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How Tamworth became Country Music Capital
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A presentation to the Regional Conference of New England and North West Historical Societies, Tamworth 20/3/05, by Max Ellis, one of the founders of the Golden Guitar Awards and Tamworth Festival and Awards Chief Executive from 1973 to 1984 and from 1992 to 2003. Updated progressively.
Tamworth, NSW, is widely recognised, both in Australia and overseas, as Australia's ‘Country Music Capital’ and the Annual Festival is now recognised as one of the world's top 10 music Festivals.
So how did this relatively small inland country town acquire such a reputation and what has been the effect of this transformation on the modern city and its people? How did Tamworth manage to completely reverse the normal Australian tradition of heading for the beach in summer and, instead, influence thousands of people to flock to its sweltering streets at the hottest, most unpleasant time of year?
The story of Tamworth and Country Music provides an object lesson for other entrepreneurs keen to develop their cities or towns in a similar way.
It didn't just happen
And the basic lesson is this … that "Country Music Capital" was not the result of good luck. It didn't just happen. It wasn't an accident. It didn't just evolve… it happened because WE MADE IT HAPPEN. I'll give you some background and then I'll explain how we did it.
In the 1940s and '50s when country and western was booming in the cities, Tamworth, like most other country towns at the time, had a radio station with a long tradition of playing ‘hillbilly’ music in the early hours of the morning.
By the '50s, local artists like Buddy Bishop, whose Barn Yard Yodel was a big hit in 1950, and later others including our own Geoff Brown in the 50s and 60s, had created and maintained an active though relatively small, country scene in Tamworth. In the late 60's the local branch of the Queensland based Modern Country Music Association, which later evolved into the CCMA, started running a Talent Quest in Tamworth in January
But for years Australian country music had been pushed into the backblocks by the emerging and all-consuming ‘rock 'n' roll’. From the late 50s for almost a decade only a few nationally recognised artists, like Slim Dusty, Rick & Thel and Buddy Williams, soldiered on, travelling the dusty country roads, preserving Australia's country music traditions.
But the modern story of country music, and Tamworth's birth as Country Music Capital, does not begin until the second half of the '60s. At that time, commercial radio was smarting from the introduction of television (TV came to the bush later than the cities - in Tamworth's case, 10th April, 1965). Radio's evening audiences were decimated, but in Tamworth, the local station, 2TM, fought back by airing specialist programs such as drama, jazz, folk music and even the supposedly despised "country & western" music, in night-time slots.
To everyone's amazement, the listener response to 2TM's country music program, which started in 1965 … was huge. The radio station had (and still has) a clear transmission frequency, which it did not share with other stations elsewhere, and at night its signal could be heard all over eastern Australia.
Over the next few years, ‘Hoedown’ (as it was known) hosted by legendary country music personality John Minson, began to attract listeners from throughout the nation and became the catalyst for the entire Country Music Capital promotion. In the late 60s 2TM started running concerts.. the first to raise funds for Nazareth House and the Kidney Appeal with Reg Lindsay and it was soon followed with shows featuring Slim, Tex, Reg and many others. 2TM ran the famous Bi-Centenary Show in 1970 which re-introduced artists like Smoky Dawson, Shirley Thoms and Billy Blinkhorn. Our posters all said "worth driving 100 miles to see" Again the response was excellent.
As a result of this amazing reaction to Hoedown, the concerts and other factors, a group of people at 2TM, Warwick Higginbotham, Eric Scott, Kevin Knapp, John Minson and myself, conceived the idea of marketing Tamworth as an Australian centre for country music.
With perhaps two exceptions we were not what you'd call fans of the music and our most powerful motivation was to do something for Tamworth and to make reputation and money for the station.
Eric Scott had already located Hadley Records in the city and his recording studio and label became an important element in the development of the project. Prior to this, Ross Murphy's Opal Records had already started in Tamworth. Later, Lindsay Butler's LBS and several others continued the recording contribution.
In 1969, we declared the city "Country Music Capital" in all promotional activity undertaken by the station. Despite the fact that virtually the only substance to the title was the ‘Hoedown’ radio program, our concerts and Hadley records, the name and concept caught on and our reputation grew. We were ready for the next step.
