I’ve been a country music fan for over ten years and I’d never attended the legendary Tamworth Country Music Festival until this year. Blasphemy, you say! But better late than never, right? I didn’t know what to expect; I thought I’d hate it (at least subconsciously anyway) but I was pleasantly surprised to love every minute of it!
Country music is so diverse nowadays. With influences in rock, pop, hip-hop, Americana, blue grass, soul, you name it – if you haven’t found something you like, you probably haven’t looking hard enough.
That stereotypical image of the grizzled, hat-wearing, man strumming away on his banjo, singing about the bush in the sweltering Tamworth heat, is a thing of the past. There are elements of that, of course and there always will be (mind you, I never did see who fit that description nor a banjo in sight … maybe they left before I got there?).
From the man I saw drawing a large crowd with his hip-hop country beats, to a school girl singing the sweetest love songs, to the young man shredding on the electric guitar. Walking down Peel Street, which is the main hub for busking newcomers, truly represents how evolving the genre is.
Tamworth hosts the second largest country music festival in the world, after Nashville. Held over ten days in mid-January, and sees over 2500 acts perform in up to 120 venues. It’s an enigmatic experience, which delights and overwhelms the senses.
Here are my top tips for surviving TCMF as a newbie.
Although Tamworth is quite small, it is easy to get turned around. I walked the whole stretch of Peel Street looking for The Albert Hotel, only to realise once the street ended I’d gone the wrong way and had to walk to the very opposite end. Not a huge deal per say, but an annoyance when rushing between tight gigs.
I don’t necessarily think you need a map (although it couldn’t hurt), but having a visual reference of venue whereabouts helps if you’re going by foot. If you’re driving use GPS, but bare in mind we had trouble finding certain venues even when we had the correct address.
I suggest dedicating some time getting familiar with key locations and surroundings when you first arrive. If in doubt, there’s an information centre located on Peel Street and don’t be shy to ask, because everyone is friendly in Tamworth and happy to help.
Buy a guide.
There’s an official guide to TCMF, that’ll set you back $10 but it comes with a free double CD. It’s overly extensive, filled with articles, information, coupons, bus times, artist biographies, maps and daily listings; the guide is a must-have festival go-to! Say it’s 11.30am and you have an hour to kill before a gig. Check the guide and it’ll give you a list of everything happening in that hour and where to find it.
The official guide is available online pre-festival or sold at selected stores in Tamworth. Alternatively you can download the app via the official website, Apple or Android stores. I think the paper version makes for a better souvenir, but each to their own.
It’s hot – but it doesn’t have to be.
During January, Tamworth can reach scorching average temperatures of 40-something degrees. If walking in that kind of heat sounds like a torturous ideal, many shopping centres provide full days worth of entertainment. Not only is this a good way to see a variety of acts without having to move around, it is a great way to keep cool throughout the day. There is prime opportunities to meet said artists too after gigs, unlike at the larger shows.
Alternatively, hop from air conditioned venue to venue as quickly as possible. I don’t remember an indoor venue ever been void of air conditioning, but do be sure to choose accommodation with good cooling – you’ll need the sleep, trust me.
There are also free water stations in Peel Street, as well as a water sprinkler to cool off.
Bring a little cash.
Musicians are trying to earn a living and they need money to survive. It’s reality that for artists to continue making music we love and listen to, we need to support them. This can be by purchasing a ticket to a show, buying some merchandise or throwing a buck or two into the guitar case of a busker. All these seemingly tiny things make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things.
Merchandise also makes for a great memento, and if an artist makes it big, think of what a good investment buying that $5 EP was many years before. I wonder how much Tamworth-sold Keith Urban EPs would go for today? Importantly too, by spending money, you’re supporting the economy and local community. Tourists are estimated to generate a whopping $50 million in revenue over the ten-days.
If you’re eating cheap, you’ll avoid the EFTPOS minimum spend or surcharge costs too. There are ATMs located around Tamworth and in its shopping centres.
Embrace new artists.
Even the biggest artists need to start somewhere – and many begin busking on the streets of Tamworth. Kasey Chambers, Troy Cassar-Daley and last year’s ARIA-nominated artist Travis Collins, all started on Peel Street.
Attend shows you wouldn’t normally and find those little nuggets of untapped talent and potential. Follow their socials. Buy their music. Tell them how much you enjoyed their set. It’ll mean more to them than those bigger artists you love so dearly, and give them a boost for future years to come.
I recently discovered an artist named Heath Milner and instantly loved his voice. A full-time musician in Mackay, Queensland, Milner appeared on The Voice in 2017 and has performed alongside Adam Brand numerous times. Although he only had two shows booked in Tamworth this year, I made sure to attend his thirty minute set on the emerging artist stage in Familyzone.
I also caught part of the Storytellers showcase at The Sider Diner, where Brisbane-based singer/songwriter Pat Kenny talked about his army days and then sung the most heartfelt songs. Followed on the same stage, by 18-year-old Melbournian Kaitlyn Thomas, who has one of the best female voices I’ve ever heard.
I mixed these smaller gigs amongst my must-see favourites; all were free and were some of the rawest, most emotionally driven, best gigs I witnessed during the festival.
It’s more than just music.
Like other music festivals, music is only a part of it, with many other local attractions, activities and demonstrations on offer. There are many shops to peruse and local market stores with homemade gifts and treasures lining Peel Street. See a bird’s eye view of Tamworth via helicopter, cool down in the public pools, or get glammed up for the Toyota Golden Guitar Awards, held at the Tamworth Regional Entertainment and Conference Centre (TRECC).
