TAMWORTH - COUNTRY MUSIC CAPITAL & SO MUCH MORE...
Words by Mike Smith – photography Mike Smith & Destination Tamworth
Tamworth - the Country Music Capital of Australia
For 50 years, Tamworth has been stringing together country music festivals, luring thousands of fans for the foot-tapping indoor and outdoor extravaganza.
Stars have made the trip from all over Australia and ultimately from around the globe for the giant event, including the country’s longest running music awards.
Tamworth’s reputation as the Country Music Capital of Australia is legendary.
But while most things have a musical connection in this north-western regional city of NSW, there are other fascinating elements that make this centre more significant, from the rip-roaring action of championship rodeos in a state-of-the-art stadium to a billing which led to Tamworth’s billing as the City of Lights.
The latter stems from the mere turn of a tiny gold key back in 1888, and Tamworth has not looked back reports Mike Smith.
Five hours after leaving Sydney behind in the car’s rear vision mirror, we arrive in Tamworth – population 45,000 – with a firm view on seeing and hearing everything about country music.
It is therefore no surprise that on the initial drive into the city we spot the glittering and much photographed Big Golden Guitar, this towering 12-metre-high icon acting as a perfect welcome to the tourism information centre.
By stepping inside the centre, we are lured to another door which leads into the much-lauded Gallery of Stars Wax Museum, a meandering walk brimming with wax models of some of the greats of Australian country music, the quality of life-like creations drawing similarities to a Madam Tussauds display.
Meet famous country music singer Chad Morgan at the Wax Works
Understandably, the legendary Slim Dusty is included in the exhibition along with fellow Aussie stars such as Smoky Dawson, Chad Morgan, Jimmy Little, Frank Ifield, Buddy Williams, John Williamson, Reg Lindsay, and Lee Kernaghan, to mention a few.
A little further on the walk and we find ourselves in the more spacious and more-recently opened National Guitar Museum, a showcase of 45 signed and unsigned guitars of varying shapes and sizes from some of the world’s legends in addition to Australia’s very own.
Sitting in pride of place is Smoky Dawson’s famous Riffle guitar, so too Tommy Emmanuel’s first Maton guitar, and a signed Washburton guitar of KISS group member Paul Stanley.
There is even a showcase of unusually creations, including an Arnott’s Biscuit Tin three-string guitar and a guitar decorated in Aboriginal artwork. One to grab our attention was a 1970 guitar which is shaped like a boomerang.
The National Guitar Museum features guitars from the stars
Australia’s more recent world sensation Keith Urban signed one of his guitars for the exhibition while fellow Australian Troy Cassar-Daley signed his by summing up “Tamworth is like a big warm hug”.
For good reason, Tamworth’s close relationship to country music is evident wherever we stretch the legs. Such is its importance that Destination Tamworth created a Country Music Trail for visitors to follow on a self-guided walk.
In the heart of the city at one end of famous Peel Street is the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame with its collection of memorabilia – from early pioneers of country music to today’s stars – kindly donated by the artists or their families.
On an easy walk near the picturesque sporting oval in Bicentennial Park, is Pioneers Parade lined with bronze busts of some of Australia’s country music legends, including Tex Morton, Reg Lindsay, and Chad Morgan.
A stone’s throw away, Peel Street and its maze of shopping boutiques and cafes, we find more examples such as seated bronze statues of country music legends Slim Dusty (with wife Joy McKean) and Smoky Dawson. Nearby, on the corner of Kable Ave and Bridge St, is the Country Hands of Fame Park, around 330 handprints with new hands added each year during the Country Music Festival.
The 2020 Country Music Hands of Fame
While Tamworth thrives on being the Country Music Capital of Australia, it was nearly 100 years before the staging of the first festival that the centre came to prominence in the nation’s annals.
At the tick of 8pm on November 9, 1888, Tamworth’s mayoress Elizabeth Piper turned a tiny gold key which would change the regional centre’s night-time landscape forever.
It was the first time in Australia that streets would be lit by electric power, the newfound lighting replacing the expensive and increasingly unreliable gas lamps. Surprisingly, it took another six years before Melbourne would switch on its electric streetlights, another 10 years before Sydney.
This history-making moment, which lit up almost 22kms of streets, is widely recognised in the city, highlighted at the Tamworth Powerstation Museum, which opened in 1988 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary.
The museum is housed inside the original 1907-built electrical showroom building on Peel Street, on the site of the 1888 power station.
The Tamworth Powerstation Museum, which opened in 1988
Whether you choose to wander through the museum alone or join a tour with one of the handy – and knowledgeable – volunteer guides such as 82-year-old Ian Hobbs, a visit is as enlightening as some of the retro exhibits.
