It’s a city and an event that lies at the very heart of Australian country music. Heading towards its 52nd year, the Tamworth Country Music Festival has showcased both the icons and emerging artists in the genre, providing breakthrough opportunities and career highlights for those fortunate enough to take home a highly coveted Golden Guitar Award and offering unique experiences for festivalgoers of all ages.
“It’s the homeland,” says Casey Barnes, who earlier this year picked up two Golden Guitar Awards for his latest album, Light It Up, and will return to Tamworth in January.
“It’s our Nashville, the Australian equivalent, and there’s so many success stories that have come out of that town. I’ve been really lucky to have been welcomed by not only the locals but the country music community, because I guess a lot of people could look at me as a bit of a late starter into that sort of environment.
“They really make sure you earn your stripes. You’ve got to put in the hard yards to make sure you’re taking it seriously and you’re not just dipping your toe in and not really fully committing to the whole thing. I think I’ve finally got through to that other side.”
Barnes first entered the fray at the festival in 2015, already an experienced singer and performer but yet to scale the country music heights that have seen him also win ARIA, APRA and AIR Awards, as well as 14 Golden Guitar nominations.
“My first experiences were packing up the car driving down there as a very, very nervous artist, not knowing what I was getting myself into, playing on some of the smaller stages,” he recalls.
“I remember really clearly playing on the free Fan Zone Stage on Peel Street and a guy who is a local legend in radio there, Ray McCoy – who’s become a really great mate – he was one of the first people to come over and shake my hand and make me feel welcome straight away and sort of break the ice. It took away that nervous energy and I felt accepted. He really was amazing on that initial trip down there, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of people like him.
“Troy Cassar-Daley is another one where I think maybe a year later, I was nominated for my first Golden Guitar, and we were down in Sydney for the nominations. They read my name out and he was the first person to walk across the room and shake my hand and congratulate me. It’s just a community that I don’t think many other genres of music have, this special community that we’ve got and we all want to see each other do well. That’s what I love about Tamworth and the country music industry.”
Barnes, who recently performed at the 50th Anniversary Country Music Association (CMA) Fest in Nashville and kicked off his ‘City Nights’ East Coast tour earlier this month with several sold-out shows, has been added to the Stagecoach Country Music Festival line-up in Indio, California next April alongside the eclectic likes of Eric Church, Willie Nelson, Miranda Lambert, Nickelback, The Beach Boys, and a country music set from Post Malone.
It’s also just been announced that Barnes has been nominated for CMA International Country Artist of the Year. Considering in 2020 he had to scrap all national and international tour plans for his Town of a Million Dreams album due to the pandemic, Barnes has revelled in the hard work of the last 12 months.
“So many emotions and feelings,” he ponders. “I mean, especially recently, I’ve just taken that time to stop and really be grateful. You’ve got to be careful not to take things for granted when they happen. It’s important to stop and reflect, especially on how bloody hard we’ve all worked and how long I’ve been doing this… so many years. Just to have that reward, it’s been incredible.
“I had a couple of really key people when COVID hit that I trusted to speak to and get some advice. I remember when everything locked down and nobody knew how to handle it, how to adapt and cope. I spoke to an Aussie bloke, who lives in Vegas and is a really successful entrepreneur, and he said to me, ‘mate, you’ve got to push harder than you’ve ever pushed right now because nobody else is gonna be.’
“I sort of didn’t know how to take it the time and then I stopped, reflected, and it sort of clicked and I was like, ‘Yeah, we’ve just got to change the way we’re doing things and adapt.’ That’s what we did, and we’ve come out of the back of COVID hitting the ground running. All of that hard work has now paid off.”
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Barnes will head back to the Country Music Capital of Australia along with some of the biggest names in Australian country music including Kasey Chambers, Troy Cassar-Daley, Adam Harvey, Brooke McClymont & Adam Eckersley, Lee Kernaghan, Beccy Cole, Fanny Lumsden, Amber Lawrence, John Williamson, Graeme Connors, Andrew Swift, Ashleigh Dallas, Loren Ryan, Felicity Urquhart & Josh Cunningham, and Shane Nicholson.
Hundreds of thousands of people will revel in the mix of traditional, blues, roots, alt-country, and Americana across 10 days, with hundreds of artists and musicians performing across multiple venues in the city. This includes the festival’s largest venue, Toyota Park, which hosts some of the nation’s biggest country stars, with free concerts held every night of the festival.
The Tamworth Country Music Festival runs from January 19th-28th, 2024, with the Golden Guitar Awards held on Saturday, January 27th. Full details at tcmf.com.au.