Book review: “Yodelling Boundary Riders: Country Music in Australia Since the 1920s” by Toby Martin (Lyrebird Press)
Country music defies the broad span of the Pacific
With this very readable print debut, Youth Group frontman turned academic Toby Martin surveys a musical style at odds with its own carefully cultivated image as the “authentic” sound of rural and regional Australia. The story begins with one of country music’s earliest incarnations, the commercially-invented American hillbilly style, first promulgated in Australia by EMI’s Regal Zonophone imprint and pioneers such as the legendary Tex Morton. As Martin reveals, Morton and other local artists of the ’thirties and ’forties were readily able to co-opt the Australian stockman and outback to the frontier mythos of the American hillbilly songbook, while retaining the style’s sentimentality, cowboy posturing, and “Wild West” variety show format. Profiling the rodeo-suited envoys of another time – Slim Dusty, Shirley Thoms, Reg Lindsay, and the colourful LeGarde Twins – along with blackfella artists such as Dougie Young, and contemporary stars from Kasey Chambers to Troy Cassar-Daley to Lee Kernaghan, Martin tracks Australian country music’s campaign of resistance to the perceived “Americanisation” of local cultural forms. From the concerted rebranding of hillbilly as “country & western” in the 1950s, through to the eventual mainstream triumph of the bush ballad and the contemporaneous (and very deliberate) establishment of Tamworth as Australia’s country music capital, Martin maps a sometimes confounding cultural evolution. While frequently essayistic in tone (the book began life as Martin’s PhD thesis), Yodelling Boundary Riders paints an engaging portrait of a robust musical style that, although transplanted from the US, finds natural expression and enduring popularity in an Australian setting.