The population of Australia’s country music capital swelled in January when it hosted the national whipcracking championships and the national rodeo finals on top of its famous Country Music Festival.

By Kirsty McKenzie

As the dust settles on the New England city of Tamworth after the annual shindig that is the Country Music Festival, new national champions across Australia are finding space to display their ribbons, trophies, Golden Guitars, TIARAs (Tamworth Independent Artists Recognition Awards) and golden Gumnuts. The festival, which some say began life as a talent quest on the January long weekend in 1968 (others say it began in 1973 when the first Country Music Awards were held), is now a 10-day spectacular said to be one of the largest events in the Southern Hemisphere. And while country music may still be its inspiration, the festival has turned into a much broader celebration with more than 2200 events including national titles and awards in everything ranging from country music and busking competitions to whipcracking championships and the Australian Bushmen’s Campdraft and Rodeo Association (ABCRA) national rodeo finals. In addition, the Australian Professional Rodeo Association (APRA) stages Bucking Thunder Down Under during the festival, and the Australian Bush Laureate Awards are decided. Along with the Golden Harmonica Championships, there’s the No Holds Barred Fiddle contest, the National Country Songwriting Contest and the Toyota Star Maker for up-and-coming talent.
With an estimated 75,000 visitors bolstering Tamworth’s population of around 55,000 for this year’s festival, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume that the city was bursting at the seams. In fact, it coped. Admirably. As Tamworth Regional Council Mayor James Treloar puts it, Tamworth has had more than 30 years’ experience at hosting the Country Music Festival, and expertise has grown along with the event. “If the Olympics, with 300,000 visitors each night, were said to be the biggest event Sydney, with a population of four million, could host, it’s quite a feat for Tamworth to almost double its population for 10 days,” he says. “It’s a massive logistical exercise, but more than justified by the $40 million it contributes to the local economy.”
Along with radically increased demands on accommodation services, policing, public transport and litter collection, there were concerns raised this year about the visitors’ impact on the drought-stricken district’s dwindling water resources. With Chaffey Dam at below 20 percent capacity and the city on level four (now level five) water restrictions, critics suggested that the festival should be cancelled for the year. “Residential usage accounts for about 56pc of our water usage,” James explains. “The population increase adds two mega litres a day to our water consumption, which is usually about 27 mega litres a day. We took the decision that less than 10pc increase in daily water consumption was more than justified by the benefit to the community.”
Tourism Tamworth’s general manager Rebel Thomson says that while the city’s 3000 motel beds, hotels, bed and breakfast places, caravan parks and camping grounds are generally booked out from one year to the next, accommodation can usually be found for the overflow. Home hosting adds about 9000 bed nights to the tally and some residents choose to take holidays and rent out their houses while they are away. And anyone who ever met anyone who lives in Tamworth seems to renew the acquaintance during festival time.
“We have a big tent city with tents and shower and toilet facilities provided, and the council opens up a number of parks for campers who want to bring their own tents and camping equipment,” Rebel says. “It’s not just businesses that benefit, a number of national charities gain from fundraisers such as Gina Jeffreys’ walk through the main street and Kasey Chambers’ and Lee Kernaghan’s free concerts. It’s also a major earner for many of the local clubs and sporting organisations that maintain the showers at the tent city and organise breakfasts and barbecues at the various camp sites.”
From country music to campdraft, most competitors say going to Tamworth is not about the prize money. However, there’s no doubt that the festival kick-starts a lot of careers. Country stars Troy Cassar-Daley and Kasey Chambers famously got their starts busking on Peel Street, and the exposure and recognition that success in any of the festival’s events brings, opens doors to all sorts of career opportunities.
ABCRA’s marketing and promotions manager Xanthe Addison says that the drought impacted on both competitors and spectators at this year’s festival. “Some people just couldn’t afford the time away from the farms to attend rodeos this year,” she says. “Apart from the fact that you’ve got to pay someone to look after your stock while you’re away, entry fees can look like a bit of a luxury when times are tight. For families like the Parkinsons, who have four members competing, that would mean something like $2000 in entry fees. So someone in that family had to win pretty big time to even cover their costs. But it’s worth it for the winners. Companies such as Cargill Beef Australia send scouts to events to check out emerging talent, and I’m sure lots of property managers do much the same thing on an individual level. All the qualities that go into being a champion – the dedication and hard work, not to mention the ability to budget time and money to compete – are what they’re also looking for in a good employee.”
Australian Whipcrackers and Plaiters Association president Steve Wicks says that, while competition for this year’s national awards was fierce, the drought and the Victorian bushfires impacted on the event. “But hopefully they’ll be back next year,” he says. “We’ve held our national titles at Tamworth for four years now mainly because of the infrastructure the festival provides and the opportunities it gives us to introduce people who don’t know anything about whipcracking to a truly Australian sport. Our family treats it as a holiday and we usually take the opportunity to go to a concert or two and attend some of the other events. It’s a great opportunity for people from all walks of life to see how others live and relax. And it’s a great place for families to be together.”
Rebel Thomson reports that preparations for next year’s festival begin almost as this year’s ends. “Nothing unforseen happens because the stakeholders – the council, the tourism and marketing people, the pubs and clubs and other businesses, and the performers and sponsors – work together so well,” she says.
Even noise levels are monitored to make sure everything goes smoothly. “It can be an issue, because there’s nothing worse than a bad busker,” James says. “You can walk down Peel Street during the festival and hear the best talent Australia has to offer but, unfortunately, you can also hear the worst. So we have monitoring devices and officers to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.”
There’s also a developing issue in handling the crowds after major events. “Twenty-five thousand of them might go home to bed, but the pubs and clubs might have 15,000 people queuing up to get in,” James says. “That could create a potentially dangerous situation, so we have to look at ways of keeping them entertained while they wait. It’s just another challenge to be resolved. And I reckon it’s a challenge councils all over Australia would give their eye teeth to be facing.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #52

Outback Magazine: April/May 2007