By Ciara Murphy
What’s the country music scene like Down Under? I decided to find out by heading to the biggest country music festival in the Southern Hemisphere, CMC Rocks, held every year at Willowbank Raceway in Ipswich, QLD, just outside of Brisbane. After a shuttle ride from the station, I arrived at the site which was pretty much a city in itself. I wandered past all of the delicious (if overpriced) food stalls, the Ariat store selling cowboy boots and hats, the merchandise store with a line winding its way out of the entrance as punters tried to get out of the blazing sunshine, and the two huge stages right in the middle.
First up on the Main Stage was young Canadian singer TenilleTownes, whose excited and chatty nature was a great way to kick things off. She played a mix of original songs including latest single Somebody’s Daughter, as well as a few covers including U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and Keith Urban’s Love Somebody. Having this mix worked well in her favour as even those of us who hadn’t been familiar with her before were able to sing along and enjoy the show.
We then switched to the smaller Stampede Stage for Aussie Aleyce Simmonds. I appreciated that the festival had made an effort to support local artists as well as Nashville stars, as well as ensuring variety between acts. Aleyce was quite different to Tenille, being on the more ‘twangy’ side of country as she performed songs which had been hits on the Country Music Channel (CMC) such as Only On My Terms with its uplifting ‘stick up for yourself’ type lyrics, Rejected, Mighty Mighty Love and a cover of Pink’s Try.
Next was The Sisterhood Band, who I was excited to see having seen them perform at Nashville Meets London, and who had a great introduction by the MC at CMC Rocks, being described as ‘two kickass bad girls who like tequila and are going to melt your face off.’ Indeed, they certainly put in a good effort, starting off with the rock-fuelled Walk Away, both girls showing off the musical DNA running through their veins, being the daughters of Rod Stewart and members of 80s country music group Baillie and the Boys.
If you walked in at this point, you might indeed think that you’d arrived at a rock concert as The Sisterhood showed off vocals that would put Steven Tyler to shame on tracks like Thirteen, Closing In From Miles Away, Half Way, and some new tracks they wanted to try out on the crowd including Bullet, Get Up And Go, and Anywhere With You. Whilst not necessarily what my mind goes to when I think of country music, I really did enjoy the duos high energy set and am sure the rest of the crowd did too.
We had another Aussie in the form of Imogen Clark who was certainly a lot more country than the last. She played a bunch of upbeat pop tracks like Late Night Girl and a few ballads like slow-dance track You’ll Only Break My Heart. As any good country artist should, she told us about the stories behind some of her songs too, like High Tide, inspired by a poem her mum had penned about people experiencing life differently based on how empathetic they are.
By this point the sky had changed and the temperature dropped just in time for 6 time Grammy winner Brandy Clark to take to the Main Stage, wind whipping her hair as she performed a number of her satirical songs like Big Day In A Small Town, My Favourite Lie, Love Can Go To Hell, Get High, You’re Drunk. I wasn’t familiar with her music before this festival – or so I thought – only realising once I had left that she had co-written some of the greatest songs to hit country music, including Miranda Lambert’s Mama’s Broken Heart, The Band Perry’s Better Dig Two and Kacey Musgraves beautiful Late To The Party. A very talented lady indeed!
And then, the skies opened – and I mean weather as you’d never seen it before. The show was stopped as a severe weather warning was called out over the speaker system and we all ran for cover as the torrential rain pelted down and the wind ripped gazebos off their feet. I was supposed to have an interview at this point, but the huge cracks of lightning right outside the media trailer (which, in its tin can form, was no doubt very attractive to lightning) scared me right out of it and on top of a picnic table outside as the ground began to flood. It went on, and on, and on. Two hours later, and it was deemed safe for the show to go on, although Danielle Bradbery and Lindsay Ell’s set had to be cut.
We continued right on with Ashley McBryde, punters certainly a lot muddier than they’d been a few hours ago. I saw a lot of similarities between Ashley and Brandy in terms of their singing styles, although Ashley opted for a more serious route with songs about drug abuse (Living Next To Leroy), adultery (American Scandal) and the ever heartwarming ‘believe in yourself’ track Girl Goin’ Nowhere. Then the storm returned.