In 1972, after Johnny Ashcroft had made a suggestion at a Gold Record presentation at an earlier 2TM concert, plans were made for an awards scheme for country music songwriters and recording artists, and on January 28th, 1973, the first Australasian Country Music Awards were staged in the Tamworth Town Hall in front of a significant number of industry people. (Legend has it that I went out into Fitzroy street to see if I could round up a few extra people just as the show was starting. Our lighting man Ellis D Fogg didn't make it…. And a highlight was a pre-recorded "live acted" call to the Hamilton Country Blue grass band in NZ. Hamilton County cross to NZ "live"!!!) Joy McKean won then first Golden Guitar ever, Slim won his first two. I think his count to date is 38!
The Awards were scheduled on the January long weekend for several reasons. Firstly, January was a quiet business and operational time for 2TM. Secondly, the long weekend at the end of the school holidays was judged to be an ideal time for travellers. Thirdly, it was felt that news media was generally short of hard news during the holiday season and 2TM would be able to generate more publicity for the event as a result. Finally, there was already the amateur country music talent quest, which had been run for some years by the organisation, which eventually became the Capital Country Music Association (CCMA).
The Golden Guitar
The creation of a highly successful visual Awards symbol or brand, the Golden Guitar, provided a powerful public identity for the event from the start. In tourism, an identity is the name of the game and over the years, the Golden Guitar and Country Music Capital brands have given Tamworth an identity second to none.
As soon as the Awards were established 2TM turned it's attention to creating a festival around the nucleus event.
Very deliberately from the mid 1970s through to the mid '80s, BAL Marketing (a division of Radio 2TM) launched numerous initiatives to augment the Awards. Most of these have become the back-bone of today's Festival. These included the Country Music Capital News newspaper and Festival Guide (1975), Roll of Renown (1976), Hands of Fame (1977), The Tamworth Songwriters Association (1978) National Bluegrass Championships (Banjo, Fiddle and Flat Pick Guitar (1979), Star Maker Quest (1979), 2TM Country Muster live monthly radio show (1980), the Cavalcade (1980), the Rodeo (1982) and Industry Seminars.
Other major innovations during this time were the many 2TM organised concerts "Buttercup" Open House, free "Mr Juicy" (now Coca Cola) shows in Hands of Fame Park, the buskers in Peel Street, the Last Roundup and, when the big venues were operating, major shows like The Trailblazers and the Volvo Spectacular under "the big top" and in "the music factory" regularly attracting audiences of over 4,000.
Through all this time, the CCMA Talent Quest continued as a major feature of the program, helping to launch many young artists (like Keith Urban) in their careers.
Festival expands rapidly
The number of operators and venues involved in the Festival expanded rapidly ... seemingly every pub, club, restaurant, hall and street corner in Country Music Capital featured some form of live country music through the Festival (the number of individual events is now over 2,500 with every type of music from traditional to country rock). Spreading the activity around the city was always one of 2TM's major policies.
And of course the publicity it generated and still does was stupendous, ranging from the sublime (such as in depth articles in Time magazine "Australia's Nashville") to the ridiculous ("The Hills are alive with the sound of buzzing blowflies") in the Tele. From the early days encouraged by 2TMs annual promotional visits in the capital cities, Press, Radio and TV crews from all the major media flocked to our city and Tamworth and the Golden Guitars became house hold names around the nation. A few years ago the CMAA in a survey found that 72% of all adult Australians, recognised the Golden Guitar Awards, a percentage that puts us up there among the major international events and products.
And promotion out of Tamworth has came in many forms over the years including syndicated radio programs like 2TM's original Eric Scott compered National Country Music Jamboree, Eric's later ABC program, Nick Erby's Country Radio Network, NEN TV's Must Be Country and so on. Then there were promotions like 2TM's 1883 Winners Album and in later the annual CMAA Winners CD which has sold some 20,000 to 30,000 copies every year since the early 90s. And also helping to spreads Tamworth's message are many magazines, directories and more recently the Internet. The CMAA's site country.com.au generated over 7 million hits in 2003.
In it's formative first decade, the entire country music promotion was tightly controlled and co-ordinated by 2TM and later, BAL Marketing. All major decisions relating to any aspect of the promotion passed through the organisation. In 1992, the previous manager (myself) returned to establish and run the CMAA and the Awards until 2003 providing priceless continuity. Other people like Bob Kirchner, Kate Nugent, Barry Harley, Kevin Knapp, John and Ann Minson, Eric Scott, Cheryl Brown, Cliff and Dee Giles to name only a few, have also provided decades of dedication to Country Music Capital and many are still going strong.
