For 45 years country musicians from around Australia have been heading to Tamworth to seek out their dreams.
This year's pilgrimage to the Tamworth Country Music Festival (January 20 to 29) will be no different for hundreds of stars and hopefuls.
We spoke to seven performers at different stages of their careers about what country music – and the Tamworth festival – means to them.
THE SHINING STAR
MOST four-year-olds are lucky to be able to sing nursery rhymes, but not Kirsty Lee Akers.
She hadn’t even started school when she was busking on the streets of Tamworth.
More than two decades on the 28-year-old from Kurri Kurri in the Hunter Valley will be a star attraction at this year’s festival.
Akers is a Golden Guitar nominee for best female artist for her album Burn Baby Burn.
“I think this year will be my 27th festival,” she says.
“I think I’ve only missed one or two. Country music just totally runs in my family. My Nan, my aunties, my Mum, they’re all singers. I’ve been going since I was a baby. We took my little sister [Kaitlin] when she was two weeks old.”
Akers’ childhood years playing on the “Boulevard of Dreams” in Peel Street, not only provided invaluable experience, the estimated earnings of $10,000 financed her debut EP at 16.
“It’s really embarrassing,” she says. “My parents would walk up to other people busking and make me take over their limelight and ask if I could get up and sing with them. They were so lucky there was nice people busking that would let me get up and sing with them. I’d sing for 20 minutes with my little hat out and move on to the next spot.”
Not surprisingly, Akers’ childhood idol was country legend Dolly Parton.
Her voice and songs - which include the light-hearted hits Knocked Up and In Spite Of Ourselves with Bob Evans - are imbued with Parton charm.
“My Mum and Dad listened to more traditional country music, so I was obsessed with Dolly Parton my whole life growing up,” Akers says.
“She was my biggest idol and I’ve been to Dollywood about eight times now. When I got older it was more about Shania Twain and wanting to be her and the Dixie Chicks.”
THE LAUNCH PAD
ALEYCE Simmonds has worn many hats, and those life experiences have helped shape a raw new album to be released at the festival.
The Tamworth singer-songwriter will release More Than Meets the Eye on January 20, followed by a launch show on January 27.
More Than Meets The Eye charts her emotional journey home to Tamworth, where she works as a live-in motel manager in between other jobs and her music.
The album is Simmonds’ third and she believes it is more personal than her previous work, Pieces Of Me (2011) and Believe (2013).
It was inspired by her role as ambassador for the Tamworth Family Support Service and the scourge of domestic violence.
The album is quite a journey because to be honest I went from a place of darkness and I found someone who changed my life,” Simmonds says.
“I moved into the light, we went through the ups and downs of the relationship and spat out the other side when we broke up and into the darkness again – and finding my way back to Tamworth.
“I came home and was surrounded by family and friends so that album kind of describes the happiness, the pain and the heartbreak and the happiness again, so I’m really proud of it.”
JEAN Stafford was officially crowned the Queen of Australian Country Music in 1989 by the legendary Smoky Dawson. Decades later, she is packing her bags to go on tour again in America next month.
Stafford has worked with the cream of musicians in Nashville where she was given the key to the city by the governor and was made an honorary citizen in Tennessee.
After living away from her Tasmanian home for 20 years, including a stint in Tamworth for five years, she moved back to Burnie in 2009 to be close to her children and grandchildren.
The glamorous Stafford believes a country entertainer should look the part and has the Stetsons, fringed outfits, wigs and gowns to maintain her immaculate stage image.
“On tour you’ve always got to have your hair and make-up done because you’re meeting people all along the road,” the 67-year-old songstress says. “We wear a lot of wigs because it’s a big expense to have a hairdresser at every show.”
Stafford says her American agent has booked a range of gigs for her to perform in US theatres, casinos and dance hall venues. The multi-award winning star has lost none of her passion.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love singing and didn’t love country music,” she says. “From when I was eight or nine I took my guitar to school and the kids would get me to sing for them in the shelter shed. I was very shy, still am, and my music and my guitar were my way into people’s hearts.”
