Sister Countries: Aussie Night!

n the early 2000s when I was reporting about music for The Tennessean and everyone was scrambling to understand the onset of the digital music revolution, I helped organize a periodic conversation/coffee klatch among some of the Music Row thinkers and doers I most admired. One of the regulars was Jeff Walker, the ebullient Australian who founded publicity and promotions company AristoMedia in 1980. I was so impressed that he would take time out of a very full agenda to come talk speculatively and with no aim other than mutual understanding and insight. He was a fount of information, optimism and realism. Plus he had a huge heart.

When Jeff died suddenly in late August, Nashville lost one of its best friends and most energetic boosters. And so did Music City Roots. He was there for us early on, helping out with strategy, vision and promotion. And he helped broker relationships from his native land that led to MCR going to the Tamworth Country Music Festival a few years ago. And we’ve been hosting Australia Night in a post AmericanaFest slate every year for quite some time. This week’s is looking like the best one ever, and besides being dedicated to Jeff’s memory, it will be a fund-raiser for the new Jeff Walker Sister Cities Scholarship, which will fund artist exchanges between the U.S. and Australia.

I got to see two of this week’s musical guests during AmericanaFest at the annual Sounds Australia lunch, and I loved them both. Oh Pep! is a duo of singers and instrumentalists Olivia Hally and Pepita Emmerichs, backed by bass and drums. In just a few songs on a lovely Friday afternoon, they showed the depth and inventiveness that’s earned them several major Australian folk awards and the admiration of our own National Public Radio. What seemed at first to be a traditional band with fiddle, mandolin and acoustic guitar turned out to be an artful indie outfit with super smart lyrics. At times it was cooing balladry and at times they could have been called Oh Pop! without any dissonance. This is a very sophisticated little band, and I’m quite excited to see a whole set.

Also on the afternoon bill was Raised By Eagles, a four-piece from Melbourne whom reviewers are calling “top shelf” and “exquisitely crafted.” I was struck by their meditative, somewhat Californian tone, made with grooves suited to the sunny mid-day and some jangly guitar arpeggios. Lead singer Luke Sinclair brought the muscle and sinew with his fine voice. Their new album is Diamonds In The Bloodstream, and it’s already up for some awards Down Under. This will be country rock from and taken to a slightly exotic place.

Ruby Boots has such a nice ring to it that it feels like a name for a country music sub-genre. But it’s actually the band/alter ego name of red-haired singer and songwriter Bex Chilcott of Perth, AU. She’s part retro honky tonker but also part stylish siren, and that fusion earned her a spot on Lost Highway Australia. One radio station posted that her latest project “demonstrates Ruby Boots’ extraordinary versatility as an artist, spanning rock and roll, Gospel, country and folk music traditions to create a fresh and memorable collection of songs.”

The show opens with Aussie turned Nashvillian Rick Price, a veteran who’s been enjoying widespread success and acclaim in his native land since the 1990s. He’s got a supple blue-eyed soul kind of sound and he’s deft with a standard even as he writes lovely original tunes. The title track of his new Tennessee Sky album has a warm glow and vocals that evoke Marc Cohn or Bruce Hornsby. And we’ll close with the high energy of St. James Infirmary, a new band project of producer, writer and guitarist Mark Moffatt. After success in Australia, Mark moved to Nashville in the 90s and collaborated with countryman Keith Urban among others. He’s produced the Finn brothers, Tony Joe White and many more. He’s been a staple at the Americana conference and festival for years. It’ll be great to see and hear him in the role of band leader.

Nashville and Tamworth are sister cities, which explains the name of the Jeff Walker scholarship. But in so may ways the U.S. and Australia are Sister Countries, and it’s no surprise that when our musicians and fans get together, good vibes and great art ensue. Jeff Walker helped bring us all closer together and we are going to raise our voices in his memory and vow to keep it going.

Craig H.

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