Knowing that I would see all of the acts on the remainder of the days bill at some other point throughout the weekend, and not particularly in the mood for hypothermia/saturation/electrocution/ruined electronics, I hedged my bets and decided the best action at that point was to return home and pray for better weather tomorrow. The show did continue in spite of the inclement weather, with the rain finally easing off as Luke Combs sang When It Rains, It Pours. How ironic.
Day two started off on a much better note, with the lovely Jillian Jacqueline first on the lineup. I loved both her well-written fun songs like Shady, Bleachers, Holier Than Thouand Reasons, as well as her lovely voice, which reminded me of Maren Morris, whose music I’m a big fan of. Jillian herself proclaimed that she’s no good at writing happy songs – just look at some of her titles: Hate Me, Sad Girls, Tragic – but she did stick one happy song into her set in the form of Somebody which was great fun to sing and dance along to. In spite of the demure subject matter of most of her songs, I still found myself smiling throughout her set and wishing her way more success than she currently has, as it’s certainly well deserved. A definite highlight of my weekend.
We moved from pop country to a mix of honky tonk, blues and rock with Aussie Jedd Hughes, who hails from the amazingly-named Quorn in South Australia. If you’re less of a fan of modern pop country than I am, Jedd’s songs like Big Blue Sky and Hollywood might well be for you, and again showed the variety of country music available at the festival.
Next up was Danielle Bradbery, again someone who I think deserves a lot more success than she currently had. I had been disappointed that her set the day before had been cancelled thanks to the weather, but was glad that at least we would get to see her perform once. She seemed pretty tired as she started her set (jetlag, maybe?) but picked up energy as she went along, performing hit after hit including my favourite of hers Red Wine + White Couch, Can’t Stay Mad and Goodbye Summer, all songs which you can’t help but bop along to, something I think is absolutely necessary at a music festival. We also got the more ballad-y side of Danielle as she sang Potential and a killer cover of Ariana Grande’s God Is A Woman, which merged beautifully into Messy.
I appreciated that Danielle took a moment to introduce herself to the crowd, explaining her career had started at the ripe old age of sixteen when she won The Voice TV talent show which led to the release of her first album which included the next song she sang for us, Wild Boy. Before all of this though, she had just been a shy girl singing into her hairbrush and looking up to country queen Carrie Underwood, whose So Small she then performed. The sun started to come out as she finished her set with Heart of Dixie, Sway and Worth It. The crowd has swelled during Danielle’s set, and for good reason. I could easily have watched her perform twice – damn you, extreme Australian weather!
The next act was introduced as ‘the streaming king’, and out walked 22-year-old heartthrob Noah Schnacky who, unsurprisingly, got a pretty big scream from the women in the audience. He began with new song That Guy, a super catchy pop song due to be released soon. He smartly chose to fill most of his set with covers, having not released many tracks himself. Songs like Old Dominion’s Break Up With Him, Jake Owen’s Barefoot Blue Jean Night, Sam Hunt’s House Party, and Dan + Shay’s Tequila gave us a good idea of what type of music to expect from him as well as show off his vocal range. Of course, there were a few originals in their too, including Maybe We Will and Hello Beautiful. Indeed, he added to the swoon-worthy nature of the latter track by producing a rose to offer to the ‘most excited girl in the crowd’. Quite cleverly, he chose a young girl who no doubt will be putting posters of him up on her wall in a few years time.
