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and negative images of country music in the mass media and in most cultural critique have ensured the durability of outdated and outlandish myths about the music and its fans.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'. …