Sitting between Sydney and Brisbane, Tamworth in northern NSW has the feel of a country town, yet it’s big enough to have all the offerings of a cosmopolitan city. After catching up with Luke McDonagh, the winner of our recent My Town competition, we partnered with Isuzu Utes to create a video that celebrates the unique beauty of the Country Music Capital.
“I grew up on a farm that my mum ran. There was magic to the place, with its little creeks and gullies. Even today, my fondest memories are of running around the paddocks, having mud fights. I remember seeing a rainbow once, out in a field, and grabbing a shovel and digging, looking for the pot of gold.
My mum loves films so I watched lots of them as a kid – to the point that when I read books, I’d see the stories as films, with camera blocking and everything. When I heard that people actually made movies as a job, I decided that that’s what I wanted to do. In October, I held Tamworth’s first ever short film festival, at the Forum 6 Cinemas. We showed about an hour and half’s worth of films, all shot by people with ties to the area.
I was actually thinking of doing a film about Tamworth for the festival so when the My Town competition came up, I thought, ‘Two birds, one stone.’ I really love Tamworth. People expect it to be close-minded but that’s not it; the people here are just sensible and straightforward.
The best thing about the town, though, is that everyone comes together when someone needs help. I’ve had random people call me about the festival saying, ‘I don’t know how to make a film but do you want a hand?’”
Here are six other notable Tamworth residents:
“I grew up in Wallabadah just south of here but Tamworth was where we did our shopping so I guess you could say it was our second home. My parents had a farm and I always loved the lifestyle and the animals. I’m a country girl through and through. I went to an agricultural college and always wanted to try farming.
When I had my son, Luke [McDonagh], I had my own farm just outside of Tamworth, which was hard work. My ex-husband had a computer business and he was travelling a lot but Luke had a lovely grandmother, who’d look after him, helping him draw or putting on films. Now I work in town. I’d prefer to be in the country with animals around me but that’s okay.
Movies have always been a big thing for our family. I remember going to Sydney and watching The Empire Strikes Back when I was 15. I couldn’t sleep afterwards because I was so blown away. My first son was always going to be named Luke, after Luke Skywalker. I used to love watching the Star Wars films with the kids – every Christmas they’d each get a new lightsaber.
It doesn’t surprise me that Luke’s working in film now. He was always so imaginative and even as a kid, he knew so much about movies – who directed or produced what. I’m really proud of him and I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.”
“Last year, I lived in Queenstown in New Zealand during the snow season with my partner, Soph. I like travelling and getting about, seeing new stuff, but I don’t like crowds so it was perfect for us. When we came back, Soph’s old man said he needed an extra set of hands on the farm so I thought I’d give it a crack. I was working as a builder and chippie but I’d grown up on a farm with a piggery so I knew what to do.
We live in Soph’s grandmother’s old place. Soph works in the travel agency in town and I look after the property, often on my own. If I hadn’t lived on a farm before, it would have been a shock. But I love it: you live where you work so you just get up and straight away you’re out doing yakka in the fresh air, listening to the sound of birds and cattle.
The days can be long and it can be a bit lonely but I always have the dog, Leo, and he’s good for a yarn if you feel like it. I’m always interested to see how he feels about whatever’s going on and how his day’s going.”
“I’ve been in Tamworth for close to 11 years now. I was born in St Louis in Missouri but I spent most of my adult life in New York, working at a health club. I left the United States in 2002. Back then, George W. Bush was president and Rudy Giuliani was New York City mayor and you could be arrested and held for days without being charged. It happened to me four times, the last time because I fitted the description of a guy who’d committed a crime – he was about my height, black and bald. I thought, ‘You know what? I’m out of here.’
Australia resonates with who I am. I believe in socialised healthcare and there’s a tolerance that you don’t find in most countries. When I first came here, I lived in Byron Bay, NSW, on a 457 work visa. I wasn’t allowed to own more than 50 per cent of a business or property so I bought half a gym through ‘sweat equity’ and half a 12-hectare block.
