I love country music.
There, I said it. (It’s true though—I’m even learning how to play the banjo!)
As a young person living in a metropolitan region, a proclamation like that would usually elicit either puzzled glances or judgmental groans from my peers. I can already imagine their responses, in all of their hackneyed and hyperbolic glory. That’s impossible. I can tolerate every single genre except country. Or something along those lines.
Everybody knows the stereotypes. Country music is conservative. It’s geriatric. It objectifies women. There’s even ‘bro-country’, a specific term coined by New York Magazine journalist Jody Rosen to describe the cliches that are often associated with contemporary country songs—whether it’s trucks, alcohol, or downright misogyny.
But according to Dr Toby Martin, a historian of country music in Australia, these pervading images are often misleading.
“In the 1920-30s when [country music] first arrived from America, it was very much the rock and roll…of the day,” he says.
“It was a modern music form that was written by and for young people. Music from America was like the cool young thing to do.”
Instead, Dr Martin attributes the country music stigma to class structures and social stratification.
“When it came here, it came as hillbilly music,” he says. “Hillbilly was othered class-wise as a different kind of music for a different kind of person—for the uneducated, illiterate, working class, and rural.
“It arrived in Australia loaded with these pejorative associations. Musicians have exploited that often over the history of country music and played up to those stereotypes.”
Indeed, early pioneers of Australian country music such as Tex Morton and Slim Dusty were famous for their deliberate ‘singing cowboy’ image. But despite this, and despite country music’s conservative reputation, Dr Martin wants people to look beyond the surface.
“In Australia [country music has] actually been used by people to promote progressive views, such as Aboriginal people telling stories of struggle and overcoming struggle,” he says. “It’s also been a form of music which women have used to talk about feminist stories.”
Works such as Aboriginal musician Vic Simms’ album The Loner and Shirley Thoms’ song ‘A Cowgirl’s Life for Me’ exemplify the subversive potential of country music. Simms’ 1973 country album was recorded whilst he was incarcerated, and is about Indigenous inequality and racism. Similarly, Thoms’ 1941 song rejects the idea of domesticity and marriage.
In fact, as Dr Martin writes in his book Yodelling Boundary Riders, “[during] the last two decades, some of [country music’s] most popular performers have been Aboriginal or women. It has also splintered into sub-genres such as alt country, bluegrass and folk”.
Intrigued by this, I decided to go seek out the personal story of one particular artist who pushed forward the frontiers of bluegrass for women.
There’s a certain peacefulness when you’re up in the Blue Mountains region, surrounded by eucalyptus trees. Amidst the seclusion, the events earlier that day fade into the distance—whether it’s the lane closures from a car crash on the Great Western Highway or the stress of arriving on time. Worries slip away, like the water which flows through the Nepean River that was crossed an hour earlier. A natural boundary symbolising my egress from metropolitan Sydney.
Here in the town of Wentworth Falls, I arrive on the doorstep of Karen Lynne’s house.
Lynne is an Australian country and bluegrass artist, whose career has spanned across several decades. She greets me seconds after I ring the bell. It’s surreal hearing her voice; it’s the same one in the songs I was listening to on the drive here from Sydney.
I thank her in advance for her time and she laughs self-deprecatingly. “I’m not sure why a young person like you would want to talk about country music, let alone with me,” she says.
Her living room is full of microphones and instruments. Guitars, banjos—both open-back and resonator—line the area. The walls are adorned with the names of American country greats—Patsy Cline, Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, Earl Scrubbs. They’re joined by photographs of Lynne and some of the band members she’s collaborated with over her career, including her husband Martin Louis and close friend Quentin Fraser.
Soon enough, we’re sitting down at a circular glass table, cakes in the centre. Coffee is offered and so are stories.
Music was always a part of Lynne’s life, growing up in a family of eight. Familial singalongs were the norm.
“We didn’t have a TV, so it was really just what our family did,” she says. “My dad always loved music, my mum liked to sing.
“I remember she would wash up and she would be singing the harmonies and dad would be at the table singing his old country songs. I’d sing along too.”
Despite the low-income conditions of her childhood, Lynne fondly recollects the memory of acquiring her very first guitar.
