The Tamworth Country Music Festival is distributed across dozens of diverse venues all over this town of 50,000 people, but the spinal column is Peel Street, named for the river that runs through the heart of the city. Fifty weeks a year it’s the town high street, with shops, cafes and the like. During the festival, it’s closed to traffic and becomes busker’s row, where for decades, folks have played on the street, sometimes with a guitar over an open case and sometimes with ambitious PA systems, backing tracks and merch operations. It’s a symbol of Australia’s wide-open, participatory country music scene and it’s a legitimate talent showcase, where big careers (e.g. Kasey Chambers, Felicity Urquhart) have been launched. So when our fearless leaders Todd and John arrived here a couple days before us, they were struck by the many voices coming from Peel Street. In a big way. You’ll see what I mean.
So on Thursday night, roughly two days after touching down here in Australia, our Roots crew and our guest artists put on our show. In most respects it was by the book, with our theme song and our format just like the Loveless Barn. But when guest emcee Peter Cooper said “this is Music City Roots: Live from Tamworth Town Hall” it marked a watershed. Our long-held dream of globalizing the Music City ethos and spirit had finally come to a first stage of fruition. The venue is a classic 80-year-old memorial auditorium, so the vibe was more formal than our beloved Barn, but the artists more than measured up to the class and legacy of the place. And the crowd was large and lively, filling the room with attention and energy.
I got to sit down for 15 minutes with Felicity Urquhart and a microphone on Thursday before the show, so I’ll have that conversation up soon as part of a Connect special edition. This incredibly charming and open-hearted artist told me about busking on Peel Street starting about age 11 and working her way up to the top of the Aussie country scene. She is of course an alum of Roots, having played last Fall’s post Americana Australia show. I’m really fond of her stuff, with its winsome and fresh feel. She’s a strong melody writer and I think she works well on both sides of the commercial country/ Americana divide, which really isn’t a divide here, so there you go. It was perfect to have had an Australian Female Artist of the Year open the show, as if to say g’day.
Then we got into a special part of the show inspired by Peel Street, with the first of four one-song spots by artists that touched John and Todd. Busker number one was a burly man of not five feet tall with a worldly wise look in his eye named Johnny Huckle. He sat on a cajon that had not one but two bass drum foot pedals to rock out his rhythm part. And he sang a spirit journey of a song with 12-string guitar that put me in mind of Peter Rowan, only sub the Native American vision quest with a Australian Aboriginal lament. Huckle vocalized in what I take to be a traditional way, with sort of throaty clucks and yelps that colored the performance. It felt ancient and heartfelt. In other words, rootsy.
There was so much in the show and the day leading up I think I’ll cap off here and file again tomorrow. So more to come…
(Updated on January 26th)
When last we left our radio cast, we’d opened Music City Roots: Live From The Tamworth Town Hall with hometown girl turned country star Felicity Urquhart and spiritual singer Johnny Huckle. And then Elizabeth Cook sat with me for an interview where she did an amazing job of introducing herself to the Australian audience. It was certainly EC 101, but her capacity to freshly tell the stories of her family and coming up in music as if it was the first time is a testimony to her professionalism.
Next up, our first Yankee of the night, friend of the show David Jacobs-Strain from Portland, Oregon. He’s been on Roots at least twice before, and he’s the most powerful young solo guitarist/singer we know. Armed with one six-string and one 12-string acoustic guitars (yes he brought both alllll the way over here) he slayed with “Halfway to the Coast” and “Thank You Nice Lady” which came with a witty set-up story that was tweaked for the Australian crowd. DJS sold a bunch of CDs after the show, which is the sound of Tamworth saying ‘you rock.’ His Australian dessert course was a young woman who goes by Niksta. I won’t get into the whole bizarre story of how the guys discovered her playing on the street, because it involved bare boobs and a police officer. But the real point is that she has a voice that reminded us of Bonnie Raitt, and she offered a sultry and crafty cover of “It’s A Long Way To The Top If You Want To Rock And Roll,” which I’m pretty sure we’ve never had on Roots before. And another brand new song (because it actually was brand new) came from Peter Cooper, stepping over from the podium to center stage with guitar. He sang a bittersweet tune with a really pretty melodic catch in the verse called “She Can’t Be Herself When She’s With Me.”
Australian songstress Kirsty Akers followed, and she’s one of those cases of a huge voice coming from a tiny body that boggles the mind. She’s country as cornbread, with pipes that are not unlike those of Elizabeth Cook. Her music had blazing Telecaster twang, ancient tone harmonies and ripping train beats. She is candid that her more ballad-ish single “It Gets To Me” is the most radio ready of her repertoire, but it’s got hit written all over it and it sounded great. Her busker follow-on was the amazing Warren Williams, an Aboriginal folk singer who gives off a magic aura. I didn’t hear his song as clearly as I’d wished, but when he evoked brotherhood among all Australians, white and black, he got a great response, and he has a super warm voice.
Jim Lauderdale pulled off a fantastic electrified country set with musicians from here in Australia, including a stellar guitarist who could show the hotshots on Lower Broadway how it’s done. The faves included “Halfway Down” and “Don’t Make Me Come Over There And Love You” and “Planet of Love,” which featured a walk-on guest vocal by Felicity. The whole set sounded grand, and it was an occasion to acknowledge the superb sound in the Tamworth Town Hall. Everything was detailed and full and musical.
Before Elizabeth’s show-closing set, we featured our final busker of the night, and in this case a buskerette from tiny Clare Valley called Taylor Pfeifer who bills herself as The Banjo Girl. The delightful 13-year-old picked and sang “Yodeling Cowgirl” with a deep Aussie accent that I figure must be the equivalent of our Tennessee twang. And yes, she’s a yodeling banjo girl. She charmed and paved the way for Elizabeth Cook, who performed with her touring group of husband Tim Carroll and upright bass man Bones Hillman, a New Zealand native who played back when for Midnight Oil and who now lives in Nashville. Cook began with “Gospel Plow” a tune that’s been obsessing me lately. I love its simple, misty chord changes and modal melody. She also dug for deep country with “Today I Started Loving You Again” and crossover rock gospel with “Jesus,” borrowed and adapted from the Velvet Underground. The vocals and Carroll’s shimmering, rattling guitar were just mesmerizing.
So that got us to what we called the Tamworth Jam, and we sourced it from the stage with Tim Carroll’s “If I Could” with its fast-talking lyrics and great audience call and response. It was a great way to cap off a night of hard core country in another hard core country. We were so excited by the response to the show and the warmth of our hosts Gavin Flanagan and Kate Baker. It truly was an honor to take the show global in Tamworth. Thanks to the town for deeming it Tam-worthy.