We moved in quite a different direction for the next act – Ashley McBryde, who revived a similar set to the day prior, thankfully without the awful weather. Her vocals really are quite something as she played songs like El Dorado, Home Sweet Highway and first hit A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega. The crowd particularly enjoyed a song she had written for her graduating class, who she told ‘I think it’s an awesome song, but I don’t think you will’ – the amusing Fat and Famous (as in ‘you got fat, I got famous’) and of course Girl Goin’ Nowhere, the crowd screaming as she sang ‘I hear the crowd / I look around / And I can’t find an empty chair / Not bad for a girl goin’ nowhere’
Lindsay Ell brought the rock ‘n’ roll back with her rocky set full of slamming guitars and gritty vocals on songs like Wildfire, Mint, Waiting On You and Castle. Whilst her style wasn’t necessarily up my street (you can probably tell by now that I’m more into pop country – indeed, my favourite of Lindsay’s songs is the poppy By The Way), there was no denying her excellent guitar playing whilst she showed off on ‘the song that started it all’ Criminal. I’d say her and The Sisterhood Band would put on an excellent rock-country show.
Another new-for-me act was next up with perhaps one of Australia’s proudest country artists, Troy Cassar-Daley, who has an impressive 31 number one songs on Australian country radio – that’s a lot. We got to hear plenty of them throughout his set, including Take A Walk In My Country, Country Is, V8 Town, Dream Out Loud, Big Big Love and River Boy, for which he popped on a cowboy hat, much to the delight of the crowd. He was certainly more at the traditional end of the country spectrum, but clearly a big favourite for Aussie fans.
I started lining up for Thomas Rhett’s signing at this point – yes, at CMC Rocks, even headliners do signings! – so watched Cam’s phenomenal set from the sidelines. She started off with the ‘the other woman’s perspective’ Diane, highlighting her spectacular vocals from the first note. We moved on to revenge song Runaway Train and the utterly beautiful unreleased Forgetting You When I’m Alone, which made me overly excited for the long-awaited release of her second album just so that I can listen to that song all the time.
Cam prides herself on being a sex-positive singer, and so treated us to a funny anecdote from her grandmother who used to say ‘sex is like a milkshake, once you have it, you’re always going to want it’ and two songs which embodied this sentiment – My Mistake and new Til There’s Nothing Left. We also had the fun Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty and a wonderful cover of Miley Cyrus’ Nothing Breaks Like A Heart which, if you know the song, you’ll know sounds a little like Dolly Parton’s Jolene, to which Cam did a mashup of. And of course, what to end on but Burning House, which I have no doubt will become Cam’s version of Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now – she’ll never not be allowed to play it.
Then, Thomas Rhett appeared at the signing desk and it was all go – a quick conversation, a hug and a signed CD later, and I could officially say that I’d met one of my favourite country artists. Brandy Clark returned to the stage as I moved to join the queue to meet Cam. Again, Brandy’s set was filled with amusing and satirical songs like Big Day In A Small Town, Love Can Go To Hell, Get High, and You’re Drunk. Satire is indeed a key part of country music and I’m glad Brandy was there to represent it.
I shuffled to the front of the queue and met Cam, who was absolutely lovely. We bonded over our shared jetlag having travelled from London just days earlier, and we joked that as this was the second festival I’d seen her perform at in as many weeks, maybe I’d see her at another the following week. A lovely woman and an incredible singer to boot – double check marks in my book.
Back on the Main Stage, Frankie Ballard began his set with the most intense guitar playing of the festival that I’d seen yet. I had fallen in love with his music a few years prior and maintain that he is another of the underrepresented artists who deserves so much more success (there seems to be a lot of those, eh?) so loved bopping along to his hits like Young and Crazy, Cigarette, It All Started With A Beer and Helluva Life.
Frankie was just as confused as I was as the crowd began shouted ‘Shoey! Shoey!’ which apparently means the artist has to chug a beer from their shoe, to which he gratefully obliged. We had a few new songs thrown in there too, including Long Live Love and Try To Be A Better Man. I look forward to hearing Frankie’s next album, and hope that appearing at CMC Rocks has helped build his fanbase as is deserved.
