As Tamworth celebrates its 50th country music festival, the late Slim Dusty still holds the record for 38 gold guitars, an honor he shares with musician Lee Kernaghan.
But it was Slim’s wife, Joy McKean, who won the first 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 the highest accolade in Australian country music, and Lights on the Hill was written from Joy’s own experience towing a heavy caravan up the then-notorious Devil’s Pinch near Guyra in the NSW Northern Tablelands. .
Traveling down the New England turnpike on a rainy night was made more difficult because the vehicle’s headlight dimmer switch was on the floor near the brake and Joy was restricted to one foot due to a leg clamp. .
“I had my high beam on to see where the next turn was, a truck was coming [the hill] and I would do it right in the eye,” he said.
“I knew that if I took my foot off [the accelerator] for a long time [to use the dimmer] the vehicle would stop or start to slide backwards due to the weight of the truck.”
The song came to him to the beat of windscreen wipers and by the time he reached Warwick, South Queensland, it was complete.
Many country music songs are stories about life and each year the best ones are celebrated in Tamworth.
Plagued by floods, droughts, wildfires and most recently a pandemic, the Tamworth Country Music Festival has survived it all to hit 50 events.
The festival evolved almost by accident when radio station 2TM tried to win back some of the audience it lost to a new rival in the early 1960s.
“Suddenly, with the introduction of television, the audience evaporated at night,” said co-founder Max Ellis.
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 they would have clear communication on the coast,” Ellis said.
Ellis said artists were quick to take advantage of this new marketing resource.
“People like Slim and Joy were very supportive of what we were doing because, for the first time, they felt that they had the support of their own media, that they were recognizing their ability and their talent,” he said.
In a 1998 ABC TV interview, the late Slim Dusty recalled the early days of Hoedown hosted by John Minson.
“He was this fatherly, very friendly guy and he would interview truckers, and they’d call and see him in one night, and he just built up a huge following,” Slim said.
The festival eventually grew out of a few weekend events and an Australian Centenary concert in 1970, but there was not universal support from locals in the early days.
“Most of the people in Tamworth left Tamworth; they went to the coast,” said Warwick Bennett, mayor of Tamworth from 1979 to 1986.
In the 1998 interview, Slim Dusty recalled a similar sentiment.
By the mid-’80s the festival was in full swing, a cavalcade had been introduced and all roads led to Tamworth in the festival month – January.
“Suddenly everywhere you went in the city there was music, people had pockets full of money to go to the festival and people were getting more involved, people weren’t leaving, people were making money,” he said. Bennet.
“Early on, we decided that we would look for tangible aspects of country music, where we could reinforce the musical part,” Ellis said.
The Roll of Renown was established in 1976, followed by Hands of Fame Park a year later and Big Golden Guitar in 1988.
Today, the Australasian Country Music Hall of Fame houses country music treasures that draw tourists to the city year-round.
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 refining the now coveted Golden Guitar statue.
“The first gold guitars we got were very rough, pitted, and not very gold,” Ellis said.
“We have research that showed in the early 2000s that something like 72 per cent of all adult Australians recognized the Golden Guitar Awards at Tamworth.”
Lee Kernaghan hopes 2022 will be the year he breaks the record he shares with Slim Dusty for the most gold guitars. Hot on his heels is Troy Cassar-Daley with 37 of the awards.
Fanny Lumsden won the group at the 2021 Golden Guitars and took home five awards to cap off a great year, which included an ARIA Award.
She said that the Golden Guitar Awards were something special.
Keeping the faith with the fans
Festival goer Kaz Johnson, who shares her birthday with the event, remembers her 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 there,” Ms. Johnson said.
“In those days not many fans went to the awards, it was mainly for the people who were nominated and people in the industry.”
Johnson has missed just four festivals in the last 50 years. She said that the reaction to the event had changed by this time.
Ms. Johnson said today’s festival was still popular because it was so inclusive.
“That’s the main attraction in Tamworth these days, anyone is welcome there, no matter what kind of country music they play,” he said.
That variety is what has brought Ray Beaman back to Tamworth for the past 14 years.
Beaman said the artists appreciated his die-hard fans and had given him tickets to a few concerts over the years.
He said part of the attraction was seeing new talent and the future of country music.
“The youngest [artists] they go more into 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 due to COVID, this year’s festival has been rescheduled from January to April.
The 2022 festival will run from April 18-24 with the Golden Guitar Awards on Wednesday the 20th.