Supporting a pictorial history of the early development of electricity, is a collection of 20th Century household electric appliances used for heating, cooling, cleaning, cooking, and entertainment. There is also one of Australia’s largest collections of electric lights.
Two John Fowler steam driven engines, the only two of their kind in the world still operating, are spotted outside.
Significantly, each January when the Country Music Festival is held, there is a strong bond between country and Tamworth’s heritage with many of the stars and their fans opting to stay at the Powerhouse Hotel by Rydges.
Positioned on the site of a giant power station which, until the 1980s, was the source of electricity for NSW’s second largest inland city, this family-owned hotel had been the home-away-from-home for the late Slim Dusty and his wife Joy for at least 30 occasions, their couple always insisting on staying in the same corner suite, room 131.
Tamworth features some of the prettiest scenic drives in NSW
In reaching for the stars, the hotel has undergone a three-year multi-million-dollar redevelopment elevating it to the NSW New England region’s only five-star category.
Sandwiched along a narrow 700-metre stretch of land which separates the New England Highway from the railway, the refurbished hotel – owned by local cattle pastoral identity and long-time hotelier Greg Maguire – now offers 20 new luxe-serviced self-contained apartments, a mix of one and two-bedroom options, and a three-bedroom villa.
Under the direction of Australian award-winning design team, Paul Kelly Design, the 61 rooms and suites have also undergone major contemporary upgrades, from the leather bedheads to the marble bathrooms, and the double-glazed windows.
In line with today’s needs, the hotel has become more-high tech with high-speed complimentary wi-fi, giant smart TVs on acoustic wave walls, wireless mobile chargers, and multiple USB ports.
The mouth-watering focal point is The Workshop Kitchen, where diners sink their teeth into the juicy wood-fired Jack Creek Beef steaks, washed down with a glass of red from the restaurant’s extensive award-winning wine list. Adjacent is the chic Coal Bunker Bar and a cabinet of whiskeys also worth sampling.
The Barraba Silos featuring a water diviner - pic by: Barraba Silo Art
Prior to reaching the Big Golden Guitar on the initial drive into Tamworth, the colossal frame of the Australian Equine and Livestock Centre dominates the flat plains like a giant spaceship.
This world class facility, opened in 2008, is the largest of its kind in Australia – if not the Southern Hemisphere – and fittingly hosts major championship from rodeos and show jumping to dressage, and is home to local cattle sales and the annual family-oriented Tamworth Show in September.
When you consider about 40 percent of the NSW horse population is found within a 130km radius of the city, the centre’s positioning could not be better placed.
Over the October long weekend in 2021, however, a bit more horsepower is planned at the four-day inaugural National Thunder Motorcycle Rally, including some magical bike displays, along with the mandatory music and food.
Focal point for major events is a large indoor sandy based arena with measures 80 metres by 40 metres with tiered seating for more than 3500 onlookers. Adjacent is a smaller indoor arena which doubles as a stabling block for events in need of extra stables. www.aelec.com.au
Rip roaring action at the Equine Livestock Events Centre
When British explorer and surveyor John Oxley rode into the enriched Peel River Valley in 1818, he wrote in his journal, “It would be impossible to find a finer or more luxuriant country than its waters.”
He added: “No place in this world can afford more advantages to the industrious settler than this extensive vale.”
If only he could see Tamworth today, and the achievements its townsfolk have made in reaching for the stars – musically or otherwise.
WHERE TO STAY:
After a multi-million-dollar upgrade, Tamworth’s Powerhouse Hotel by Rydges has become the region’s only five-star establishment.
Located on the site of a giant power station, this family-owned hotel – fronted by an historic obelisk – has been welcoming the stars from around Australia as well as abroad.
WHERE TO DINE:
The Workshop Kitchen, inside the Powerhouse Hotel, is renowned for its Jack Creek Beef (a multiple winner of the world’s best steak) cooked over the ironbark woodfired grill or from the woodfired oven. The buzz from the open kitchen adds to the restaurant’s vibrant atmosphere, whether it is for breakfast (the full breakfast is a must), lunch, or dinner.
It is no surprise that the restaurant has also gained popularity for its extensive wine list with 200 on the menu. It was the first restaurant in the region to be awarded a 2 Glass rating at the 2020 Australia’s Wine List of the Year Awards through its variety, almost 50 labels offered by the glass.
The Pig and Tinder Box, Peel Street, offers casual dining experience with your choice of beverage and is one of the earliest watering holes in the New England region (1848).