“We didn’t have any money,” she says. “So, my dad found an old shell of a guitar. It was broken and he actually rebuilt the back of it. He was really good with his hands; he could just make amazing things.
“I remember just before my [tenth] birthday, my dad had told me to stay in the house and not go in the back. I peeked through the curtain to the back in the kitchen and the guitar was hanging on the washing line because he varnished it and he was drying it.”
Laughing, Lynne tells me about her calluses from playing the makeshift guitar due to the high action between the strings and the fretboard. She also tells me about why she is so fond of country music.
“Country songs are just some of the best songs ‘cause they tell stories,” she says.
“I could never sing a song that I can’t believe in. If I’m singing a song from whatever point of view, it’s almost like I am that person for those three minutes.”
“I have to be able to sing the song from my heart. So, for me, it was about singing the song and moving people—for me, music has to move you.”
Unsurprisingly, this sentiment is reflected in Lynne’s own music. In her song ‘The Road that Brought Me Here’, Lynne sings that even after decades of her career, “I still do it for the music, it’s the only thing that’s real / and it’s my way to show you how I feel.”
In the same song, Lynne also sings how the “part that matters to [her]” is “not the fame and fortune / the awards or the applause.” When I ask her about the context of this line, she details the trajectory of her career over the last 25 years.
“In the industry, you have a use by-date, especially women, unfortunately because there’s a certain look and a certain sound you’re supposed to have.
“And it’s not that we get cast out. We just get a bit lost. We get forgotten. I guess the industry needs poster girls to plug themselves.”
Nodding, I recall how the career of 1940s country music pioneer Shirley Thoms effectively ended after she married and had children, a fact which Dr Martin confirmed. It’s a sad reality that needs to be addressed.
But despite an extended hiatus due to motherhood, a job with music therapy in aged care, and the death of her father, Lynne has no plans of leaving the music scene for good.
“The next couple of years, [I’m] definitely doing some more recording,” she says.
Any new music released would supplement the accolades and achievements which Lynne has already achieved with her discography over the years, including various Golden Guitar Award nominations as well as the Frank Ifield International Spur Award.
Eyes twinkling, Lynne recalls how her colleagues joked about calling her the “Queen of Bluegrass” following the release of her third studio album Blue Mountain Rain, Australia’s first bluegrass album featuring a solo female artist.
Bluegrass is a subgenre of country music characterised by its emphasis on acoustic stringed instruments—such as the banjo, dobro, fiddle and mandolin.
“I just love the cry in the instrument,” Lynne says about the dobro, her favourite of them all.
Unlike mainstream country music, the bluegrass scene in Australia remains primarily male-dominated. Female singer Genni Kane had made headway as a vocalist for the bluegrass band The Flying Emus during the 1980s, but Lynne became the very first woman to release a bluegrass album under her own name in 2003.
Although she expressed some concern about the decline in Australian bluegrass artists, Lynne tells me she’s glad there are at least some younger Australian artists, particularly female ones, who are continuing with the bluegrass tradition—referring to artists such as Kristy Cox and 22-year-old Taylor Pfeiffer.
“For a genre to keep going and be healthy, you’ve got to have young people in it,” she says.
This sentiment is shared by The Davidson Brothers, a bluegrass duo from rural Victoria, who established the Australian Bluegrass Scholarship in 2011 to encourage up-and-coming artists to enter the bluegrass scene.
After I return home from the Blue Mountains, I ring up duo member Lachlan Davidson to ask more about it.
“My brother [Hamish] and I started playing bluegrass [when we were] around 10 to 12,” Davidson says. “Back in maybe 1996, we started going to festivals and had a lot of people encourage us a lot.
“There was a big generation gap everywhere we went—there was us, not even teenagers yet, and then everybody else was in their thirties. So, there was no one in there. No one in the middle, through their twenties.”
However, Davidson believes that the rise of the internet and cultural products (such as the bluegrass soundtrack to 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou) has helped boost the popularity of the genre in Australia.
“We were seeing people younger than us learning and playing great, and we thought this was fantastic,” Davidson says.
“We got a lot of encouragement from the older generation, and we felt, ‘well, now’s time for us to do the same.’ We wanted to encourage these people…to follow bluegrass as a career path…so that’s what really drove us to make the decision to set [the Australian Bluegrass Scholarship] up.”
