some bums on seats for them.”

The Impenetrable Uncle Sam

While Australia largely apes the American country music industry, its geographical advantage will always dwarf our nation. The size of our country music capital compared to the world-famous Nashville is almost laughable, and while the teaming of Tamworth and Nashville as sister cities can only have a positive payoff, the success of the genre in the US is largely attributed to the unparalleled machine-like stratagem that powers it. Its country music industry is valued at more than $4 billion annually, sustains more than 56,000 jobs in Nashville alone, one-in-five Nashville workers are self-employed, and has a growth model which extends the industry’s assets every single year. 

Based alone on the knowledge that country music is America’s biggest radio format, is it any wonder our own artists relocate to the US with the hopes of taking home their piece of the $4 billion pie?

When Elton John came across the debut LP of Newcastle artist Catherine Britt in an Australian record store, he passed it on to Sony Music flagship RCA Records, and in 2002 – at just 17 – she relocated with her father.

“Back then Keith [Urban] wasn’t anybody that anyone knew over there, no one had any real success over there,” Britt tells TMN, “you just didn’t go to Nashville.”

Britt recorded two full-lengths and released three singles – one of which reached #32 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart – however after six years in Nashville she returned with a new resolve as to the type of country act she was.

“Moreso today, but even when I was there, it was either you went straight to the top, or you got dropped, there was no in between […] I didn’t want to make music for radio, or for any reason other than passion and love of music.”

US performers can audition up to 3000 songs for a single album before producers and talent seekers hear what they deem a marketable hit. Aside from offering an insight into Nashville’s chopping block regime, this figure indicates the sheer difficulty of breaking through. Britt had the odds stacked against her, according to Wade Jessen: Senior Chart Manager for Billboard in Nashville, there are only two commercially successful female country singers currently in the US.

“We have Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift” he states, “and then Miranda Lambert, sort of…” “Women rarely break through,” agrees Britt. “It’s very rare. Taylor Swift, of course is the exception […] It’s mainly because the radio listeners are generally 30-something women and they want to hear a sexy man sing about how he’s messed up a relationship and he wants her back. It’s so analysed like that, even down to a certain time signature. They’ve taken the soul out of it because they spend their time trying to figure out what success is.”

Britt’s return to Australia was met with criticism from the industry; some of her peers saw her initial move as unnecessary, the extracting of an Australian product that allowed America to profit from it.

“I think it’s just the Australian way, we kind of have the tall poppy syndrome, you never want to get too big for your boots. There were people who thought I was doing the wrong thing going overseas rather than pursuing my career here but I made it very clear to the people around me that I wanted to keep Australia going, that’s why I kept touring here and releasing records here.”

The success of Keith Urban is yet to be matched. The 45-year-old relocated to the US in 1992 and has gone on to win four Grammy Awards and countless country music accolades, and while many Australian acts attempt to crack the American dream, most don’t have his patience and resilience.

Conversely, acts like Sydney artist Troy Cassar-Daley have never entertained the idea. “How much money do you want to make?” says Cassar-Daley. “How big a house do you want to live in? How many cars do you want to own? I don’t know. Not enough to go to America. I like the way my kids talk here.”

This is a three-part series. Part two can be read here; part three on Wednesday.

Related articles