Australia's love/hate relationship with country music

Country music is often regarded as yet another American import, but its presence and place in Australia is steeped in history. It's the music that city folk love to make fun of, but perhaps they just don't understand it. Barbara Heggen reports.

 

He was known as the Yodelling Boundary Rider, but apparently he didn't like the nickname much. 

They called it hillbilly, we didn't like them calling us hillbilly because we didn't wear torn jeans and look like a hillbilly.

MARY SCHNEIDER

Tex Morton, like many of Australia's favourite musicians, was a New Zealander, and in days gone by he ruled the Australian airwaves. 

He was a pioneer of Australian 'hillbilly' music. Hillbilly was the rock 'n' roll of its day and came to us direct from America. 

Morton, who crossed the ditch in 1934, was the inspiration for the title of Toby Martin's new book, Yodelling Boundary Riders: Country Music in Australia Since the 1920s

Martin is best known as the front man for rock band Youth Group. So what's a rock star doing writing a book about country music?

'I grew up listening to quite a lot of country music and I got fascinated by the fact that Australia had country music as well ... that there was this other pop culture that existed before rock 'n' roll,' he says.

Like many others, Martin assumed that country music has always been about traditional values, with a rural and at times patriotic focus, but he soon discovered that it was once fresh, new and even subversive.

One of the many early acts that Martin pays tribute to in his book is the Schneider Sisters. 

Rita and Mary Schneider were a popular comedic hillbilly act during the '50s and '60s. While Rita has passed Mary is still known as 'Australia's Queen of Yodelling'.

'They called it hillbilly, we didn't like them calling us hillbilly because we didn't wear torn jeans and look like a hillbilly, but we listened to a lot of wonderful American hillbilly things,' she says.

The Schneiders were a musical family from Brisbane and Mary began yodelling at the age of six. By the age of 11 she was performing with her sister, who played guitar while Mary played a homemade instrument known as the Schneiderphone.

'I'd sit up in a mango tree every afternoon after school and practice yodelling, and Rita was a great comedian, so we were the Schneider Sisters for 25 years.'

According to Mary, one of the reasons behind country music's enduring popularity is the intimate relationship between musicians and fans. 'We're like a big family,' she says. 

Martin recalls witnessing that relationship first hand at a Slim Dusty concert. 

'There's this amazing connection between the audience and his extended family. Joy McKean, his wife, is naming people in the front row, wishing happy birthday to fans ... that would never happen at a rock show. Rock performers are supposed to treat their fans like dirt.'

Another of country's enduring features is authenticity. 'You can't fake it as a country star. You've got to be the real person,' says Martin.

While these days country acts would be hard pressed to pull a massive crowd in the city, that wasn't always the case. Stars like Tex Morton, Slim Dusty and the Schneider Sisters were popular everywhere.

According to Martin that shift in taste reveals something about Australian culture.

'It think it says we're quite divided unfortunately, and I think it's one of those genres that seems to be very polarising. You either are a country fan or you're not. Taste classifies who you are.'