Regions rock: why artists love the country

Stephanie Gardiner |

Playing the regions creates a unique audience connection, say the award-winning Rubens.
Playing the regions creates a unique audience connection, say the award-winning Rubens.

Dog-eared posters for school eisteddfods, 70s cover acts and community plays line the foyers of many small town theatres across Australia.

For the Rubens, a chart-topping band who fill iconic capital city venues with regularity, seeing their own faces on the same walls is a thrill.

“It’s nice to be a part of a cultural moment in a town’s history,” keyboardist Elliott Margin tells AAP.

The Rubens, whose fourth record 0202 reached number one on the ARIA album chart last year, are touring across NSW, Victoria and South Australia next month.

Margin says regional shows began as a way to tap into markets beyond capital cities and major centres on the metropolitan touring circuit.

But the band soon discovered playing in country Australia doesn’t just make financial sense, it creates a unique connection with their audience.

“We get people saying, in a self-deprecating way, ‘It’s so cool you guys are here, nothing ever happens here’, Margin says.

“We have to remind them that we’re rolling up because we want to be there.

“We grew up in small towns as well. We get the ‘why would you come to this small town’ sentiment but it’s nice to remind people they shouldn’t think that way.”

Artists and promoters are increasingly turning that small town stereotype on its head, embracing the charm of regional Australia’s people and places.

And it pays dividends for country areas. The Australia Council for the Arts says regional arts tourism is growing, attracting visitors who are travelling further, staying longer and spending more money while they take in performances and exhibitions. 

Greg Donovan, head of the Outback Music Festival Group which runs the Birdsville Big Red Bash in Queensland, says events in remote areas often attract road-trippers and grey nomads, benefiting towns hundreds of kilometres away.

Donovan is preparing for the first Broken Hill Mundi Mundi Bash in April, featuring Paul Kelly, Ian Moss and John Williamson.

“People might have Broken Hill on their bucket list, so an event like this becomes the catalyst for them to go,” he says.

“Once we get them out there, they want to spend some time doing all the other things the outback has to offer.”

Another Mundi Mundi show is set for August, with Jimmy Barnes, Missy Higgins and Kasey Chambers on the line-up.

Donovan says having two million square metres of red dirt as a backdrop gives artists and the crowd a spine-tingling experience.

“The way the music circulates through the air and over the big red dunes behind the stage is amazing.

“Every artist sounds good in the desert.”

Some, like singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin, are returning to the towns of their youth on Dinosaur City Records’ Homecoming tour, with shows in community halls, pubs and clubs across NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia until May.

Cody Munro Moore, co-founder of the indie label, says he was daydreaming about touring in country towns when COVID-19 lockdowns forced the closure of city venues.

“I remember falling asleep at the back of the halls under the seating, watching The Waifs or The Gadflys at Cobargo Hall. That was what I grew up on,” says Munro Moore, who was raised on the NSW south coast.

“We wanted to return to these venues and put on something that was reminiscent of all the great times that have been spent in these halls.

“They were first built for debutante balls or showing the biggest pumpkin, and a whole array of things.”

He says visiting musicians are often treated to country hospitality, with volunteers setting up lighting or the sound system or turning up with home-cooked meals for the crew.

“The next day they will take us to the local swimming hole or they’ll take us to a beach that’s a little secret spot.

“People want to show you why they live in these places. On first look, it might just look like a sleepy town but after a day or two, they will show you why they love this place.

“It helps people realise there are invigorating ideas and people in the country.”

Another concert series, The Festival of Small Halls, has been touring folk and acoustic musicians across Australia since 2013. The festival has just announced an autumn tour in regional Victoria.

Producer Eleanor Rigden says government funding makes it possible to play in towns and villages that might otherwise miss out on live music.

“We can afford to go to a town that only has 100 people still living in it and do a show for half that town.

“For a lot of artists, a show with 50 tickets would be difficult for them, for viability of the tour.

“That’s so special because every artist in the world would do intimate shows all the time if they could afford it.

“And those towns are so appreciative.”

Rigden says the bonds formed between musicians and small communities can be strong enough to inspire new art.

Canadian folk act The East Pointers and Australian singer Liz Stringer wrote a song about their experience touring in Tasmania during the 2016 bushfires.

One village had to postpone their gig several times, making for a momentous performance when it went ahead.

“It was so stressful with the fires closing in,” Rigden says.

“When they eventually did the show, (the town) wrote to us about their sense of community pride.

“The fires were at their doorstep and they still got together and had a big old dance and it was so wonderful.

“Then the band wrote a beautiful song called 82 Fires because that’s how many fires were burning that day.”

Musicians and promoters say the music industry owes much to Australia’s small towns, which have welcomed artists and fostered talent for decades.

“A lot of musicians and great songwriters grew up in regional areas,” Munro Moore says. 

“There are less opportunities in country areas but more opportunities to imagine.”