My life partner, Jay [Lynch], eventually moved to Byron Bay but he couldn’t find employment in his field. When he got a job at Prime7 in Tamworth, we sold the gym and the land and moved here. We never planned to stay but our new businesses, 360 Fitness Club and Hopscotch Restaurant & Bar, were well received and here we are.
There aren’t a whole lot of regional places in the world with the openness you find in Tamworth. As a mixed-race gay couple and businessmen, we stick out. But we’ve never been more embraced by a community. We’re proud to call it home.”
Tour guide and cultural specialist
“I grew up on a small mission on the Queensland/NSW border, close to Boggabilla and Goondiwindi. The village was surrounded by the Macintyre River and the old women taught us boys everything we needed to know about the world on the banks of the river. They taught us about culture, history, spirituality and the land and animals.
They’d always have this smile on their face and I’d wonder why. One day, I asked one of the women and she said, ‘When you’re older, you’ll figure it out.‘ I did figure it out; they were putting the bright spirit light in me. That’s a really special thing. Now I try to do it with my tours and all the people around me.
I tell my grandkids that the animals are always talking to us and the kids say, ‘How can that be, Pop?’ A little while ago, there was a bit of a ruckus and I asked them, ‘Do you know what’s going on?’ They looked at me strangely but when we went outside, we found a goanna the size of a crocodile. The magpies and peewees were trying to tell us that something strange was happening. When I was a kid, we’d go grab him for tea but now we feed him because he has a different function: he’s here to create a link between the old people round here and their spirituality.”
Singer, songwriter and musician
“I was born and bred in Tamworth. My dad, Brett, was a country singer and my pop, Rex, used to play in the old caravans with Slim Dusty and that crew. As a kid, I spent all my time at his property, which had a place to play music called The Gully Round Up.
I was about two years old when I started getting up on stage and by the time I was five, I had my own act, billed as Little Ashleigh Dallas. It was a pretty incredible place. People came from everywhere and we’d sing to them and feed them.
At 14, I took over my dad’s band – he was still in it but I started calling the shots. When I was 16, I met Kasey Chambers and one day she called and offered me a gig. I thought someone was playing a joke on me. I lived on the road, travelling across Australia and America. I was writing songs during the day and playing the guitar and fiddle and singing at night. It was an amazing time and I met the best people.
After that, I lived in Terrigal on NSW’s Central Coast but I’m back in Tamworth now. It’s the centre of the country-music industry. I’m still a full-time muso but I’ve also trained as a hairdresser. It’s something I’ll always have in my back pocket – it makes getting ready for gigs a lot quicker and if I ever need a little extra cash when I’m on the road, I can bust out the scissors and do a few haircuts in the caravan.”
Tent-pegger and Venue Manager
“I did all my schooling here in Tamworth and when I finished, I started as an apprentice welder. In my life, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to go to the big smoke but I chose not to do that – I’ve generally worked in this area.
I started riding horses in my late teens; before that, I was into motorbikes. I got involved in the gallops industry, working as a stablehand and later as a trainer. I got my track-rider’s ticket but if you look at the size of me, you know that was a long time ago.
I gave up the racing industry some time back and now I do tent-pegging. It’s a sport that started in ancient times as training for cavalry soldiers. It tests a rider’s ability to remove tent pegs at speed with a weapon while on horseback. The idea was that they wanted soldiers to be able to collapse enemy tents while attacking and raiding. Doc is one of the horses I use. You can compete with any breed but the horse has to be athletic and have a good mind and temperament.
The biggest events are in Sydney but there’s tent- pegging here at the Australian Equine and Livestock Events Centre, where I’m venue manager. We have all kinds of equine events, from campdrafting to rodeo, bull riding and showjumping – everything. It’s the centre of equestrian sports in Australia; we had 270 utilised days in the last financial year. Working here, we all stay pretty busy but we make sure we get the chance to go out and ride, too.”
Interviews: Ben Mckelvey. Photography credit: Jason Ierace.