Tune into Tamworth

It pays to be spontaneous if you’re in Tamworth for the Country Music Festival.

I went to the last festival with a girlfriend from Western Australia, who fell in love with the brown paddocks of grazing black Angus and sheep, as we drove through storms and rainbows that set the small brush-covered mountains alight with colour.

Our destination was the neat, New England city swollen to double its 50,000 population with visitors, many of them regulars. The atmosphere was fun, from the first sight of its huge golden guitar. Touristy, yes, but also a potent symbol of the talents and aspirations of hundreds of serious musicians who come here to perform and compete for coveted trophies in the Golden Guitar Awards, the Oscars of country music.

Tamworth historical building

Toyota Country Music Festival Tamworth (its official name) is Australia’s largest music festival and is said to be rated in the top 10 music festivals in the world. Running over 10 days, more than 700 artists perform and there are around 2800 events across 80 venues.

Many start by busking – a registered 600 – along the footpaths of Peel Street, the wide, central avenue. It’s where Kasey Chambers and Keith Urban were discovered. Night time is electric, while during the day their music competes with the chat of friendly marketeers selling their wares.

We browsed the huge program, circled those gigs we wanted to catch, then plunged out into the cacophony of twangs and snare-rhythms, yodels and blues notes and aching harmonies. Many styles of music are covered at the festival.

 We started with dinner and drinks at the Pig and Tinderbox, an 1848 former pub, in Peel Street, where the country and blues duo, The Sweet Jelly Rolls, were rocking the crowd.

 The rain didn’t deter us as we headed to the Toyota Concert for Rural Australia that evening, joining an audience in raincoats and plastic ponchos, who stayed until the end to hear the sublime Bennett, Bowtell and Urquhart.

At the nearby Post Office Hotel we discovered the first of many surprise gems, Kimberley Gold, an Aboriginal rock band from WA, that shook the whole room. You don’t go to the Country Music Capital to sleep.

 The origin of the festival is said to have been a successful marketing campaign for Tamworth and its radio station, 2TM. By the late 1950s, rock’n’roll had pushed Australian country music into the backblocks, apart from the likes of Slim Dusty. The station fought back by airing specialist programs such as Hoedown, hosted by legendary country music personality John Minson. To everyone’s amazement, the listener response was huge.

The Walk A Country Mile Museum is in the Big Golden Guitar Tourist Centre in Peel Street. Its incorporated into the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum and features interactive displays, memorabilia and screenings of old concerts.

 The festival is well-organised, with no need to drive to outer venues. Instead, take a shuttle. But get into some training, as you literally run from one gig to the next: a beautiful vaudeville performance at the Albert Hotel by legendary Mic Conway; a fantastic, raunchy and moving Beccy Cole (who first came here as a busker in 1992) with the Sisters of Twang at the West Tamworth Leagues Club; the rollicking Bushwackers at the Longyard Hotel; Doyle and Debbie, an American parody that lampoons country music’s tradition of iconic duos.

For a break from music during the festival, you can also take a drive around the 4X4 track in town, experiencing the latest ‘bush-bashing’ vehicles.

The foodie scene, like many places in rural Australia these days, is brilliant.

One night, we drove 25km south to the new Glasshouse restaurant at Goonoo Goonoo station (pronounced gun-a-gun-oo). The 1831 sheep station was part of an original land grant and now has a large-scale black baldy cattle program, as well as accommodation in heritage buildings.

As we enjoyed the sweeping view over the rolling hills towards the Liverpool Range, we munched on tender lamb from the property and drank local wine.

On our last morning, we headed south to the cute, former gold-mining town of Nundle, on the Fossickers’ Way. It’s known for its pub, shops, wool mill, gold panning and beautiful scenery including Hanging Rock lookout, with spectacular views of the Peel Valley.

It has a helpful visitors’ centre but be careful with directions, as it’s easy to get lost if you’re heading further south or east. You might end up back in Tamworth just in time for the next Country Music Festival which runs from January 19 to 28, 2018.

For more information on the festival, visit tcmf.com.au. For details about the Taste Tamworth Festival, visit tastetamworth.com.au.

The writer was a guest of Destination NSW.

Story & photos by Diana Plater.