Michael Ray swaggered on to the Stampede Stage while singing Fan Girl. Frankly, I think Michael has a few too many ‘hey girl’ songs for my liking and (unpopular opinion) has made it this far in the industry more thanks to his looks than his vocals (I told you it was an unpopular opinion) but if the bra thrown on stage was anything to go by, others in the audience were certainly enjoying themselves as he worked he was through Kiss You In The Morning, Her World Or Mine, and One That Got Away, during which there was a bit of an awkward moment when he encouraged the crowd to sing along before realising that very few people knew the words; and a cover of Tim McGraw’s I Like It, I Love It, complete with OTT accent. I would’ve had Frankie Ballard or Cam much higher up the line-up in this pre-headliner slot, but if the aim was to get the crowd (and particularly the ladies) pumped up for the main event, Michael was as good an act as any.
We waited in suspense as DJ Khaled’s All I Do Is Win blared through the speakers before Thomas Rhett appeared from the dark to sing Leave Right Now. We only managed to get through three songs (T-Shirt and Get Me Some Of That) before Thomas succumbed to the calls of ‘Shoey!’, the crowd roaring in response as he downed a beer out of his new shoes. He brought Cam back on stage (yay!) for Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time which was something we were certainly all having as he sang hits old and new, including You Make Me Want To, Craving You, complete with music video playing the background, the lovely Star of the Show, and autobiographical Life Changes, with photos of Thomas throughout his life playing on the big screens.
It was clear that everyone in the audience was having a blast and a half, no one more so than ‘Tim from Brisbane’ who was invited onstage to sing Friends In Low Places, Thomas instructing him to pretend to play the guitar he’d draped around his neck ‘so you look cool’. We had another guest appearance from Michael Ray to sing Think A Little Less, which Thomas had actually penned. I hadn’t realised Thomas had written songs for other artists too, and it was nice he showed them off here, continuing with FGL’s Round Here (sadly no guest appearance from BK and Tyler). This being a shorter set than most headlining shows, we didn’t get to hear all the hits, but did of course get Marry Me, It Goes Like This and the cutesy Unforgettable, written for his wife; as well as brand new Look What God Gave Her, played for the very first time here. Let’s hope that means another new album on the horizon soon!
Like all music festivals, the weekend had flown by and somehow I had already reached the final day of CMC Rocks. Surprisingly, it started with beatboxing. I know, unusual for a country music concert, but that’s what you get when you invite Home Free to the party – country music’s answer to Pentatonix. The acapella group had pulled quite the crowd as they performed a bunch of cover songs including Cam’s Mayday, Blake Shelton’s Hillbilly Bone (complete with interesting dance moves), and a mashup of Dierks Bentley’s Woman, Amen and Keith Urban’s Female. They were very different from anything I had seen before, and super fun to watch.
I stuck around in the campers bar as the all-star Songwriters Show was coming up shortly after (you can read about that here), and then headed back to the main area. Another Aussie legend was on the stage at that point – Kasey Chambers, whose vibe I really liked (take a listen to Am I Not Pretty Enough?) but unfortunately didn’t get to enjoy much because I had since started lining up for the Florida Georgia Line signing event later that evening. Yes, it may have been only 3:30pm, and yes, the signing may have been at 7:30pm, but a queue had already started forming and since they were only due to sign for 30 minutes, I knew I needed to be one of the ones at the front.
Quite frankly, the signing was awfully organised. At 3:30, I had gone in to ask whether a queue had been started yet and was told not officially, but I could join the ‘unofficial’ queue that some fans had started. A small group of us stood there as the rain started to pour, but determined not to lose our space. A few hours later, we were moved by the organisers to the back of another queue or people who had not been standing in the rain for hours, thereby pushed back about twenty places even though we had been the ones there first. When the queue moved position again, a number of people pushed in, and this wasn’t even accounting for the vast numbers of people saving spaces for others who couldn’t be bothered to wait. So, from my position about fourth in the queue at the beginning, I’d say I was moved back to about 40th or 50th by the time the signing started – not particularly fair by my books.