Awarded annually, the Australian Bluegrass Scholarship consists of a monetary grant to fund instrument purchases, recording projects, tours or mentorship projects, as well as studio recording opportunities.
“We didn’t want to see all the talents take another path and just give up bluegrass when they were playing at such great levels at young ages. We thought, yeah, we wanted to support them in any way we could,” Davidson says.
Previously, the scholarship began its life as the ‘Australian Youth Bluegrass Scholarship’ limited to those under 25 years old, but it is now open to all ages.
According to the selection criteria on the website, the scholarship is given to an “individual who is passionate about Bluegrass music and has the potential to contribute to the growth of the genre, particularly in Australia.” Despite the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Bluegrass Scholarship was most recently awarded in June 2021 to Jacob McGuffie, a member of the bluegrass trio ‘The Beekeepers’.
Past winners include mandolinist Pepita Emmerichs, guitarist Daniel Watkins, and fiddler Jeri Foreman. Approximately one in three of its recipients so far have been women.
When asked about the future of bluegrass and country music generally, Davidson is optimistic. “I think the audience has definitely expanded,” he says. “More people are open to it nowadays.”
Davidson’s sentiments are supported by a 2018 Report conducted by the Country Music Association of Australia (CMAA).
In spite of the negative image which putatively plagues country music, the report found that the Australian country music sector had more than doubled in value since 1997 to $574 million, with country music’s share of overall sales seeing an increase from 15 per cent to 19 per cent across 2017-2018.
Additionally, 14 per cent of songwriters registered with the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) identified as country song-writers in 2018, compared to the 6 per cent from 1997.
The CMAA attributes this growth in popularity to the rise of streaming services like Spotify, which reported Australia as the fastest growing market for country music, as well as the increased number of country music festivals and circuits in Australia.
These factors are especially prominent in the growing popularity of country amongst young people. Dedicated country music shows on community radio stations with young audiences, such as FBi, 2SER, and Double J, also play a role.
Emboldened by the knowledge that country music is gaining traction even within my peers, I managed to contact Shruti Janakiraman, a current university student and a fellow country music lover from a non-country music background.
“The vibe of country music is just so comforting,” she says, when asked about her love for the genre. “You have all these people that are very honest and genuine in their lyrics in a way that a lot of other genres of music aren’t necessarily.”
For Janakiraman, the beauty and essence of country music lies in its storytelling.
“When you listen to country music, it’s like a very accurate portrayal of how these individuals feel as well as how a lot of people feel when they experience day-to-day incidents in their life.
“Country music has really compelling characters,” she says. “It’s like this multi-stage storytelling that plays out in a 2-minute song that’s very skilful.”
Many American country examples come to mind, as Janakiraman points out. The Chicks’ ‘Goodbye Earl’ details the murder of an abusive husband. Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Fancy’ limns a tale of breaking the poverty cycle. And the journey of adulthood is told through Maddie & Tae’s ‘Downside of Growing Up’.
But just like its American cousin, storytelling is also found in the heart of Australian country music. Take Karen Lynne’s aforementioned ‘The Road that Brought Me Here’ which delivers her life story through song. Or the vivid war-time imagery evoked by Lee Kernaghan’s album Spirit of the Anzacs.
In concurrence with Janakiraman and Lynne, Dr Martin raises country’s storytelling as its signature characteristic.
“It’s always hard to define musical genres,” he says. “But I think if I was going to choose one [fundamental thing about country music], I would say it’s about the story, it’s about the narrative style of the direct writing.”
“Telling a complicated, emotional, or complicated political story in simple words is an incredible skill. I hugely admire the economy of the words of country to cut through.”
Throughout all the changes which the genre has seen, one thing remains constant. Country music in Australia has told our stories for the past hundred years, and it will continue telling them one guitar lick at a time.
So next time, think twice before you turn off that radio or skip that country track. Listen carefully for the story. Stories of everyday living that bring a new perspective on the mundane. Stories of the triumph over adversity, whether it be racism, a drought, or other vicissitudes of life. Stories of character, stories of the underrepresented, stories of aspiration. You might end up loving country music too.