The 'Country' in Contemporary Australian Women's Country Music: Gender, History, Narrative
Tucker, Shirley, Journal of Australian Studies
Australian country music has generally been characterised by two persistent and negative images: as poor cousin to the 'real' country music of North America, and as the musical nostalgia of the reactionary rural classes. Notwithstanding the lack of evidence for either of these beliefs, the continued circulation of derogatory views and negative images of country music in the mass media and in most cultural critique have ensured the durability of outdated and outlandish myths about the music and its fans. It is not generally known, then, that at least one-third of Australians regularly listen to country music. (1) No other Australian musical genre has been so misunderstood, nor been subjected to the same level of sustained attack on its cultural credibility. There are signs, however, that this situation may be changing: under the growing influence of alt-country, commercial imperatives, and feminism more generally, there are indications that Australian country music is responding to these negative stereotypes, at the same time that cultural critics are looking more closely at the music and the industry. This essay analyses just one important element of this transformation--the music of contemporary female country artists--considering the ways in which women singers and singer-songwriters inscribe the key motif of Australian country music, 'country'. The focus is on ballads, a poetic form which has had a distinctive and enduring relationship with country music in Australia. The discussion of Australian women performers will begin by noting the career of Shirley Thoms, who began her career in the mid-nineteen-thirties, will consider the work of a range of contemporary performers, and will conclude with a brief consideration of the work of Indigenous singer-songwriter Yvonne Bradley. First, though, it is necessary to consider the history of the representation of country music in Australian cultural criticism and music history, and the industry's own response to these views.
When country music is discussed in popular music discourses, it is usually represented as an unsophisticated contrast to the more important and more 'credible' rock music. The reasons for this are complex, but the circulation of such cliched images and stereotypes has been assisted by a largely invisible set of complicated responses to mainstream public non-acceptance from the country music industry itself. However, there are indications that sections of the industry are now consciously addressing the low status of Australian country music by emphasising the rich variety of musical talent that produces it. The panel discussion at the Australian Institute of Country Music's Annual Conference 2003 focused on strategies for lifting the profile of the industry, including the adoption and promotion of the slogan 'it's about the music'. The slogan demonstrates a critical awareness of, and at the same time a lack of concern over, public image, and also implies a dismissal of those other genres such as rock and pop that are preoccupied with heavily marketed images aimed at manipulating public taste.
The low status of the industry might seem to be in some respects an anomaly, given the valorizing of 'the rural' in other kinds of cultural discourses in Australia (see, for example, Hutchins in this volume). But in the past four decades, in particular, with the fragmenting and critiquing of dominant stereotypes of Australianness, meanings of 'country' have become more complicated. In that changed and changing political and intellectual context, the idea of the rural and the stereotype of rural communites have come to be almost automatically associated with aggressively monocultural and deeply sexist notions of cultural identity. Intellectual and liberal hostility to such values have (rightly) been intensified by the events of 1996, which saw the rise of the One Nation Party and the election of a Liberal-National party coalition under the leadership of John Howard under the repressive slogan 'For All of Us'. The effect of this polarizing of values has been to superimpose a political position onto a geographical one: the nostalgic, the anti-intellectual and the monocultural are welded to images of the rural, whose inhabitants are positioned as the natural enemy of the educated, urban elites, identified (pejoratively) as proponents of multiculturalism, land rights, closer engagement with Asia, or what might broadly be termed the Keating agenda, after the former Prime Minister. It is not difficult to see that there is some basis for such an association to be made--notably, the electoral success of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party in semi-rural seats in the 1998 Queensland state election. But such an association also simplifies and homogenises meanings of 'the country', in ways that might be seen as replicating the same discursive manouvres which fix representations of marginalised groups, within a narrow band of negative stereotypes. This essay, then, aims to reconsider this nexus, by arguing for a more complicated version of representations of the rural, as evidenced in a primary contemporary source: women's country music, which is both popular, and more complicated in its representation of 'the country' than such stereotypes might lead us to believe.
