When Finnian Johnson of Cessnock said he wanted to play the guitar, it was something his dad, Scott, had heard before. His older brothers had either tried and lost interest or set the guitar aside altogether.
"It didn't last long," Finnian’s dad, Scott Johnson said. He had dabbled in music when he young: "I just never carried on with it."
Finnian is the youngest of four kids in the Johnson house.
"Ok," his dad told him. "A new set of strings on the old guitar, and I'll teach you four chords, and when you come back with three songs, I'll get you guitar lessons."
Finnian started Year 11 at St Joseph’s at Lochinvar on Tuesday.
"I'd rather be doing music full-time than going to school," he said over the phone. The Johnsons had just returned home from two weeks at the Tamworth Country Music Festival.
"I'm 15. Mum's making me – I have to finish Year 11 and 12. Well, 11 – we'll see how we go with 12. It's hard as it is, but everything helps. I've got plenty of time."
It had been a big few days for Finnian. On Sunday, he played to around 1000 country music fans at Tamworth's Bicentennial Park at the Country Music Festival's closing concert. Kids in the iconic Tamworth festival hats lined the front of the stage. The grown-ups relaxed, sprawled in camp chairs and on picnic blankets.
The rain arrived at the tail end of the festival. A stormy downpour had delayed the previous night's concert before it went ahead. The weather doesn’t much bother Tamworth fans. In 2004, a massive flood inundated town. Camper trailers lined the roads, up to their axles in brown water. A photo of a man with blue denim shirt unbuttoned, jeans soaked through, tinny in hand with a beaming smile at the camera as he rides on the side rail of his ute, camper in tow, wading through the flood sums up the Tamworthian attitude to weather at Festival time. When the heat turns into a storm, the campers batten down the tents, the fans slip under umbrellas and ponchos and hats, and the stars take to the stage undeterred by water dripping in at the edges. The show goes on.
Three chords for three songs
"I think it was about 10 or 15 minutes and he came back with the three songs," Mr Johnson said, reminiscing about the turnng point for his son’s music career. "That was it."
Finnian had a new guitar that Christmas and started taking lessons with a local tutor who wanted to teach him rock 'n’ roll.
"Country is definitely the way I'm going to go," he said. "I guess [it's] the stories that the songs tell. I grew up, and dad was always playing Troy Cassar-Daley over the stereo. You hear the music that man sings about, and it is just so real and true, and I just want to do that."
I grew up, and dad was always playing Troy Cassar-Daley over the stereo. You hear the music that man sings about, and it is just so real and true, and I just want to do that.
Troy is Finnian's idol. A grainy YouTube clip from 2012 shows a younger Finnian - then nine - in an Arsenal jersey singing Cassar-Daley's Ladies in My Life a capella against a backdrop of football posters on his bedroom wall. At Tamworth, amid a full schedule of appearances, he took the stage with the man who made him want to do country music.
"It was a bit nerve-wracking," he said. "I was shaking backstage but then I got on stage with him, and I just felt comfortable. It was all good."
Cassar-Daley, a Roll of Renown artist and 33-time Golden Guitar winner, said his show titled The Road Ahead was about fostering young talent.
"When I first went to Tamworth I was obsessed with the different shows that actually showcased people that we didn't know," Cassar-Daley said before The Road Ahead. "I've always wanted to emulate that show with mine, with guests."
Finnian met Aunty Val White, Joy McKean and Troy’s first guitar teacher backstage.
“They told me to stay who I am and just don't change. Troy was always the same person that he is today,” Finnian said. “That is what I took from that.”
“I still think Troy’s the number one,” Mr Johnson said. “He’s just an all-round genuine bloke.”
Tamworth as a second home
At the closing concert on Sunday, Finnian performed an original song titled Your Heart is Showing, which he wrote with Golden Guitar winning singer-songwriter Matt Scullion, and a cover of Ring of Fire, most notably played by Johnny Cash.
His musical career leapt forward in his second appearance at Tamworth in as many years. He was busking in 2017 and competing in local talent quests. When he returned home this time, he had peformed on stage with his hero and collected a near-full diary of performance bookings over the coming weeks.
Finnian was heading back to Tamworth twice in the following month. Mr Johnson said the north-west town could almost become their second home.
This year, Finnian is being managed by Aleyce Simmonds, who collected the Golden Guitar for female artist of the year. He won the Battle of the Young Stars talent quest, which put him on stage for the closing concert. He is an ambassador for Variety and has had invitations to play alongside some of the biggest names in Australian country music.
Finnian travels to play at Tamworth, the Gympie Muster and a host of places in between to find friends who share his musical interests. At school, he says there are a couple of mates who like country, but most ask who Troy Cassar-Daley is.
"They're not country music fans," he said.
"It's surreal,” Mr Johnson said. “People say 'you must be pretty proud'. I'd like a dollar for every time people say that because it's not really the appropriate word. I'm just waiting for someone to pinch me and wake me up."
Like many young up-and-comers, Finnian has eyes on Nashville. He hopes to release new music this year.
"With Aleyce on board," he said. "It's amazing. She knows everyone and everything, and it's just incredible.
"I just want to go as far as I can go, and play for the people who want to hear my music. I got acknowledged by my idol and a heap of great artists who told me to keep going, so I'm going to keep going. And that's it really."