Who says the inner city ain’t got no swagger? Sydney fun creators The Music & Booze Co (the folks behind the King Street Crawl and Bad Friday Weekender) cordially disagree with this notion. To illustrate their convictions, they’ve put together the Country and Inner Western Festival, a multi-day live music event that, as part of Sydney Solstice, will bring a taste of the outer West to the Inner West this June long weekend.
It’s the mythical West to which they refer, the coarse, wild frontier where outlaws predominate and the pedal steel is curiously prevalent. More specifically, they’re hauling in some of Australia’s finest country and country-influenced performers, from multi-Platinum mavericks Kasey Chambers and Tex Perkins to alt-country pub rocker Andy Golledge, four-part folk harmonists All Our Exes Live In Texas and earth moving soul singer Emma Donovan.
The core of the event will be happening in the natural amphitheatre situated within Sydney Park, just a short walk from the end of King St, Newtown. The hoedown will also filter up Enmore Rd and King St, with a program of free, boot-scooting entertainment coming to The Midnight Special, Secret Garden Bar, Waywards, Kelly’s On King and heaps more.
There’s an awful lot of swaggering to be done and so we’ve picked five favourites from the lineup to get you yodelling in anticipation.
Emma Donovan & The Putbacks
Emma Donovan & the Putbacks are Australia’s premier neo-soul combo, but Donovan’s background is in country music. As a kid, Donovan would sing country classics with her uncle’s band, The Donovans, and in 1999 she cofounded the acoustic trio, Stiff Gins, whose debut album, Origins, owed a significant debt to her country roots. Donovan then released a solo album (Changes, 2004) before making a sharp left turn to team up with Melbourne funk-soul collective, The Putbacks.
The group’s debut LP, 2014’s Dawn, explores a range of funk and soul influences, from Aretha Franklin to Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings and neo-soul acts Angie Stone and Jill Scott. The group’s second LP, 2020’s Crossover, burrows deeper into the funk and soul sounds that informed Dawn, only this time with greater potency. The album includes two songs performed in Indigenous language: a cover of the late Ruby Hunter’s ‘Yarian Mitji’ and a quiet storm reworking of the Gumbaynggir ‘Warrell Creek Song’.
The Donovan original, ‘Mob March’, pays tribute to the history of Indigenous protest and the contemporary protest movement. “This next generation of Aboriginal mob that are leading some of them marches, they’re just amazing to watch and see,” said Donovan in 2020.
To witness Donovan singing live is a transformative experience, making her Sunday performance with the Putbacks one of the program highlights.
25-year-old country musician Brad Cox grew up in Jindabyne in the NSW Snowy Mountains. After finishing high school, Cox laboured on cattle farms in the Northern Territory before deciding he’d have a serious crack at a music career. Cox’s big break came when he won the Toyota Star Maker competition at the 2018 Tamworth Country Music Festival; the same prize that launched the careers of Lee Kernaghan and Keith Urban.
Off the back of the Star Maker win, Cox released his debut self-titled album in May 2018. Featuring the singles ‘Lake House’ and ‘Water On the Ground’, the album drew in millions of Spotify streamers and landed Cox tour supports with internationals Brad Eldredge and Jon Pardi. Somewhere in the midst of his unrelenting gig itinerary, Cox found time to write and record his second album, My Mind’s Projection, which landed in November 2020.
The album expands on the rock-infused country sound of Brad Cox, with lead single ‘Drinking Season’ ranking as Cox’s foremost barnstormer. The record was partially written during a co-writing trip to Nashville and it also touches on the tender side of Cox’s artistry with tracks like ‘Short Lived Love’.
While the Brad Cox live show is a famously rowdy and beer-soaked affair, it’s a no-less inclusive spectacle, delivered straight from the heart.