Representations of 'the bush' can be seen in many nineteenth-century cultural forms, including almost every surviving ballad from that period. Written during the years of white colonisation of the land, the development of the pastoral industry and an emerging Australian nationalism, bush ballads reflect a significant, if idealised, aspect of the white settler experience. The most famous of these ballads is Banjo Paterson's 'Waltzing Matilda', still the song of choice for expatriate Australians, and taken to be emblematic of Australian culture. (2) The relationship between bush ballads and an emerging country music in the early twentieth century was an especially close one: bush ballads were the primary musical source of Australian narrative, until new technologies, primarily the gramophone, the 78, and the radio, facilitated the migration of North American country music to Australia; nevertheless, the relationship between country music and the ballad form remains strong today. The traffic of influence between Australian and American country music has been assumed, simplistically, to be one-way, but the history of the relationship between the two related but distinctive musical forms is more complicated than commentators such as Craig McGregor would have us believe. McGregor is one of many to assert that the local culture's response to the 'invasion' of American country music was to 'ape it assiduously', thereby perpetuating images of Australian country music as thoroughly derivative of the American genre. (3)
American musicians had been recording fiddle tunes, known as Old Time Music, but 'country music' as it is now known began in 1927, when Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family developed and recorded a unique and idiosyncratic style of guitar picking and singing. But the assertion that this music came immediately to Australia, where it was copied by local performers, ignores the fact that there is usually about a ten-year time-lag between recordings, and the transfer of influence. There is a very real likelihood that Australians were using a country music style well before American techniques were picked up, or even heard. Arguably, then, the major development in American and Australian country music occurred more or less simultaneously, during a period of intense modernisation in music recording technologies. But the dominant view in music criticism remains that Australian country music was the product of early American cultural colonization, an opinion asserted and discussed repeatedly by a range of writers. These writers all appear to rely on one text, by historian Eric Watson, as well as popular perceptions of the inherent cultural slavishness of Australian performers.
While the work of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family was influential in the very early days of Australian country music, Australian artists such as Slim Dusty, who began recording in the 1940s, quickly transformed it into a distinctive 'Australian' sound. The 'founding father' of country music in Australia, Tex Morton, adapted the musical style of the Australian bush ballad using elements of Rodgers's and the Carter Family's finger-picking guitar style. (4) He recorded 'Yodelling bagman' in 1936, the 'first thoroughly authentic Australian country song', and this was followed by 'Murrumbidgee Jack', 'The Ned Kelly song' and 'The stockman's last bed'. (5) For the purposes of the argument being made in this essay, it is worth noting that of Morton's last ten releases in 1940, six were bush ballads. (6)
More than sixty years later, the significance of the ballad in contemporary Australian country music was demonstrated by the extraordinary success of singer and songwriter Sara Storer, who won seven, of a possible eight, Country Music Association of Australia (Golden Guitar) Awards at the 2004 ceremony. These awards celebrated Storer's work in writing and singing ballads about the relationship between country people and the land. Like the highly symbolic 'Waltzing Matilda', ballads, including Storer's, tend to be critiques of human relations that explore emotional as well as physical landscapes. Country music provides a view of Australian life in songs and styles of the working class, created by those traditionally silenced people concerned with the 'hard, everyday essential work of maintaining human life'. (7) Storer's unprecedented success--the more remarkable because her album Beautiful Circle was her second--is also symptomatic of the fact that throughout the history of Australian country music, a continuous parade of female singer/songwriters have featured in the country music charts. This is in contrast to other popular genres such as rock where, according to Simon Frith, the 'world is so essentially male that young women are not just being denied a means of self-expression and pleasure; the music is also working directly to keep them in their place' (8). And it might even be argued that the low status of Australian country music derives, in part, from the relatively high visibility of female country music artists.
Though often characterised by images of passivity and sweetness, female country music artists exert a great deal of influence on the Australian country music landscape, often occupying central positions in the management and organisation of the industry. From the outset, women were active in the production of Australian country music: Shirley Thoms, the first female solo recording artist, made her first public appearance in 1940 at fifteen years of age, and recorded her own songs just a year later, in 1941. Thoms employed some traditional images of the Australian landscape in her first, and possibly most famous, releases 'Where the golden wattle blooms' and 'My sunny Queensland home'. Both ballads, as the titles indicate, celebrate her childhood home. However, Thoms alters two aspects of traditional bush narratives: she depicts her relationship with the land as being central to her own sense of identity, and she depicts the Australian bush as a place full of flowers--Australian flowers. Her strong identification with the emblem of the wattle, Australia's national flower, reveals what was (for its time) a quite unusual sense of female agency in landscape imagery, and in constructions of national character and identity. Thoms was very much a pioneer in the field of Australian country music, travelling and performing extensively throughout Australia and New Zealand. She was also the first of a continuous line of young female songwriters and performers, and indeed the quite remarkable phenomenon of a continuous line of talented female teenagers who have attained widespread recognition for their work is an unusual aspect of the country music scene.
