Faces of Tamworth: country music festival founder Max Ellis

The Northern Daily Leader is celebrating the 200-year anniversary of explorer John Oxley reaching the Peel River by profiling 200 faces of Tamworth. With the Tamworth Country Music Festival wrapped up for another year, we meet one of the men behind the 46-year-old event. Max Ellis is a name synonymous with country music. He’s the man who coined our city “the country music capital” and the co-founder of our famous festival  – but he admits he hasn’t always liked country music. The 81-year-old has called Tamworth home for 51 years. He says it’s the people that he loves most.

MAX Ellis is a name synonymous with country music. 

He’s the man who helped coin our city the country music capital, and is the co-founder of the famed Country Music Festival.

As the 46th festival wraps up, we meet one of the men who helped put Tamworth on the map.

Mr Ellis was born in Melbourne and grew up in Canberra, before his parents moved to Armidale in the late 1950s. 

He went overseas and returned with Norwegian wife Grynet.

“I looked around for work up there and got a job as a journalist at Tamworth radio station, 2TM at the age of 30,” he said. 

“That’s when the country music thing started.”

In 1968, the local Capital Country Music Association (CCMA) had its very first jamboree in June 1968. 

It was the following year when the country music capital concept and title was launched for Tamworth by the 2TM group, comprising Mr Ellis, John Minson, Kevin Knapp, Warwick Higginbotham and Eric Scott.

From there, the festival has gone ahead in leaps and bounds.

“Obviously we had hopes it would grow, and country music in those days was pretty quiet,” Mr Ellis said.

“It was just coming out of the lull that had been forced onto it by the introduction of rock and roll.

“It was starting to build again and new people were starting to emerge on the scene.

“We felt as though promoting Tamworth as the centre of country music, we’d help that growth and ride along with it.”

TCMF founder Max Ellis. Photo: Gareth Gardner

TCMF founder Max Ellis. Photo: Gareth Gardner

Mr Ellis admits he wasn’t the greatest fan of country music when he started out, but it’s a passion that’s long stayed with him.

“I came into it not being a country music fan,” he said.

“I’ve always enjoyed the music, but it’s never been my preferred music.

“But over the years, I’ve learned to love it.

“The thing I really like about country music is the people.

“Country music people are terrific. Not just the artists and professionals, but the fans themsevles.

“That’s one the marvellous things about Tamworth.

“We’ve generated, I think, billions of dollars over the last 45 years for Tamworth, but we’ve also given immense pleasure to hundreds of thousands of people over those years.

“That’s something to be pretty happy about it.”

Mr Ellis said there’d been inevitable changes to the industry over the years, but the roots of it remained firmly planted.

“Music, over the years, has evolved,” he said.

“It’s no longer just the traditional form of country music. 

“That still survives of course, and many people still prefer it, but we’ve seen people like Keith Urban not just come to the top of the Australian industry, but to the top of the world country music industry.

“And Keith always credits Tamworth as the place that launched his career.”

Country music is as much a part of Tamworth’s identity than any other one thing.

“From a tourism point of view, an identity is the name of the game,” Mr Ellis said.

“Country music has given Tamworth an identity second to none in Australia.

“Anywhere you go and say you’re from Tamworth, people reply, ‘Ah, the country music capital’.

“It really is a tremendous identity.

“I think in the early days, many people in Tamworth were a bit sceptical about it, they thought, who wants to be known as the hillbilly town.

“But I think over the last 45 years, they’ve seen the benefits.

“I think there’s now a quiet pride.”

Mr Ellis, now 81, had three children with his wife Grynet, before she died in 1992.

When we asked him what he loved most about Tamworth, Mr Ellis didn’t think twice.

“The people,” he said.

“It’s a country town, but it’s a go-ahead country town.

“It is a town that has a pride in what it is and what it can do for people.”

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You know that Tamworth has a country music festival, but how did it come to be the internationally-recognised event it is now?

Check out our timeline below.

*Information provided by the Directory of Australian Country Music

 1968: The local Capital Country Music Association (CCMA) had its very first jamboree in June 1968. The CCMA was formed in 1966 and held the first jamboree in June 1968 to raise money for the Tasmanian bush fire appeal.

1969: This was the year the Country Music Capital concept and title was launched for Tamworth by the 2TM group, Max Ellis, John Minson, Kevin Knapp, Warwick Higginbotham and Eric Scott.

1970: An Australian Centenary show brought Smoky Dawson, Slim Dusty, Shirley Thoms and Buddy Bishop together in Tamworth to perform.

1973: The first ever Australasian Country Music Awards were held at the Tamworth Town Hall on January 28 of this year. For some, this is also considered to be the first official year of our festival.