I was also very disappointed by the signing itself. We were literally pushed past the desk BK & Tyler were standing behind by security, and the two didn’t even look up because they were so busy scribbling signatures on CD covers. I had expected to at least be able to share a few sentences with them as I had with Cam and Thomas Rhett, so to end up with the same result as I would have got had I just ordered a signed CD (minus the four hours wasted!) was terribly disheartening. I felt that I had not been able to enjoy the afternoon’s music due to stressing that I the signing would be over by the time I got to the front. Afterwards, I went to the toilet and by the time I came back, the signing was over. They had signed for less than 15 minutes rather than the 30 advertised. I’m sure this was not FGL’s fault, but no doubt many fans felt as cheated as I did, and it did put a damper on what was otherwise a great weekend.
Alas, I returned to the Main stage as Michael Ray finished his set and Locash took over. I had high expectations for the brothers, and they didn’t disappoint. They are proper country boys, from their accents to their songs like Don’t Get Better Than That, I Know Somebody and One Big Country Song from their upcoming album. I loved how they took songs that could easily have been a ballad and turned them into pop-rock party anthems – take Ring On Every Finger which deals with the same subject matter as Dan + Shay’s Speechless but in a very different manner (I love the lyrics ‘Let’s spend this life together / Dropping F-bombs like ‘forever’’), or God Thingwhich is basically a religious song disguised as a pump-up track.
They were the ideal opener for the headliners and definitely got the party going with songs like It Feels Like A Party as well as songs they had written for other artists including Keith Urban’s Fly With Me and Tim McGraw’s Truck Yeah which I almost thought fit them better than it did Tim. Locash finished their set with the apt I Love This Life, a sentiment to which many of us at CMC Rocks could definitely relate to.
We then began the Main event with BK and Tyler of Florida Georgia Line starting their set with new songs Colorado and Speed Of Love. With their album having only been released a month ago, it was no surprise that the crowd were not too familiar with these songs, so we were told they would play a song we all knew next – Cruise, which definitely had the whole crowd singing as undoubtedly the song that got us all listening to FGL in the first place.
We continued with the countrified Y’all Boys and Shine, during which I definitely felt my Southern drawl coming out (can’t be helped!) We held up our phone lights during Shine – a song completely different to the ballads normally called upon for arena-lighting-songs. Things got groovy during Smooth and my personal favourite Confession, during which the two worked all sides of the stage, making sure to move around so the vast crowd stretching back across the site could all see. Tyler mentioned how cool it was to be playing for 120,000 people, although I think he may have added an extra 0 to the festival’s capacity, but still, that’s a heck of a lot of people. We had some throwbacks with Dirt, Anything Goes and May We All, the heartwrenching music video playing in the background as they sang.
I liked how BK was called upon to sing guest parts on songs such as Tim McGraw’s on May We All, as any FGL fan will know that it is almost always Tyler’s voice that you hear on their records. What followed was a variety of songs ranging from club banger Swerve to the baby-making Talk You Out Of It (one of the better tracks on their latest album) before we slowed things down for H.O.L.Y. – Tyler sitting down to play the piano for the ballad, the likes of which are unusual from the rest of FGL’s party songs.
Things picked back up again with Simple and Up Down for which Morgan Wallen, who had played earlier in the day (an act I was sad to have missed having been in my never-ending queue at that point), joined the duo on stage. They bid the crowd farewell before returning for an encore of their hit with Bebe Rexha, Meant To Be, and This Is How We Roll, complete with fireworks shooting out of the top of the stage. It was a shorter set than we had been told, ending at 10:15 rather than 10:40 (short appearances seem to have become a thing that day) but they had played the songs we wanted to hear and put on a good show.
All in all, CMC Rocks was a great weekend. The fact that they had managed to bring so many big names – Cam, Frankie Ballard, Luke Combs, Thomas Rhett, FGL – together, highlighted those who will hopefully get more success as a result – Jillian Jacqueline, Danielle Bradbery, Noah Schnacky– and shared some of Australian’s best and brightest – Troy Cassar-Daley, Kasey Chambers – was truly admirable. I walk away having seen some of my favourite country music acts and discovered new ones – what more could you want? I’ll definitely be back next year!