Thoms was also aware of popular perceptions about the derivative nature of Australian country music. She explains that her yodelling, so often associated with American country music, was in fact a product of her own heritage, as her grandfather was born and spent the early years of his life on the border of Switzerland and Germany. The whole question of yodelling and authenticity in Australian music is dealt with elsewhere, but it needs to be noted here, in the context of the argument being made about the significance of the role of women in Australian country music and its quality and originality, that the most famous yodellers in the world were often Australian, and usually Australian women. (9) Mary Schneider, mother of contemporary artist Melinda Schneider, is still considered the most famous and accomplished. Her yodelling has been used in American television advertisements for companies such as McDonalds and Millers (beer), and as background music in certain episodes of high-rating television serial Sex and the City.
The invisibility of these kinds of performances is both a metaphor for, and an indication of, the general lack of prominence of women in Australian cultural performance. The historically complex and profoundly gendered relationships between white settlers and the land has meant that women have been traditionally depicted as precariously placed spectators at, rather than participants in, the making of Australian culture. Their observations provide a view of Australian culture and society that tends, then, to offer a critique of the dominant culture rather than reinforcing it, and while Storer's songs may in some ways be read as reinscribing well-known elements of Australian identity, so too can they be seen as placing women as actors and speakers at the centre of their narratives: her ballad 'Kurrajong tree' from Beautiful Circle, for example, begins with the lines 'I'm named after my grandmother / I'm blessed with music and with her poetry / and she told me this story.' As bearers of traditional culture, women have had a central role in collecting and singing songs, and so, in fact, feminism's contribution to cultural studies provides a valuable critical framework for my analysis of where and what is 'country' in Australian country music.
Tania Kernaghan's 'Big sky country' employs strategies to convey the narrator's intimacy with, and ownership of, the land. Like Thoms, Kernaghan expresses a strong sense of belonging and identity through the use of emblematic Australian images, in this case cockatoos and emus, set against the backdrop of the Nullarbor. While nationalistic lyrics on one level suggest a simple re-recording of traditional bush ballad imagery, the big sky country of 'station yards' and tough times is combined with contemporary images of Indigenous 'Dreaming' and urban multiculturalism, which complicate the image of monoculturalism that is usually associated with the use of such symbols, and also call into question the separation of rural and urban that is the 'given' of stereotypes of the couuntry. And like Thoms's 'Where the golden wattle blooms', Kernaghan's 'Big sky country' emphasises the life-affirming qualities of a landscape that is rich in vitality and colour. Much of the music under consideration here, though, takes a less optimistic view.
Land and loss are a theme of much contemporary non-Indigenous country music, and many of the songs on Storer's album lament lost lives and livelihoods:
He can't keep the books cause he can't read or write And he's too old for driving a roadtrain at night The windmill's too high and the fencing's too hard He's too proud for the garden, too slow for the yard
Though a familiar narrative of male rural hardship often emerges, women's country music has likewise increasingly focused its attention on the social and political dimensions of rural life. For example, Storer's 'Tell these hands' identifies the greatest threat to farmers as their growing financial indebtedness to banks. As the narrator sits and watches her father sit with his head buried in his hands at the kitchen table, she realises that telling the rain to stop falling is as futile as telling her father's hands to stop working:
Tell the rain to stop falling Tell the banks to stop calling Tell the politicians where they can put their plans Tell the day to hold on longer Tell our sons we can't be bothered And then tell these hands to give up on the land
Quotation does not quite do justice to the poignancy and power of Storer's phrasing, which emphases the fact that the indifference of banking institutions and politicians is the real reason for her father's feelings of devastation. The daughter's point of view is that the land her family has worked and loved is only valued as an economic asset, rather than as the basis for their life, by institutions who are unsympathetic to their culture. It is also significant that the speaker is the balladeer, not a participant in the loss except as a family member.