Stafford started her career at 12 before gaining national recognition with the hit single What Kind of Girl Do You Think I Am? She claimed her first Golden Guitar for best female at 25 and has since won another two and been inducted into the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame Roll of Renown at Tamworth.
RORY Phillips does not think of palm trees and sandy beaches when he imagines paradise. He pictures being surrounded by music and the musicians at the Tamworth Country Musical Festival.
“Tamworth’s a music paradise,” Rory says.
The 10-year-old from Tumut in NSW is preparing to play 15 gigs and five busking sessions at his second festival. Rory has been given the chance to work with some of the biggest names in country music and is honoured to be following in their footsteps.
“I’m very excited because all the people I support went to Tamworth 20 years ago and have the same story,” he says.
Rory’s mum, Sam Phillips, has been busying readying her son for his hectic performing schedule. Rory will be making show appearances with artists, busking, speaking on radio and playing on two of the festival’s public stages.
COUNTRY music has always been part of Mickey Pye’s life.
“I grew up on country music, living on a property at Oberon with trucks, horses and rodeos,” the 25-year-old says. “I had a lot of respect for Slim Dusty growing up, but over time I became inspired by contemporary country guitarists like Brad Paisley and Keith Urban.”
It was always Pye’s ambition to enter the country music industry and he began playing guitar at nine.
Oberon RSL hosted Beccy Cole and Adam Harvey when Pye was young and it forged his love for country music and his aspirations to be a musician.
Those aspirations were given a dramatic boost when Pye won the 2015 Star Maker competition.
“It shows you that you can achieve big things, by starting small and chipping away year by year at it,” he says.
Pye is involved with the Bathurst Academy of Music, where he passes down his knowledge to the next generation.
IT’S no surprise Kayla Dwyer has Tamworth high on her 2017 agenda. It will be the singer-songwriter’s seventh trip to the country music capital. In that time, the 25-year-old has learnt the value of continuity.
“I went a couple of years in a row and then had a break for a year,” Dwyer says. “The thing with Tamworth is it is all about the connections you make and missing that one year put me back in line a little bit. Now with this being my fifth year in a row coming up, I have developed a really strong network which allows me to play at some great spots.”
Originally from Warrnambool, Dwyer recently made a strategic move to Melbourne.
“The move to Melbourne was very much about opening up more doors for my music,” she says.
And it has. Dwyer will record an album this year after a successful crowdfunding campaign raised $20,000.
“I have worked hard, I have done the four or five shows a week on the pub circuit,” she says. “I will keep working hard and developing my own style, which hopefully will give me a point of difference.”
JASON Webb was helping a mate with karaoke at Canberra’s Calwell Tavern 10 years ago and after listening to people wreck some of his favourite songs he swore he would never sing himself.
“I said to my mate you’ll never hear me speak on that microphone, let alone sing,” Webb says. “And sure enough, six months later I was up singing.”
Webb is happy to admit he doesn’t have a musical background, he doesn’t play an instrument, had only sung in the shower before going public at karaoke.
However, Johnny Cash always intrigued Webb. The early stuff from his hey days to the later music when he teamed up with rock producer Rick Rubin and covered the Nine Inch Nails’ song Hurt.
It was Webb’s love of singing Cash during karaoke sessions that eventually led to his big break. After getting in contact with some experienced musicians who had played in bands across the country and shared a love of The Man In Black, Counterfeit Cash was born.
The band also features Vinny Hellen (guitar, harmonica, mandolin), Pete Redding (bass) and Noel Walker (drums).
Webb also performs with Brew’n, a country rock act based in Canberra, and has been to Tamworth the past four years with them.
He is working on an original single called 50 Years, about a Vietnam veteran still having dreams about the war, 50 years on. It was inspired by the Redgum song I was only 19.
“If I get that song up I’d love to head back to Tamworth next year with that,” Webb says.
And the idea of taking Counterfeit Cash there one day appeals too.
“You never know, we’d have to see how it all played out, but that would be a bit of fun.”