1976: January was designated as Australia's Country Music Month and Tex Morton was the first to be honoured on the Country Music Roll of Renown in Tamworth.

1977: The Hands of Fame cornerstone opened in Tamworth - the Country Music Capital, Tex Morton, Buddy Williams and Smoky Dawson were the first inductees.

1978: The Tamworth Songwriters Association was founded by 2TM, Johnny Ashcroft was the first president.

1980: The Eighth Australasian Country Music Awards were staged in Tamworth with new Commonwealth Bank sponsorship. The awards presentation moved to the 2TM Big Top to cater for an audience of more than 4000.

1982: The Country Music Cavalcade began in Tamworth.

1983: The first figures arrive for the Gallery of Stars Wax Museum, which were Smoky Dawson, The McKean Sisters, Frank Ifield, John Minson, Shirley Thoms, Chad Morgan and Johnny Chester.

1984: The first Harmonica championships were held in Tamworth, on January 28.

1985: The Country Music Awards were now known as the Golden Guitar Awards and staged in the Tamworth Workmen's Club. The Star Maker Competition - originally held in October - moves to January.

1988: The Golden Guitar Awards move to a Saturday night presentation and were first broadcast live on the 7 Network. A 12 metre high Big Golden Guitar and Country Collection Wax Museum were officially opened by Slim Dusty.

On this same year, the Tamworth Songwriters Association held their first awards on January 21.

1990: Keith Urban won the Star Maker Competition.

1991: The Australian Country Music Foundation was launched in Tamworth by Peter Burgis. On that same year, a 14-year-old Felicity Urquhart signed with Hadley Records.

1992: 2TM split the Golden Guitar Awards with presentations in many venues throughout the one-week long Tamworth Festival. The industry disagreed with the changes.

During January, the same year, a group of artists and industry people staged a fundraising concert at the Tamworth Showground.

The Country Music Association of Australia was formed - Slim Dusty was president, John Williamson vice-president, Joy McKean was the treasurer, Max Ellis was the secretary and Phil Matthews was the public officer.

The association took over the awards from 2TM/BAL Marketing in June.

1993: The first Golden Guitar Awards organised by the CMAA were held this year and were staged at the Tamworth Showground Indoor Arena.

1994: Toyota first sponsored the Golden Guitar Awards.

1995: The Capital Country Music Association celebrates their 30th anniversary Jamboree.

On this same year, TAFE granted $20,000 towards setting up the CMAA Australian College of Country Music.

The first Australian Bush Laureate Awards were also staged in January.

1996: The CMAA changed the Golden Guitar Awards' rules to allow material recorded overseas by Australians to be nominated.

Lee Kernaghan was also voted as the first CMAA Entertainer of the Year.

1997: The first CMAA Australian College of Country Music was held in Tamworth and directed by Peter Winkler.

1998: The first Country Music Broadcasters Hall of Fame inductees were announced in Tamworth.

The Toyota Concert of the Century launched the Tamworth Regional Entertainment and Conference Centre in September.

1999: The Toyota Country Music Awards were staged at the newly built TRECC for the first time and were telecast through the Prime and Seven Networks in Australia and New Zealand.

2000: The CMAA staged its first Hats off to Country festival in Tamworth and a tribute to Slim Dusty concert in June.

The Roll of Renown also moved from 2TM to the front of TRECC.

2001: The Tamworth Camerata, youth music school was launched by Joan Douglas and Greg Williams in July.

Tamworth was also named as one of the top ten music festivals in the world by the Melbourne Age.

2002: Smoky and Dot Dawson were made honorary members of the CMAA for their contribution to Australian Country Music for more than 60 years.

Telstra Country Wide took on sponsorship of the festival.

2003: Slim Dusty died on Friday, September 19.

2004: Star Maker moves to TRECC in January 18. Sara Storer won a record of seven Golden Guitar awards. Jessica Mauboy won the first Telstra Road to Tamworth quest.

2005: The Australian Country Music Foundation announced plans to build a $12 million hall of fame in Tamworth.

2006: The CMAA entered into a three-year Golden Guitar Awards agreement with Southern Cross Ten.

Tamworth's Big Golden Guitar appeared on postage stamps as part of the "Big Things" series.

The festival also won the Inland NSW Tourism Award.

2008: This year saw the return of the National Bluegrass Championships to Tamworth.

2011: Lee Kernaghan was wrongly announced as the winner of the Album of the Year for the 39th Golden Guitar awards ceremony. Graeme Connors was later revealed to be the correct recipient of the award.

2012: The Tamworth Country Music Festival celebrated its 40th Anniversary. A bronze statue of Smoky Dawson was unveiled at the front of the Tamworth Regional Council building.