Similarly, Kernaghan's 'A farmer's prayer' identifies the role of the banks in rural affairs, and the catastrophic effect on ordinary people who have borne the burden of the effects of irresponsible and ill-advised lending policies. Though the capricious nature of the Australian landscape is acknowledged in both ballads, it is no longer seen as being the reason for rural hardships. Because both of these songs critique social, political and economic aspects of the country, they function as anthems for the current struggles of rural Australia in a globalised economy in such settings as Farm Aid concerts and country music festivals. They also signify an emerging alliance between rural and urban cultural identities, where the battles of the rural sector are shared by an economically strapped working-class and middle Australia, similarly affected by global economics and restructuring. So, far from being reactionary or 'red neck', these songs of class struggle and cultural debilitation are heard by a range of audiences as critiques of contemporary political and social conditions, and of economic and political elites.
One of the biggest shifts in representations of the country is the increasingly explicit acknowledgement by women songwriters and artists that relationships with the land are always negotiated and conditional. Metaphors of battle are no longer part of the expression of the country in their music; instead, a more compassionate portrayal of country surfaces in images that incorporate multiple locations of Australianness from different historical periods. In Storer's 'Kurrajong tree', for example, a grandmother takes an affectionate look at the past, and seemingly ignores the hardships and dangers of the days of below-ground mining:
Do you miss the old days, Of the horses and drays? Or the fields full of hay, And the children at play? Do you miss the good times, Of the men and the mines?
The tree is not alien, but an old friend, who is missing the family, the music and the light.
While traditional colonialist images of the country are still used as reference points by contemporary female songwriters, even a dominant traditional theme such as isolation is no longer portrayed as a threat to sanity or a problem to overcome. The wistful mood of Kasey Chamber's 'Nullarbor song', ostensibly about her own childhood growing up in the now mythologised heart of Australia's red centre, combines this iconic location with the experiences of an actual, contemporary county music family's experiences. So while Chambers' 'Nullarbor song' is distinctly local, it also recuperates a country music style reminiscent of the twenties and thirties. In this song, isolation provides the perfect environment for re-creating a sense of authenticity for both the family and the music. Instead of a landscape where isolation produces anxiety and fear, Chambers's Nullarbor is a perfect site for the development of the lonesome country music sound. (10) The song is both quintessentially Australian, and evocative of a more contextually complex location for the recuperation and development of 'pure' country music.
Indigenous relationships with the country are very different to those of the descendants of white settlers, and might be thought to be inimical to the genre of country music. But, based on complex kinship associations with, rather than possession of, the land, Indigenous country music quickly developed out of Aboriginal experiences of their stolen country and the devastating consequences of white settlement. Clinton Walker in his study Buried Country suggests that Aboriginal people took to country music for three main reasons: Aborigines often lived outside of major cities and country music was all they heard; country music was portable and thus accessible; and country music provided strong narratives of loss that they could relate to. As country music focussed on stories of the land, it also provided Aborigines with common ground for negotiations between black and white Australia, giving them at least a provisional voice in modern Australia. (11) Not surprisingly, a key motif in contemporary Indigenous country music is the expression of feelings of pain and anger at treatment by white Australians, and the invasion of their lands. This music is invariably a political critique of idealised representations of Australian society that reveals a repressed shadow of Australian identity: stolen land and stolen children.
Contemporary Indigenous singer/songwriter Yvonne Bradley describes herself as an 'original Aboriginal' on her debut album. Not So Easy, as the title suggests, is a collection of songs she wrote and recorded in extremely difficult circumstances on the banks of the Wearyan River at Mangoora, in a remote part of the Northern Territory. Her husband recorded her in the tin 'humpy' they share with their four young children. In spite of the history of Aboriginal dispossession, Bradley deliberately locates her family in a remote landscape that provides her with inspiration for much of her work. 'Promised land', for example, written and recorded during the monsoonal season (of 2001) when the family was isolated for up to three months at a time, ultimately questions the success of white dispossession. Bradley presents the loss of land as a temporary and ineffective means of eradicating Aboriginal custodianship. Though she asks, 'Where have all the people gone? They're lost and all alone, living in a country that they can't call their own,' her actual presence in her own country asserts a relationship beyond the control of others.
