The Tamworth Country Music Festival gets underway this week, showcasing new and established country music talent. Musicians, fans and festival-goers arrive en masse in Tamworth, regional NSW where accommodation is booked out, sporting ovals become tent cities and even locals rent their entire houses out. The population of the regional centre doubles for the event and the attractions for attendees range from busking, carnival rides, twilight concerts, country music talent playing in the numerous venues throughout the town culminating in the street parade and Tamworth Country Music Awards.
What is not as well-known however, is that this festival has a long-running history of celebrating Indigenous artists and playing a key role in their career success.
One major guest in particular includes music royalty Jimmy Little during the ‘King of Country Roadshow’ in 1992 where he was the highlight of the street parade playing a concert for Peel Street. In 2016, four years after Jimmy's passing, he and his family were honoured with a bronze bust in Toyota Park and the statute joins the 'country music trail' which lines the walkway of the Park, showing off Australia's historic country music greats.
A known Tamworth Country Music Festival alumni is of course, Troy Cassar-Daley who has always been a festival favourite playing to packed houses, twilight concerts in the park and a featured guest of the street parade. He rose to success over his years attending the festival and quite literally went from busking on the street to celebrating the success he now enjoys in which he tours the country and abroad. After 35+ years experience of involving himself in Tamworth's country music scene, Troy is now one of Australia's most successful, multi-award winning recording artists.
Gomeroi man, Roger Knox arrived in Tamworth from Moree at the young age of 17 and quickly became a crowd favourite busking on Peel Street. Because of his impressive talent and his signature pompadour hairstyle, he was dubbed ‘Black Elvis’ and the 'Koori King of Country' and by word of mouth, thousands would walk the street to watch him play. Knox was a participant in the Starmaker Talent Contest at the age of 31.
However, despite his popularity, in 2007 Knox told Living Black that racial profiling has prevented him from booking gigs in Tamworth throughout his career. He said he was told that his performance "attracted the wrong crowd" and that publicans are unable to "handle" his - primarily Aboriginal - fans. However, without the support of Tamworth venues, the Koori King of Country has a country music legacy, claiming numerous awards including 1993 NAIDOC Artist of the Year Award and has travelled and performed in festivals in the US. Roger is also largely known for his performances in prisons, where regularly tours and plays to detainees in incarceration facilities in NSW and Queensland. He has even toured in prisons, playing to large numbers of Indigenous inmates, in Canada.
Todd Williams and Kirsty Lee Akers both respectively won the Toyota Star Maker contest in 2003 and 2007. Not only did they receive numerous prizes including a car, travel and the opportunity to perform at the infamous Nashville Country Music Awards, but career propelling opportunities like a record deal and production of music video clips.
Wiradjuri performer Todd grew up in Dubbo with his Uncle. For most of his life a career in country music was not on his radar, until he dared a karaoke competition at Dubbo's Castlereigh Hotel in his late teens. From there on, he played around the town and credits his big break to his idol, Troy Cassar-Daley who he supported at some of his gigs. Todd then became the first Indigenous artist to win the Star Maker content in 2003, joining the long list of staunch winners including Gina Jeffreys, Lee Kernaghan and Keith Urban.
Wonnarua woman, Kirsty has also enjoyed tremendous success off the back of her Star Maker win, currently splitting her time between Australia and Nashville. She is now an international recording artist with four albums under her belt and growing success with each.
But success has been a long time coming for Kirsty, having performed in public for the first time at the tender age of three years and recording her first EP at the age of 16. And her first EP was funded with the money she made busking tirelessly on the streets of Tamworth.
The Tamworth Country Music Festival has been so successful at propelling careers of Indigenous artists that there is now a dedicated Indigenous artist grant. The 2018 Troy Casser-Daley Indigenous Scholarship winner is an Aboriginal Tamworth local, Lizzie Steadman, who has been singing and playing her guitar since the age of 12. However, she has only been recognised publicly for her talents in recent years. Steadman is one of 28 students selected to attend the CMAA Senior Academy of Country Music, a two week course kicked off in Tamworth in the lead up to the festival.
As the festival kicks off, there will no doubt be many promising hopefuls busking on the streets with a great fate that awaits them.