Josh Arnold creates music and anthems that celebrate the identity of rural communities.

Story Bruce McMahon  Photos David Kelly

Songwriter Josh Arnold learnt his business from the ground up, out on the cracked brown clay of brigalow country. The teenage musician became a country artist and Golden Guitar winner then, disillusioned with the music industry, a teacher’s aide, before evolving into a wandering troubadour, and a musical muse to small schools and communities across rural Australia. 

Today, the strapping 44-year-old helps people find the rhythm and soul of their particular piece of country in song and video. Children and locals supply the ideas and then Josh incorporates those into lyrics and music. His 10-year-old Small Town Culture venture has given him a solid sense of place and purpose, plus a deeper appreciation of his home town and the farm paddocks of Tara on Queensland’s Western Downs. Josh lives in Toowoomba with his wife Natasha and three teenagers Layn, Tyler and Klay. 

“Part of what I do, and it’s what drives me, is to help put people on the map and instil pride in their country,” Josh says. “I feel like I’m emotionally connected to every job, in regional areas in particular, because I grew up in a small town, a small school. I can’t imagine how much I would’ve loved to have had a chance to sing about where I lived and be a star in a music video.”

Projects last year included working with the National Rural Health Alliance, gathering thoughts, poetry and photographs from around the country for a song and video that showcased the stories and resilience of rural people. The song title ‘Build ’Em Up’ was inspired by a woman at The Gums, Qld, who believed she had to keep her shop open to build up locals despairing of drought and the coronavirus outbreak. The Alliance’s chief executive officer Gabrielle O’Kane says it was inspiring to see how people across rural Australia became involved and how the song was received. “We know the pandemic has really affected people in rural communities, but we also know that the arts are a great way to support people’s mental health,” Gabrielle says. “People found it therapeutic to be able to be part of something and tell Josh about their experiences.”

Josh’s work with schools and communities has been appreciated and welcomed from Tasmania to Weipa, Renmark to Mount Isa. In 2018, Small Town Culture, supported by Central Queensland University, produced a song and video in New Dehli for the Salaam Baalak Trust, which provides care for street and working children in the Indian capital. “I worked at a couple of orphanages there. Unbelievable. I never thought I’d be standing in those streets – that foggy mist, cars and tuktuks tearing around me. And it all started in a Year 2 classroom back here.” 

At Meringandan State School outside Toowoomba, a small bunch of kids join with him around the yarning circle to sing their collaboration ‘Fire and Clay’, which is the English translation of the area’s original name: 

Black soil, a spark from the sticks, The flame has been kept alive since 1876, Moulding the minds, and the young lives, Values built like bricks, which will stand the test of time, Always our best, We wear it with pride on our chest, Fire and Clay, Moorin and Gandan, Our cultural way, At Meringandan State School, We ignite learning and shape the best future, together, Just like Fire and Clay.

School principal Janelle Groves believes Josh’s work was a positive influence in a difficult 2020. “He’s working with the kids and writing songs about things that are important to them,” she says. “The lyrics and the ideas that come from them are just stunning and have picked up the thing about positivity. And that’s a big thing at our school, about bouncing back when things don’t always go to plan. All the kids just think the world of him.”

As a schoolboy Josh was obsessed with rugby league and had thoughts of being a top-grade player. But the former Tara Panther (“the toughest footy team in the toughest town in south-west Queensland”) grew up too lean and lanky, even as a second-rower. At 14 he picked up a guitar and began writing his own material while listening to an eclectic music mix, from Pearl Jam and Garth Brooks to Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. His first gig was at a Toowoomba hotel, playing four Guns N’ Roses songs with two school mates, but he says covering other people’s songs never really stretched him. “Songwriting was always key to me,” he says. “It’s hard to play covers when you’re a songwriter. The music’s attached to you, it’s part of you.”

Josh signed with the ABC/Mushroom music publishing label as a 19 year old. Critics acclaimed his poetic turns of phrase and soulful inflections. ABC Music’s head Clive Hodson said, “Josh Arnold is the kind of talent you spend a lifetime waiting to discover”. Josh went on to make three albums with ABC: Galvanise in 2001, Scarifier in 2003 and Fire in the Sun in 2005. A duet with Lee Kernaghan on Galvanise (an Australian version of ‘Thank God I’m A Country Boy’) won him a Golden Guitar at the Tamworth Country Music Festival in 2002.

Josh believed he had the ability, if not the heart, to follow on from Galvanise with a solid, Nashville-style, country album and could have built a longstanding career from there. Instead, his second album had Pearl Jam influences mixed in with bluegrass, blues and other nuances. His third had no traces of country at all. 

Josh says that 10 years ago he was “fed up” with the music industry. A friend of a friend suggested he become a teacher’s aide. “The first school I went into, the Grade Two teacher said, ‘You’re Josh Arnold. What are you doing here? Don’t just do maths and English, bring your guitar in.’ I took my guitar in, sang a few songs with the kids and it wasn’t long before the teacher said, ‘Why don’t you write a song?’ So we wrote a song called ‘Talk About A Kangaroo’, and probably 1000 songs later, here we are.”

A chance meeting with videographer Martin Gibbons en route to Thargomindah for a promotional video saw Josh pen a song for the town of 500 people. That song has had some 40,000 YouTube hits and the idea morphed into today’s Small Town Culture, with Josh, Martin and fellow videographer Jason Millhouse creating and compiling music videos for rural schools and communities across the country. 

Demand is strong. In the last term of last year the trio made 14 music videos, funded by a variety of sources, from Parents and Citizens Associations to shire councils, grants and local community organisations. 

“At the end of the day they want a song the whole community can embrace – something that’s catchy. You almost have to write a hit song in every place you go. But I love a challenge. It’s the lyrics, the little catchphrases that spring the music to life. Sometimes kids will say ‘There’s nothing much here’ but once they get going it’s great. 

“Primary school kids are always bubbly and ready to go, but teenagers can be really shy and stand-offish. I’m throwing them in the deep end in some ways – in two days you’re going to have headphones on and a camera in your face. I’m so proud of what they’re achieving. I see their confidence growing and with the teenagers the big one is that I see their pride grow in who they are and where they’re from. It does change people’s perceptions of places.”

While he loves songwriting, and songwriters such as Ryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen, his Small Town Culture work means he only gets the chance to compose about three or four songs a year that are not project-based.

“But I’ve just written a song ‘Small Town’ [due out in early 2021] inspired by everything I’m doing. It’s probably helped me reflect on growing up and where I’m from – made me appreciate it more, felt more of a genuine connection. I’m not trying to make a comeback, but when you’ve got a good song you just want people to hear it.”

This story is from Issue #135

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2021