You can meet your favourite stars at scheduled times, watch them in the Toyota Cavalcade or see them interviewed at KIX Country Radio’s live broadcast. Kids will be entertained by petting animals, pony rides, livestock shows, rodeo events, whip cracking, show rides or playing at various parks. Honestly, there’s too much to name!
Opened on January 25th 1988 by Slim Dusty and Paul Crombie, General Manager of Tourism NSW, and later expanded into a Tourist Centre, Music Shop, Coffee Shop, Wax Museum and Collectors Museum; a trip is not complete without a photo in front of the 12-metre high Big Golden Guitar.
You can see a lot in a few days.
Tamworth has a plethora of things to do and see all happening at the one time. Entertainment starts at the 6.30am breakfast shows and shows go well into the night. There’s a saying in Tamworth: “wake up early and go to bed late” … okay, I may have made that up but they are good words to live by. You won’t want to miss a wink.
If you’re running on limited time and want to pack as much in as possible, variety shows like Live and Loud, Star Maker, all songwriters sessions, Americana in the Park and other similar events are a great way to see countless artists in a short time-span.
Another option is to attend a show which promises special guests, such as this year’s Lee Kernaghan with Very Special Guests, Paul Costa and Friends, or Christie Lamb and Friends. Not only do you get more bang for your buck but it makes for a unique viewing experience you’re unlikely to get anywhere else.
It doesn’t have to be expensive.
There are many sleeping options in Tamworth depending on your budget. Ranging from the more affordable camping and caravan set ups – to the mid-range family motels and inns – to the most expensive boutique hotels money can buy – there’s something for everybody.
Tamworth fills up quite quickly, so the earlier you book, naturally, the more choices you’ll have. Many people booking well up to a year in advance to secure a room. I looked today and 80% of Tamworth is already booked out for next year.
If you’re not as organised, websites like Airbnb are a good place to look, as is calling local hotels for any last minute cancellations (although sometimes budget stays offer ten days minimum only). We stayed just out of town in a unique farmhouse for around $66 per night, times that by ten and divide by two and that’s only $330 for a ten night stay, less than a minimum wage weekly pay cheque.
If you are absolutely on the smallest of budgets though – book budget accommodation, use the public buses, eat cheap supermarket meals and enjoy the free entertainment.
Spend Australia Day with Simply Bushed.
Maybe I’m a little biased (okay, I totally am!) because I adore them, but Australia Day falls during TCMF and there is no better way to celebrate right than to attend their annual Australia Day Celebration concert on January 26th. Kicking off with some true blue Aussie classics, you’d be hard pressed to find a better band with more pride.
Simply Bushed is a multiple award-winning heritage band from Sydney. They have won their way into my heart, and do with everyone who sees them play. They are joyous, infectious and earlier that week broke the world record for the world’s biggest bush dance. And if that’s not incredible, then I don’t know what is!
Tamworth makes travel easy.
There are many ways to get to Tamworth. By car is arguably the most popular, but the roads do get congested, with many roads closed off during the festival, and it’s often difficult to find a park around Peel Street.
QANTAS and Virgin Australia offer flights in and out of Tamworth, although it can get pricey. Taking the train is an affordable option, and will take just over six-hours from Sydney or four hours from Newcastle to Tamworth’s main station.
Getting around Tamworth itself is easy, with most venues within walking distance of each other or no more than a ten-minute drive. Taxis are readily available, but well sort after during high peak periods (and it’s rumoured there’s one single uber driver in town).
If you’re relying on public transport, the Festival Express bus is your best option, with adult fares at $15 per day or $40 for unlimited ten-day travel. Times vary but are fairly regular, operating late into the night during the later part of the festival.
Go to Moonshiners after dark.
If you’re looking for something to do after hours (be mindful of the 1am lockout), head to Moonshiners Honky Tonk Bar (186 Bridge Street). The small entry fee is well-worth the price for the content and atmosphere in the dimly lit bar. With American-style food and drinks, dancing waitresses, nightly jam sessions, line dancing and a free photo booth in the rear, Moonshiners encapsulates what you’d find in Nashville’s Lower Broadway strip.
Amber Lawrence, Travis Collins, Adam Brand, Caitlyn Shadbolt, Kristy Cox and Travis List are just some of the names who’ve popped in for a jam.
If you’re after something a little swankier, another place to visit is The Press 2340 (179 Marius Street). Specialising in whisky, cocktails, craft beer and wine with large grazing boards and bar snacks, in an art-deco period setting, this unique, underground venue is popular during the festival and fills up quite quickly. It’s a little difficult to find at first, and you have to ring the bell to be granted entry (to keep hooligans out), but once you’re in, you won’t want to leave.
Most importantly, make Tamworth your own.
If you want to sleep all day and party all night, do it. There are no rules to how you should spend your TCMF. My Tamworth was about jamming in as much as I could in a short amount of time, but granted I’d do things differently if I was there the whole ten days.
Experience the festival you want to experience. Go out, meet new people, make memories – but be safe. I’m a big planner, but some of my best festival memories were those spur of the moment, completely unexpected, money cannot buy experiences.
I never went to bed before 3am and I always awake by 8am. It’s taken me a week to recover and I still have massive post-Tamworth blues, but I loved every minute of it and I can’t wait to go back.
Mallory attended The Tamworth Country Music Festival as a guest of the festival. Photos by the author. The headline photo features Josh Setterfield performing at the Longyard Hotel.