AUSTRALIAN country music
The Tamworth Festival was always been promoted strictly as an event for AUSTRALIAN country music, and, while major overseas artists were encouraged to visit, they were discouraged from performing. This was because 2TM believed its role was to encourage Australian music. As it had relied on the on-going support of Australian artists such as Slim Dusty to launch the concept, 2TM felt they had earned the right to top billing at the Festival without the distraction of international stars. Obviously this approach worked because the crowds keep coming back to hear Australian music and Australian artists.
Until 1994, 2TM undertook the entire promotion of the Festival at its own expense, setting up and operating the overall activity as a major sales promotion, supported by numerous major national sponsors such as the Commonwealth Bank, Wrangler Jeans, Goodyear, Volvo International, Grace Bros, Carlton United and many others. Until 2005 the Awards were sponsored by Toyota. Jayco took over the Awards name sponsorship in 2007. The Festival overall is sponsored by Telstra with dozens of other major sponsors involved too.
In 1980, the Awards were moved from the "always sold out" Tamworth Town Hall into a gigantic circus tent, which seated over 4,000 people. Immediately with thousands of tickets to sell, the 2TM promotional machine went into top gear and the event leapt to a new plain of activity with Festival attendances zooming up to around 30 to 40,000 visitors.
Up to the mid eighties, the Awards Festival continued to consolidate its position as one of the biggest and most successful activities of its type in Australia. The foundation and mainstay of the celebration - the Awards - was staged three times "under the big top" before moving to "the Jakab Music Factory" (a huge converted vehicle building factory) in 1983. This venue was used for only two years after a heavy rain storm in 1984 badly affected acoustics.
For the remainder of the '80s, the Awards moved round a number of smaller venues in the city, able only to cater for a thousand or so people, limiting the audience to little more than an industry gathering and denying access to the many thousands of fans who wanted the chance to see the presentations live, though I should add there was live national TV coverage for several years.
In 1992, unable to attract sponsorship, the Awards organisers changed the format of the gala event by presenting awards at a number of different venues during the 10-day Festival.
Industry group formed
The change, that most agree didn't work, sparked an immediate reaction from the country music industry which fought to convince the Awards organisers to retain the original "night of nights". This saw the formation of an industry group led by Slim Dusty, Joy McKean, John Williamson, Phil Matthews and Max Ellis and the staging of a huge concert in the Tamworth Showground rodeo arena, to protest the change and raise funds for a new industry organisation .
This concert was a mighty success, with more than 4,000 fans jamming into the arena for a star-studded show ... proving they wanted a gala showcase of their stars and that a major concert could be held in Tamworth despite the lack of a proper facility.
The informal country music industry group was formalised into the Country Music Association of Australia (CMAA), which took over the Awards presentation from Radio 2TM with the staging of the Country Music Awards of Australia in January 1993.
The Tamworth based CMAA quickly became the driving force in Australian country music, organising many other Festival events and making a massive contribution to the national promotion of the Awards and the Tamworth Festival.
2TM-BAL Marketing continued its Festival co-ordination until finally handing over to the Tamworth City Council in 1994. As the Festival grew, Council steadily increased it's commitment to country music. Today it provides a substantial and smooth running infra structure to cater for the tens of thousands of visitors with vast camping areas, as well as organising a national media centre and Festival launch and handling a number of major events.
In 1998, the Awards were staged for the first time in the giant new Tamworth Regional Entertainment Centre or TREC. The TREC was launched with a spectacular CMAA-organised, Toyota Country Music Concert of the Century in September 1997, just weeks after the finishing touches had been put to the new building.
Although the Don Willis Indoor Arena at the Tamworth Showground had been used successfully by the CMAA for five years (1993-98), the TREC offered a permanent home for the Country Music Awards each January as well as providing a large, first-class multi-purpose venue for dozens of other events and activities staged in the city year-round.
In fact after 20 years of campaigning TREC was initiated by a group of Tamworth and country music-involved businesses and individuals who underwrote the idea with a commitment of eight hundred thousand dollars to Tamworth City Council. Substantial support also came from the public, the country music industry and State and Federal Governments.
Festival continues to grow
The Awards and Festival have continued to grow. An estimated 70 to 80 thousand locals and visitors take part in the celebrations. Some visitors come for two weeks at a time, straining accommodation but enriching the city both financially and culturally. Scores of individual organisers and venue operators, all running and promoting their own events and activities with their own sponsors, share with the community of Tamworth, the responsibility of creating the actual Festival itself.
Since 1973, Tamworth's reputation as Australia's Country Music Capital has consolidated, to the point now where it is seen as more than just a city... and more than country music alone. Tamworth and country music combine to become a unique identity, an experience, known, regarded and respected nationally and internationally.
