SOUNDS OF OUR TOWN
POPULAR MUSIC AND CULTURAL MEMORY: THE CASE OF TAMWORTH, AUSTRALIA’S ‘COUNTRY MUSIC CAPITAL’
From 2010–2012, Sarah was involved in an Australian Research Council funded project called ‘Popular music and cultural memory: localised popular music histories and their significance for national music industries’. This project was interested in the various ways in which popular music history and heritage appears in cultural memory, both at the public or institutional level (e.g. in archives, exhibitions, museums, TV documentaries, popular writing), and at the private or individual level (e.g. personal memories). The research team gathered comparative data from Australia, Israel, the Netherlands, the UK, Slovenia, Austria, Iceland and the USA to think about the connections between these ‘public’ and ‘private’ ways of remembering and how the distinctiveness of local situations across the various countries contributes to the way that music and cultural memory operates.
One of the many towns visited during the course of the project was Tamworth in rural New South Wales, Australia. Tamworth was of particular interest because it is Australia’s self-proclaimed ‘Country Music Capital’. It is a town that is heavily invested in the public memorialisation of Australian country music history. A significant part of that memorialisation involves telling the story of the key role Tamworth has played in Australia’s country music past.
Sarah visited Tamworth in January 2011 during the Tamworth Country Music Festival. She found music heritage to be materialised in a range of ways: permanent exhibitions, halls of fame, wax museums, commemorative plaques, bronze busts, stars’ hands cast in concrete, names marked in footpaths. With so many tributes to country music’s past in public spaces, Tamworth might be considered a living museum to country music’s history. This led the project in a couple of different directions: what kind of past do these memorials to country music’s songwriters evoke? What labour is involved in storying country music’s past in Tamworth’s archives and museums?
The findings from Tamworth feature in a number of scholarly publications published by Sarah and other members of the project team. Two deal directly with the key questions that emerged from the time spent in Tamworth:
LOCATING THE CANON IN TAMWORTH: HISTORICAL NARRATIVES, CULTURAL MEMORY AND AUSTRALIA'S 'COUNTRY MUSIC CAPITAL'
Sarah Baker and Alison Huber
Sarah and her colleague Alison Huber co-authored an article about the appearance and construction of a country music canon in Tamworth, Australia. Appearing in the journal Popular Music, the article explores how certain aspects of country music’s historical past come to be remembered over others. The article was awarded the International Association for the Study of Popular Music Australia-New Zealand Branch Rebecca Coyle Prize for the best paper on popular music in the Australia-New Zealand region published in 2013. The article can be accessed for free here.
Here is the article's abstract:
This article concerns the regional city of Tamworth, NSW, Australia, a place that prides itself on its reputation as Australia's home of country music. The authors consider the ways in which stories surrounding country music's past are produced and circulated in a city which seems determined to record, memorialise and narrate a coherent and public narrative about its country music heritage. The paper focusses in particular on some of the processes through which certain aspects of Australian country music's history become dominant or canonical within this narrative.
One of the case studies in the project was the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame (ACMHF), an archive and museum in Tamworth run entirely by volunteers. Sarah has a chapter in the edited volume Participatory Heritage, which explores the important work of a small group of enthusiasts engaged in the joint enterprise of preserving Australia’s country music heritage. The ACMHF’s collection includes many recordings (in all kinds of audio and visual formats), as well as costumes, posters, photographs, instruments and other ephemera related to country songs and singers. The focus of the collection is the people associated with Australia’s country music, and the volunteers at the ACMHF take a non-linear approach to country music history, curating exhibits which focus less on an overarching ‘story' about Australian country music, its foundation and its development, and instead drawing attention to particular artists, using ephemera to evoke their personalities, presence and careers in country music. The chapter can be read for free on Google Books.
If you are interested in learning more about Tamworth’s memorialisation of country music’s past, check out the following resources. These are separated into scholarly sources and heritage initiatives in Tamworth.
Baker, S 2017, ‘Learning, loving and living at the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame’, in H Roued-Cunliffe and A Copeland (eds), Participatory heritage, Facet, London, pp. 47–56.
Baker, S & Huber, A 2013, ‘Locating the canon in Tamworth: historical narratives, cultural memory and Australia’s "Country Music Capital"', Popular Music, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 223–240.
Baker, S, Istvandity, L & Nowak, R 2019, ‘Popular music and place: local, national and global stories', in Curating Pop: Exhibiting Popular Music in the Museum, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 55–72.
Brennan, B 2015, ‘The Australian Country Music Hall of Fame: a DIY museum and archive in Australia’s country music capital’, in S Baker (ed), Preserving popular music heritage: do-it-yourself, do-it-together, Routledge, London, pp. 207–215.
Gibson, C & Davidson, D 2004, ‘Tamworth, Australia’s “country music capital”: place marketing, rurality and resident reactions’, Journal of Rural Studies, vol. 20, pp. 287–404.
Martin, T 2011, ‘Country music capital: the past in Tamworth’, History Australia, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 153–174.
The research on Tamworth was funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant (DP1092910). Chief investigators on the project were Andy Bennett, Shane Homan, Sarah Baker and Peter Doyle. The Tamworth fieldwork was undertaken by Sarah Baker and the project research fellow Alison Huber.
We would like to acknowledge all those who participated in the research and especially the volunteers of the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame – the community custodians of Australian country music's past.