Well, we all have a foundational understanding of Country Music’s role and significance within an American context. In the States during the early 20th century, the genre mutated organically from a melting pot of musical influences including English ballads, Celtic fiddle songs, and foundations of Blues and Jazz. Today, it foregrounds the characters and experiences of country America, it also celebrates rurality in the states. But, heading into this specialist broadcast- I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the idea of an Australian Country music genre. I don’t know, something about it just conjured a real dissonance for me, this overwhelming sense of cultural cringe…. were Aussies really importing the tell-tale imagery of popular US Country music, pickups and such, slinging on Southern drawls and attempting to tell our stories, so singular and different, within that pre-established template? How very twee of us. Alas, fair readers, I did my research and you’ll be glad to know that this is not the form that the Australian Country Music scene has taken.
What I love about Australian Country is that we have borrowed the narratorial aspect of the US genre and made it distinctly our own. During the ’20s and ’30s, in a new nation of trying conditions still deciding on its identity, Australian Country became distinctly utilitarian. It was a really useful way of transacting our stories. In the past century, our Country music has been used to protest and keep truckies company along our reaching freight routes. One particular sub-genre that I was not aware of is our strong tradition of Aboriginal Country. Before there was First Nations writers and poets Country music was the vehicle that Australia’s indigenous people used to tell their stories. The oral story-telling element of Country proved perfectly compatible with the fact that speaking is the primary form of communication for most First Nations cultures. When early stars of Indigenous Country, such as Tex Morton, started touring rural Australia it was because the music was accessible; there was a democratic element to Country. Little more was needed than a guitar and a harmonica, instruments that were relatively inexpensive, easily accessed and transported at the time.
Country music worked to popularise the First Nations voice, shunting it into the consciousness of mainstream Australia. The protest element of some Indigenous Country music also played a crucial role in communicating the messages of Australia’s civil rights movement; and unifying and mobilizing a community and country behind it. Before, this week I might have dismissed Australian country as a bunch of locals trying to copy a bunch of Americans moaning about their broken hearts. What I’ve come to realise from listening to Indigenous Country music, however, is that heartbreak is entirely the concern and jurisdiction of Indigenous Country. That visceral sense of loss and grief and absence so endemic to American Country, still comes through. However, in Indigenous Country it’s less about a girlfriend and more about dispossession and invasion and stolen generations and cultural genocide. To our First Nations people the word ‘Country’ doesn’t signify space outside of major cities, it is so much larger, more fluid, ephemeral, sacred. I think that gravity and sense of profound connection is what make this homegrown genre so moving and interesting. Indigenous Country remains a flourishing category today and if you’re looking to give it a listen I would recommend Troy Cassar-Daley, Issacc Yamma and Leah Flannagan.