See the Music

Judith Ahern Documents the Tamworth Country Music Festival

In her photographs of Tamworth, Judith Ahern shows us the characters and camaraderie of its famous country music festival with unflinching honesty; capturing everything but the sound of the music itself.

Ahern took her camera backstage, into the pubs, and out to the streets during the festivals of the late-1980s, when Tamworth was cementing its reputation as the country music capital of Australia.

Among her shot-from-the hip portraits of the ‘greats’ of country music – Joy McKean, Slim Dusty, Smoky Dawson, Buddy Williams and Chad Morgan – are casual observations of awards nights, beauty quests, and performers waiting backstage in fringed cowboy shirts and Stetson hats.

Ahern also shows us the life of fans in flannel shirts and Akubra hats who passionately attended the festival. We see the heat, sweat, bright lights, and late nights; the buskers and the sideshows; the shooting gallery; and, an iconic mechanical bull. You can almost feel the sun beating down on the crowds which stand and watch the street parade. What we don’t experience is the sound:

‘To walk down Peel Street in Tamworth, New South Wales, during the annual country music festival in January is to experience cacophony. Sound emanates from every direction. Busker after busker lines the footpath, each with amplifiers…

Passers-by are loudly encouraged to stop and watch a reptile display, a whip-cracking demonstration… Cicadas chirp tirelessly in the trees above. Crowd members try to make their conversation heard above it all. The resulting sonic encounter is of a wall of dissonance that is both confusing and exhilarating.’

Ahern’s photographs convey not only the convivial spirit of the festival, but how things have changed in the decades since. In the series, there are very few images of Indigenous performers while women are mostly seen as the ‘queens’ and ‘princesses’ of beauty quests.

Today, these attitudes towards Aboriginal people and women has shifted. The festival now has a dedicated grant for Indigenous artists as well as an Aboriginal Cultural Showcase, while the ‘Queen of Country Music Quest’ is now run as a professional and personal development course.