How Tamworth Country Music Festival, Golden Guitars went from humble beginnings to coveted gold

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As Tamworth celebrates its 50th country music festival, the late Slim Dusty still holds the record for 38 Golden Guitars, an honor he shares with musician Lee Kernaghan.

But it was Slim’s wife, Joy McKean, who won the first-ever Golden Guitar in 1973 for writing one of Slim’s most iconic songs: Lights on the Hill.

The festival’s annual Golden Guitar Awards are Australian country music’s highest honor, and Lights on the Hill was written from Joy’s own experience towing a heavy caravan to the infamous Devil’s Pinch near Guyra on the sets. of northern New South Wales.

Joy McKean accepts a Golden Guitar at Tamworth in the 1970s.(Provided: Slim Dusty Foundation)

The New England highway trip on a rainy night was made more difficult as the vehicle’s headlight dimmer was on the ground near the brake and Joy was limited to using one foot due to a leg stirrup.

“I’d turn on my high beams to see where the next bend was, a truck would come [the hill] and I would do it well in the eyes,” she said.

“I knew that if I took my foot away [the accelerator] for too long [to use the dimmer] the vehicle would stall or begin to roll back due to the weight of the van.”

A convoy of caravans on a steep rocky road
It was driving a van like this on a rainy night that inspired Joy McKean’s song Lights on the Hill.(Provided: Slim Dusty Foundation)

The song came to her on the beat of the windshield wipers and by the time she reached Warwick in South Queensland it was over.

So many country music songs are stories about life and every year the best of them are celebrated at Tamworth.

Plagued by floods, drought, bushfires and more recently a pandemic, the Tamworth Country Music Festival has survived it all to reach 50 events.

Humble beginnings

The festival evolved almost by accident when radio station 2TM tried to regain some of the audience it had lost to a new rival in the early 1960s.

“Suddenly, with the introduction of television, the public evaporated at night,” said co-founder Max Ellis.

A man is sitting at a table looking at a book
Max Ellis co-founded the Tamworth Country Music Festival.(ABC New England: Jennifer Ingall)

A country music show called Hoedown, hosted by John Minson, garnered the most attention thanks to the station’s unique frequency reach.

“2TM was part of a chain of clear channel stations on the east coast of Australia, which had been established by the government as a possible defense asset, so that they would have clear communication on the coast,” said said Mr. Ellis.

A man is sitting in a radio studio with a microphone and a record player
John Minson’s Hoedown program in the late 60s was central to the early days of the festival.(ABC Archives: A Great Country)

Mr Ellis said artists were quick to tap into this new marketing resource.

“People like Slim and Joy were very supportive of what we were doing because for the first time they felt they had the support of their own media, which recognized their ability and talent,” he said. declared.

In a 1998 ABC TV interview, the late Slim Dusty recalled Hoedown’s early days hosted by John Minson.

“He was this fatherly, very likeable guy and he was interviewing truck drivers, and they would call and see him from one night stand, and he just built up a really big audience,” Slim said.

Band on stage and seated audience
Slim Dusty performing at the 1976 Country Music Festival at Tamworth Town Hall.(Provided: Slim Dusty Foundation)

Eventually the festival grew out of a few weekend events and an Australian Centenary Concert in 1970, but there was not universal support from locals at first.

“Most people in Tamworth left Tamworth; they went to the coast,” said Warwick Bennet, mayor of Tamworth from 1979 to 1986.

A man in a collared shirt smiles.
Warwick Bennet worked with Max Ellis to establish the Golden Guitar tourist attraction.(ABC New England: Jennifer Ingall)

In the 1998 interview, Slim Dusty recalled a similar sentiment.

People lining the street watch a country music parade
The festival was at its peak in the 1980s.(ABC Archives: A Great Country 1987)

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By the mid-1980s the festival was in full swing, a cavalcade had been introduced, and all roads led to Tamworth in the month of the festival: January.

“Suddenly everywhere you went in the city there was music, people had their pockets full of money to come to the festival and people were getting more involved in it, people weren’t leaving, people were making money. money,” Bennett said.

“From the start, we decided to look for tangible aspects of country music, with which we could strengthen the musical part,” said Mr. Ellis.

The Roll of Renown was established in 1976, followed by the Hands of Fame Park a year later and the Big Golden Guitar in 1988.

Today, the Australasian Country Music Hall of Fame is home to country music treasures that draw tourists to the city year-round.

Coveted Gold

As well as being known as Mr Hoedown for his early role in establishing the festival, the late John Minson was also the craftsman credited with finishing the now coveted Golden Guitar statue. .

“The first gold guitars we got had a very rough finish, pitted and not very gold at all,” Mr. Ellis said.

Photograph of a rough and pitted and not very golden guitar statue
The original gold guitars had a rough, pitted finish and weren’t very gold at all.(ABC New England: Jennifer Ingall)

“We have research that showed in the early 2000s something like 72% of all adult Australians recognized the Golden Guitar Awards at Tamworth.”

Golden guitars lined up in rows
More than 500 gold guitars have been awarded to artists since 1973.(ABC News)

Lee Kernaghan hopes 2022 will be the year he breaks the record he shares with Slim Dusty for the most golden guitars. Hot on his heels is Troy Cassar-Daley with 37 of the awards.

Fanny Lumsden won the hen at Golden Guitars 2021, taking home five awards to cap off a huge year, which included an ARIA award.

She said the Golden Guitar Awards were something special.

Country music artist Fanny Lumsden on stage
Fanny Lumsden has won five Golden Guitars at the 2021 awards.(ABC)

Keep the faith with the fans

A woman and a man kiss.
Kaz Johnson, pictured with songwriter Allan Caswell, has only missed the festival four times.(Provided: Kaz Johnson)

Festival fan Kaz Johnson, who shares his birthday with the event, remembers his first country music festival as an 11-year-old in 1974.

“We always used to gather around the radio and listen to the awards while we were up there,” Ms Johnson said.

“At that time, not many fans went to the awards; it was mostly for the nominees and people in the industry.”

Ms Johnson has only missed four festivals in the past 50 years. She said the reaction to the event had changed around this time.

Ms Johnson said today’s festival continued to be popular because it was so inclusive.

“It’s the main attraction at Tamworth these days, everyone is welcome no matter what kind of country music they play,” she said.

Ray Beaman and Troy Cassar-Daley pose for a side-by-side photo
Ray Beaman with one of his favorite country stars, Troy Cassar-Daley.(Supplied Ray Beaman)

This variety is what has brought Ray Beaman back to Tamworth for the past 14 years.

Mr Beaman said artists valued their die-hard fans and he had received tickets to some gigs over the years.

He said part of the attraction was discovering new talent and the future of country music.

“The youngest [artists] are more country rock,” Beaman said.

While the festival was canceled in 2021 due to COVID-19, the Golden Guitar Awards still took place, allowing Tamworth to maintain its reputation in the industry as more than just a music festival.

And because of COVID, this year’s festival has been postponed from January to April.

The 2022 festival will run from April 18-24 with the Golden Guitar Awards on Wednesday the 20th.

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