Employing a melange of images concerned with Indigenous spiritual connection with the land on the one hand and strong biblical images of the 'promised land' on the other, Bradley blurs the distinction between the living and the dead. The lost souls are those with no connection to the land and the lost land is her country, now lost to non-Indigenous colonial landowners. Thus this song is not only a defiant reclaiming of the Dreaming and the spiritual meanings of the land, it is also a cautionary tale to non-Indigenous people that foreshadows their own eventual dispossession and loss. The relationship between Bradley's actual home and her music is an important aspect of her story telling. Bradley's home is not the quintessential degraded fringe-dwelling of twentieth-century narratives of Aboriginal dispossession and exclusion. Instead, it is depicted in her music as 'paradise', a sanctuary based on an ecologically sustainable principles, complete with modern telecommunications. Literally and symbolically, it is the place from which she sings her songs.
It seems that the rather defensive stance Thoms once took against underlying assumptions about the derivative nature of Australian country music is being replaced by a more inclusive approach to cultural difference and intercultural relationships. Beccy Cole's 'Blackwood Hill' demonstrates a lack of cultural self-consciousness by incorporating other cultural signifiers in Australian country music. A little girl in the suburbs imagines the hills of the city are the Smokey Mountains Tennessee, and her tree house stage is the Grand Ole Opry. More than simply an acknowledgement of cultural diversity, the inclusion of iconic American country music locations as part of an Australian childhood is a radical and, in some country music circles, controversial departure from traditional bush ballad narratives, since geographic location has dominated our sense of ourselves through images of distance, danger and daring. As the 'anchors' to traditional conceptions of Australian places change, how we make sense of 'country' is increasingly contested in contemporary culture through its most important site of representation: country music. And as the 'country' in country music changes to reflect and critique cultural conditions in the twenty-first century, Australian women's country music will continue to play a key role in reinterpreting and remaking obsolete nineteenth-century versions of Australian social and political life.
(1) This information is provided by the Country Music Association of Australia. Such shifts, along with the great diversity of styles, instruments, and genres that 'country music' includes, make it impossible to deal with the industry as a whole in a single essay.
(2) The portrayal of bush life in the ballads as an emblem of 'authentic' Australian life rarely, if ever, included women. In Dark Side of the Dream, Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra argue that 'the gendered land is a reflex of the inadequacies' (p 165) of the Australian national stereotype, and explain that 'the absent woman does appear (in the national stereotype), in a transmuted form ... as the land itself, on which the "Australian" works his will' (p 164). Although many cultures depict their land as feminine, Australian constructions differ in that the land is portrayed as harsh, hostile and barren-the antithesis of 'mother earth' images found in other cultures. Thus, the unruly feminine qualities of the Australian landscape produced a particularly masculine discourse in literature and song, employing metaphors of war and battle to describe relations between the land and European-Australian men. Class was also an important dimension of a masculine discourse of national identity and the emergence of Australian country music, but space does not permit me to discuss this here.
(3) See Craig McGregor, 'Growing Up (Uncool): Pop Music and Youth Culture in the '50s and '60s', in Philip Hayward (ed.), From Pop to Punk to Postmodernism: Popular Music and Australian Culture from the 1960s to the 1990s, pp 89-100.
(4) See Andrew Smith, 'Tex Morton and His Influence on Country Music in Australia During the 1930s and 1940s' in Charles K Wolfe and James Akenson (eds), Country Music Annual 2002, pp 82-103; see also Eric Watson. Though Watson does not explicitly name Morton as the founder, he acknowledges Morton's contribution to the creation of commercial Australian country music (20).
(5) Eric Watson, Country Music in Australia, Cornstalk, Sydney, 1975, p 18, p 19.
(6) ibid., p 19.
(7) Mary A Bufwack and Robert K Oermann, 'Introduction', in Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music, Vanderbilt UP and The Counrty Music Foundation Press, 2003, pp 1-12.
(8) Simon Frith, 'The Cultural Study of Popular Music', in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula A Treichler (eds), Cultural Studies, Routledge, New York, 1992, pp 174-82.
(9) See 'Mary Schneider: Yo da la he ho!',
(10) See Chambers' biography by John Lomax, P Hayward and L Carriage, Red Desert Sky: The Amazing Adventures of the Chambers Family, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2001, p 138-9.
(11) See Clinton Walker, Buried Country, p 14.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The 'Country' in Contemporary Australian Women's Country Music: Gender, History, Narrative. Contributors: Tucker, Shirley - Author. Journal title: Journal of Australian Studies. Issue: 86 Publication date: January 2006. Page number: 111+. © 1998 University of Queensland Press. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.