Yes, it’s that Leroy Macqueen – the one you know from Novocastrian garage punk legends The Gooch Palms. After three albums and a decade of near non-stop gigging, Macqueen and drummer Kat Friend called time on the Goochies in early 2020. Sad as it was, big changes were afoot for Macqueen, who returned in late 2020 with details of their next chapter as a “cowfolk diva and gender non-conforming alt-western crooner.” Seriously, could there be a more perfect act for the Country and Inner Western Festival?
Having built a reputation for anthemic punk sing-alongs and reliably eruptive live shows, Macqueen had no trouble selling out their first post-pandemic solo tour in January 2021. The artist’s debut solo single, ‘On the Run’, followed in April. On it, Macqueen dials back the tempo to spotlight their sonorous croon and dramatic, cowfolk flair. The same goes for ‘The Only One’, the title track from Macqueen’s debut EP, which landed in May. You won’t struggle to familiarise yourself with Macqueen’s new alt-western punk anthems ahead of C&IWF.
It’s not unusual for an artist to describe their sound using an assortment of genre signifiers. In the case of Melbourne’s Harmony Byrne, these might include blues-rock, folk, alt-country, psych and indie pop. But rarely will an artist possess sufficiently chameleonic vocal chops to execute each genre deviation with complete conviction. Harmony Byrne is the rare exception.
Byrne captured the attention of the music press with her 2019 single, ‘Loving You is Lonely’, which has since been streamed more than two million times. But the sweetly melodic and quietly melancholic indie-pop tune is a stylistic misnomer for the album that followed. Heavy Doors, Byrne’s debut long player, arrived in mid-2020 and while ‘Loving You is Lonely’ doesn’t feel out of place, it sits in contrast to the hard-rocking ‘Sweeter Than Sugar’, which sounds like the nastier end of the Band of Skulls repertoire, and the devastating acoustic ballad, ‘If I Needed You’, a cover of the late country music iconoclast, Townes Van Zandt.
Byrne’s voice is truly a marvel. After painting the walls with emotion (and likely some blood and guts, too) on the earth-shattering ‘Calm Down vs Come Down’, she can be heard joking that it was “just a little warm up.” Seeing her live, with full band in tow, will be something to remember.
When Kasey Chambers’ ‘Not Pretty Enough’ hit #1 in the ARIA charts in January 2002, the Australian country songwriter became the first artist in ARIA history to occupy the #1 spot on the national albums and singles charts at the same. The corresponding album, Barricades & Brickwalls, came out in September 2001 and stayed in the charts for a whopping 84 weeks, by which time it had been certified 7x Platinum.
Chambers, who’s based on the NSW Central Coast, will celebrate the record’s 20th anniversary later this year, but despite its iconic status, Chambers’ story doesn’t begin and end with Barricades & Brickwalls. The daughter of country musicians Bill and Diane Chambers, Kasey has been making records since the early 1990s. The family band – known as The Dead Ringer Band – also included Kasey’s older brother Nash, who remains a close collaborator to this day.
Kasey’s solo debut, The Captain, came out in 1999 and she’s continued to release a new album every other year up until the present day. Bill Chambers returned to frame for Kasey’s most recent LP, 2018’s Campfire, which also featured country legends Alan Pigram (of the Pigram Brothers) and Emmylou Harris. Harris’ career trajectory is an apt analogue for Chambers – the Alabama-born Harris was another artist to achieve commercial success in her early years, but instead of submitting to the demands of commerce, she’s continued to broaden her artistic horizons as her career’s moved forward.
Chambers’ headline set at the Country and Inner Western Festival will be a testament to the fact that sticking to your guns artistically is an ultimately rewarding enterprise for both performer and audience.
Taking place over the June long weekend (Friday, 11th June – Sunday, 13th June), Kasey Chambers leads the Country And Inner Western festival lineup that also includes artists like Tex Perkins (playing Johnny Cash), Brad Cox, All Our Exes Live In Texas, Caitlin Harnett & The Pony Boys and more.