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FEATURE: Across The Ditch

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ACROSS THE DITCH

In musical terms, and to Australia audiences, New Zealand may be best known for its indie exports (based around the Flying Nun label), the various pop shapes of Neil Finn and associates and heavier acts such as Shihad. Yet there is, and always has been, a fertile country & folk scene throughout the shaky isles.

In the mid 1930s, a young New Zealander, still in his teens, emigrated to Australia and began a career as a country music singer that took him around the country and all the way to Nashville where he was based through the 1950s. That was Tex Morton, who is now immortalised in statue in Bicentennial Park, Tamworth NSW, in recognition of his influence on the Australian country music industry. 

Fast forward three quarters of a century and there are certain parallels that can be drawn between Morton and the burgeoning success of Marlon Williams. After first getting some attention as part of the band The Unfaithful Ways, the South Islander relocated to Melbourne to focus on taking his music to a larger audience. He was well aware of the greater opportunities for touring and building a fanbase in Australia and laying the groundwork that would allow him to take his prodigious talent to the Northern Hemisphere – just as Morton did in 1950.

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Tex Morton

Williams hails from a loose knit collective of artists that found their profiles rising in New Zealand at around the same time. Canadian expat Tami Neilson, boho-troubadour Delaney Davidson, avant-folk artist Aldous Harding and the astute and refined songwriters Tiny Ruins and Nadia Reid have all gained traction here in Australia and earned the respect of local audiences for their ability to present their music with humility and conviction, both on record and on stage.

Williams and Davidson recorded three collaborative albums between 2012 and 2014 – Sad But True – The Secret History of Country Music Songwriting Volumes 1-3, with Neilson appearing as guest vocalist. Davidson would also go on to produce Neilson’s breakthrough album Dynamite! Meanwhile Williams would co-produce Harding’s first album and all of the above artists have toured together at one time or another. 

Out of the same scene came the Adam McGrath-led band The Eastern, who built their reputation on countless live shows that bristled with energy and passion and became a cathartic and comforting release for many after the Christchurch earthquake in 2011. They too are a band that have played shows in Australia, particularly on the more folk-centred festival circuit. 

Another singer-songwriter who made a shift across the Tasman a few years ago is Stan Woodhouse, better known as Skyscraper Stan. He’s been making a name for himself as a committed touring artist with one full-length album under his belt and another set for release very soon. He typifies the type of genre-blending style that many acts under the loose umbrella of Americana deal in. From country to folk, blues to darker shades of rock ’n’ roll, there’s a clear link back to the simple sounds and storytelling of country and folk songs but there’s also a desire and talent with musicians such as Woodhouse and Williams, to not be pigeonholed or limited to any one genre or scene.

These may be the latest and brightest lights to shine across the Tasman but the last half century has seen a rich and vibrant grass roots community support acts as varied as The Hamilton County Bluegrass Band, Barry Saunders’ group The Waratahs and more commercial acts such as Patsy Riggir, Keith Urban, Gray Bartlett and Suzanne Prentice. Other than Urban, they may not be well known names here in Australia but they all achieved great success in their homeland, boosted the industry and inspired new generations of singers and players. 

It’s only a matter of time before the next young musician, currently honing their craft and dreaming of international success, goes online, takes a deep breath and books that airline ticket to Sydney or Melbourne.

Chris Familton

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