WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following piece contains images of deceased persons.
Country music has a long and rich history of story-telling among Indigenous Australians.
Aboriginal Country Music is well-established as its own unique genre, with quintessential twang melodies, and lyrics that are central to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
But how did a genre that originated in the Southern states of the US become so important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?
In the late 1920s, rural dwelling, cattle rearing and horse-riding Australians identified with the ‘cowboy’ depiction that country music conveyed. Then referred to as, ‘hillbilly music’, many lone rangers in Australia such as, swagmen and ‘ringers’ could also create material about their life living the on the land.
People who were influenced by this style included country music legend, Tex Morton, who spent his career touring rural Australia and performing for many the Indigenous communities who lived in these remote regions. Telling stories of the land and leaving home not only resonated with many Aboriginal people, but the music was accessible, as guitars and harmonicas were portable, easy to play and inexpensive. They could also be substituted for some traditional instruments like playing the gum leaf.
This, mixed with the heavy influence of gospel music sung throughout Australian missionaries, formed a new wave of stories that told tales of dispossession, rebellion and heartache that faced black Australians. Aboriginal Country Music became its own style of music.
While so many experiences and issues of Aboriginal people have often been silenced or ignored by wider Australia, the 'mainstream' likeability of country music allowed Indigenous people tell the nation about the Stolen Generations and Stolen Wages. Bob Randall's ‘Brown Skin Baby (They Took Me Away)’ for example, shone a light on the forcible removal of Aboriginal children during a time when most of the country was unaware of such atrocities.
Joining the roll call of Randall, Australia has been touched by the stories and livelihood of many Indigenous performers who excelled in this field.
Jimmy Little, a Yorta Yorta man, was raised on the Cummeranguja mission and became one of Australia's most famous country singers. He took influence from American country music artists like Jim Reeves and his 1963 hit song, 'Royal Telephone' was the fastest selling record of the year. With a string of awards throughout his career, Little was inducted into the ARIA Hall of the Fame in 1999.
Col Hardy, a Kamilaroi man, was the first Aboriginal person to be awarded a Golden Guitar at the Australasian Country Music Awards in Tamworth. His most famous song, 'Black and White Tangle' is playful comment of a happy childhood as an Aboriginal boy.
Harry & Wilga Williams and the Country Outcasts
Harry Williams and Wilga Munroe started performing together in a band called The Tjuringas (translated as, 'sacred object') in Newcastle. Munroe says that her musical influences were always international artists like Patsy Cline and Jean Sheppard.
Auriel Andrew, a Arrernte woman, is a minority in an industry largely dominated by male performers. However, she is one of the biggest country music acts to grace the scene. Andrew performed at the Sydney Opera House grand opening, and also sang 'Amazing Grace' in Pitjantjitjara for Pope John Paul II during his visit to Australia.
Isaac Yamma performed country music songs entirely in his mother tongue, Pitjantjatjara language, through the 1960s and 1970s. His sound had strong gospel music influences and toured extensively throughout Central Australian communities. His son, Frank Yamma is a popular roots recording artist and Deadly award-winning musician.
A household name in Australia, Troy Cassar-Daley is one of Australian country music's biggest acts. Born to a Maltese-Australian father and an Aboriginal mother, Troy grew up in Grafton in North Eastern NSW, where he was impacted by the country music scene around the Tamworth region.