Loren Ryan’s connection to her hometown in far north-western New South Wales goes back further than most locals can claim: she’s a proud Gamilaroi woman born and bred on her ancestor’s Country.
Those roots run deep. Loren comes from a long line of musicians, and has inherited a family love of the guitar and Charley Pride.
“I feel like as blackfullas, we're all raised on country music,” Loren says.
“We all love Alan Jackson. We all love our Brooks & Dunn... There's already that connection there from a really young age, falling in love with country music."
Loren counts herself as one of those ‘young blackfullas’ who grew up aspiring to perform country music. Nowadays she channels her sound into a mix of soul, RnB and pop - even weaving in her native Gamilaraay language.
She says she can trace that passion to her earliest memories of the Tamworth Country Music Festival (TCMF): a celebration of the genre which for nearly 50 years has prided itself on its street buskers, Star Maker Talent quest and iconic Golden Guitar Awards.
“My most fond memory of the festival is probably the first one I can ever remember: being four years old, cruising down the main street with mum and dad and my older sister, and dancing to all the different buskers,” Loren recalls.
“I think it was my first ever gig that I went to. And from that it lit a spark in me, to perform, to learn guitar, to sing.”
Loren isn’t alone - some of Australia’s biggest artists owe their success to the TCMF.
While Keith Urban is one of the most noted for his loyalty to the country genre, Jessica Mauboy also rose to fame off the back of winning the inaugural Telstra Road to Tamworth competition in 2004 at just 14-years-old.
'We came through that hard time'
Now aged 26, Loren is a regular on TCMF stages, but a generation earlier that mightn't have been the case.
She tells NITV News one of the highlights has been seeing the Aboriginal Cultural Showcase grow to a centrepiece of the festival – from a time when black artists were pushed to the fringes of Tamworth.
“It started out on the other side of town, in a little shed in the Community Centre, and you really only ever heard about it if you were a blackfella looking for blackfella music and that was it,” she says.
Country music legend Roger Knox has long shared stories about the racism which has plagued Tamworth - about the segregation he and his family endured before their voices were heard.
“We came through that hard time, we came through that strugglin’ time in Tamworth when we couldn’t get a decent gig or decent venue. You’d leave town to do that,” he says.
The Aboriginal Cultural Showcase - a safe space to nurture emerging Aboriginal talent during the Festival - eventually got the backing of the Regional Council to move to the centre of town, "prime-time alongside mainstream country music artists".
Loren says it took "a lot of pushing".
“A lot of reminding that this is Gamilaroi country. That we have a really strong presence on country. That we still really heavily practice our traditional dance and song and language and weaving and all the other customs,” she says.
“And we've grown to tell our stories through music, and through country music.”
A meeting place
These days Roger Knox says Tamworth in January has become a meeting place for mob "from everywhere, all corners of this country".
“To catch up with people like Warren (H Williams), Troy Cassar-Daley… the radio stations come from Western Australia, from Wilcannia, from Melbourne,” he says. “They come along, and we yarn.”
Those yarns can come at unexpected times and often Roger says he would find himself busking on Peel Street while fans insist on "one more story, one more song".
"And getting requests to sing City Lights ten times a night! You know, 'Can you sing that song? I wasn't here, I missed it!'" he laughs.
"You have to do it, and you go 'I hate this song', but you do it, because it's well within your heart to do it."
With a growing appreciation for Indigenous culture and music, the past 20 years has seen an increase in the number of blackfullas making the trek to Tamworth.
Gangulu woman Belinda Miller tells NITV News she went to her first TCMF in 1997, working with Murri Country radio in Brisbane, recording musicians and playing them out as seven days of live music.
Over the years Belinda has found her way back to the festival 14 times, hanging with the likes of Uncle Jimmy Little, Archie Roach and Kev Carmody.
She recalls Roger Knox taking her on a tour of Tamworth, pointing out the spots in town he and his family used to be barred from.
“Back in the day, Tamworth was a racist little country town… but I think music has definitely been a way, and a form of Reconciliation,” she says.
“The Tamworth Aboriginal community just did what they did: and that was play deadly music, and people loved it.”
‘It’s songs about country, it’s songs about land’
From the Yamma family in the central desert to Pigram Brothers in Broome, the music associated with Tamworth (country, blues, roots) can be heard in blackfulla homes across the country.
At Byron Bay’s Blues Festival in 2019, Archie Roach told NITV News that it was country music which gave his people "permission to cry".
Belinda agrees: “It’s honesty, it’s raw and you connect to it… it’s songs about country, it’s songs about land.”
For Loren, her peoples’ affinity for the genre comes down to kin. The music is in their blood.
“I believe if you're really looking for country music, then listen to First Nations country music artists," she says.
“They sing about their Homeland. They sing about the Country we're on. They have the deepest connection to it.”
Broadcaster and Yorta-Yorta man Daniel James is currently exploring that deep connection, with a podcast for ABC radio inspired by the love First Nations people in Australia have for icon Charley Pride.
“I've always found the connection between American country music and our mob just so fascinating because, on the surface, the worlds couldn't be more different, but I don't think it's too grandiose to say that it is the chosen genre of our Elders,” he says.
Daniel believes the sounds of Charley and others came to mob who were taken off their own Country to live in missions and reserves.
“What country music did, and does still, is it ties up this sense of ache for Country, an ache for times past, and a yearning for times past. But it also throws out there in some of its songs, a yearning and an optimism for the future as well,” he says.
“I think after we've had the horror of first contact and the disruption to our culture and the devastation wreaked upon it, country music was actually an opportunity for our mob and our Elders to stop, heal, and reflect."
Community rocked by coronavirus restrictions
In January next year, artists and country music fans will be left a little empty, with the 49th anniversary of their beloved festival to join the many others slated for summer in NSW: quietly, distanced and virtual.
The Tamworth Regional Council conceded bans on mass gatherings due to coronavirus would make it too difficult, with the street-packed cavalcade being just one example of an event which would be impossible to pull in-line with current restrictions.
“We still feel gutted by the decision ourselves. We'll carry that for a while, because the impact that it has on some is greater than others,” Festival Director Barry Hurley tells NITV News.
“The poor old artists, they've been without an income essentially for what will be the best part of 12 months.”
Troy Cassar-Daley responded to the news swiftly via Facebook, writing a love letter to “a town… the country music capital of Australia and the absolute heart of our music”.
“As you all know this will affect a lot of musicians and artists who support their families with music,” he wrote.
“Please keep them in your thoughts today as we work through what has been one of the hardest years we’ve all experienced in our industry.”
Loren has felt the restrictions keenly, saying she hasn’t had a gig since February.
“It was heartbreaking to know that January is going to roll around and it's not going to be the same, you're not going to be falling asleep in your bed and hearing the pub on the other side of town, pumping with music and a band and the audience there.
“But they've made the right decision in regards to community health.”
In some good news, the festival's iconic Golden Guitar Awards are expected to be held virtually, and further announcements about smaller-scale gigs are expected in the near future.
In the meantime, Tamworth will be busy planning for a milestone: when the festival eventually returns in 2022 it will be to mark its 50th anniversary.
The Gamilaroi community will look to this date as a reminder of how far they have come, and a celebration of the great songs dedicated to their land and people.