A few years ago the Melbourne Age nominated Tamworth as among the world's top 10 music Festivals.
The Festival now runs officially for 11 days, though informally it runs all month (and before, with some keen fans arriving with their caravans before Christmas!).
Innovative activities are always at the forefront. Line dancing was a significant growth sector through the '90s with strong media attention focusing on the annual "longest line dance" record attempts (which usually succeed). Bush poetry is another area of strong new interest, with the Australian Bush Laureate Awards since 1996, being a significant focal point for the "bards from the bush".
Based on Tamworth's recognised country music status, the Australian Country Music Foundation was established in Tamworth in 1991 to build a national archive and resource centre to preserve the heritage of Australian country music.
The College launches
In 1997, the CMAA, with support from TAFE, established the annual Australian College of Country Music in Tamworth in January, utilising today's top artists to help train tomorrow's country stars. Each year,
Twenty-one young singers, songwriters and instrumentalists come together in the two weeks before the Tamworth Festival to participate in a properly structured course covering everything from songwriting, performance and presentation to industry studies and recording techniques. Already graduates like Sara Storer are taking their place on the national stage.
For many years Tourism Tamworth has played a major role in the Festival, providing ticketing and other visitor services and promoting the event widely. In 2004/5 tickets are available for the first time on the internet.
Walk A Country Mile
"Walk a Country Mile" is an major interactive centre and tourist attraction, telling and displaying the story of Australian Country Music. Built with A Federal Tourism Development grant for Tamworth City Council, it opened at TREC in 2001 and was moved to the Tamworth Information Centre in 2004.
Of course Tamworth has been saluting country music for years. As well as the attractions we've mentioned there is the Tourist Information Centre, shaped as a guitar, the Roll of Renown, the Hands of Fame, the Big Golden Guitar, the Golden Guitar Souvenir Gift Shop and Wax Museum, the Guitar Shaped Pool, there are many other activities and tourist attractions utilising and substantiating our famous country theme.
In 2004 a major change with many serious potential effects on the future of the Festival occurred. The new leaders of the CMAA decided, without any consultation, that the 2005 Country Music Awards of Australia would be rescheduled for the first weekend of the Festival instead of providing the climax to the event as it had for the previous 30 years. This followed a unilateral Council decision that the Festival should be brought back a week from it's usual dates. This combination of change caused enormous confusion amongst visitors, artists, promoters and businesses catering for Festival activities and there is great, general relief that sanity has prevailed and in 2006 the Awards and Festival returned to their regular time slot. It also highlights the vulnerability of the event and the need for constant consultation among all stakeholders.
Now it is over three decades since the first Awards were staged and since the concept of Country Music Capital was born at 2TM. From the strong foundations laid in the 1970s and early '80s, the Awards and Festival have evolved and developed in many ways.
The Toyota Golden Guitar Awards and the Telstra Country Music Festival Tamworth are an excellent example of a private enterprise event, which has created enormous benefits for the community in which it takes place.
With virtually no government assistance prior to the NSW State and Federal Government's support of the TREC, Tamworth and country music have achieved a miraculous transformation of a country town from a summer backwater into a nationally, indeed internationally, recognised tourist destination.
It is also a rare example of a commercially based Festival, which basically runs itself through the involvement of a handful of major entrepreneurs and many smaller operators, self supporting through ticket sales and strong sponsorship. All work together within a sophisticated visitor friendly environment, which is supported, maintained and professionally promoted by the local community through Tourism Tamworth and the Tamworth Regional Council.
CMAA national surveys show that around 36 percent of all adult Australians enjoy listening to country music while 23 percent nominate it as their favourite music.
And for that Tamworth Country Music Capital, can take a bow. Tamworth changed perceptions about the Australian country music dragging the genre out of the closet and onto the main stage where it flourishes today.
In doing so Tamworth virtually created a coherent and effective industry out of a loose conglomeration of individual artists. The national success our country music artists are enjoying today would not have been possible without the focus and promotion generated from Country Music Capital and the Golden Guitar Awards over more than three decades.
And remember none of this happen by chance or good luck.
It was the result of an extraordinary campaign, which succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of those original 2TM visionaries.
Tamworth Country Music Capital, The Golden Guitars and the Festival started and developed into what we take for granted today because there were individuals and organisations with the foresight, the resources, the skills and the tireless determination to create and market this amazing and unique international entertainment event.