The small boutique-style bar – affectionately referred to by locals as The Pig – is housed inside a grand heritage-listed former bank building, which was built in 1892. Share plates are a popular choice on a menu which offers modern Australian cuisine with European and Asian influences.
The Drunken Trout Café, a 45-minute drive from Tamworth, is on the site of the family-owned Arc-en-Ciel Trout Farm and smokehouse, hidden in a sub-tropical rainforest not far from the Sheba Dam Recreational Reserve, popular for fossicking for sapphires and zircons as well as gold.
Expect a casual daytime dining experience, the café aptly named after the farm’s Sydney Show award-winning mint and gin trout recipe.
Visitors can also buy – and take home – vacuum packed whole trouts, smoked and unsmoked, of popular choice the lemon and dill smoked trout and understandably the mint and gin award winner. There is also a choice of meat and trout pates along with smoked beef pastrami and beef jerky.
The modern purpose-built Tamworth Regional Gallery, adjacent to Tamworth Library, hosts ever changing art exhibitions as well as workshops, lectures, artist talks, events and engaging public programs.
Until July 25, 2021, the gallery is displaying original costumes from the Australian film The Dressmaker as part of its touring exhibition. Prior to that, the gallery housed photographic and mesmerising video work from Vic McEwan’s Haunting exhibition.
The Powerhouse Motorcycle Museum is home to the private collection of bike-loving Powerhouse Hotel owner Greg Maguire, adjacent to the hotel on Armidale Road (New England Highway).
Expect to see as many as 50 motorcycles at any one time, although Greg’s collection numbers more than 200, the remainder stored away for future displays.
The motorcycles, in pristine order, represent models from the 1950s to the 1980s, in the words of the owner “from my era”. Among the treasured models are vintage BSA Gold Stars, Ducatis, Triumphs, Hondas, and Velocettes, to name a few brands. The museum is also home to a rare limited-edition F4 MV Augusta Series.
One notable exhibit is far from pristine. But the story behind this 1924 Harley Davidson postie bike, found on a country property in a rusting state with dilapidated leather fittings, is far reaching.
For a panorama of Tamworth and beyond, take the short drive along a sealed road to historic Oxley Park Scenic Lookout, especially around sunset when the streetlights are switched on for the evening.
The Nundle Woollen Mill, a 40-minute drive from Tamworth, is a multi-award-winning attraction where visitors can step back in time to wool processing on machinery that are a century old.
Fleeces are brought in shorn, sorted, classed, and scoured to be processed on original old-world machinery designed and built in England and mainland Europe.
The machinery is brought to life in the processing, the wool ultimately dyed and dried with as many as 39 different colours of choice. Despite the heritage listing of the machinery and the overall reconnection with Australia’s wool heritage, the mill only opened in 2001.
It is the only remaining traditional commercial spinning mill in Australia.
Tamworth is an ideal base for scenic drives to such villages and towns as Barraba where you will see three towering privately-owned grain silos that have been used as canvas by Brisbane street-artist Fintan Magee to paint three murals of a larger-than-life water diviner.
The silos are among 28 in Australia to make up an ever-expanding trail of silo art.
Drive 45 minutes south of Tamworth along Nundle Road and you can capture a view of the waters of Chaffey Dam and the vast cattle stations such as Powerhouse Pastoral before reaching tiny Nundle village which boasted a bigger population in the 1800s for its gold findings.
A further 15-minute drive east will have you standing at the appropriately named Hanging Rock where you are rewarded with a spectacular panorama of the Nundle Valley from a lookout perched 600 metres above sea level. The view is also worth putting brush to canvas.
COUNTRY MUSIC FESTIVAL AND AWARDS:
After this year’s cancellation of Tamworth’s annual Country Music Festival, plans are underway to ensure 700 or more artists return between January 14-23, 2022, to perform at over 100 venues.
The city’s iconic Big Golden Guitar is certain to have extra sparkle over the 10 days as the country music capital celebrates the 50th anniversary of the event, Australia’s longest running music festival.
Organisers will prepare to roll out the welcome mat to more than 50,000 loyal fans who will make the pilgrimage – by car, rail, or air – from around Australia for the 2800 events.
The Toyota-sponsored festival also boasts the longest running music awards – the Country Music Awards of Australia – along with the Golden Guitar Awards. A regular sight during the festival, the colourful and vibrant cavalcade, is to return along Peel Street in the heart of Tamworth along with a series of fringe events and plenty of family entertainment.
As many as 600 buskers are expected to perform along Peel Street.
For details on the various attractions, activities events along with where to stay and eat, check out the Destination Tamworth website: www.destinationtamworth.com.au