The project was slightly daunting, given the breadth of the subject and just two hours of show time to play with. “My idea was to pick six iconic songs and build a history around them, to explore themes and ideas instead of a chronological history,” he says.
It’s a clever treatment, allowing an insight into different elements of country music, kicking off with Wild Colonial Boy as Australia’s first country music track and ending with a contemporary song performed by Clarke.
The series suggests country music was “the punk music of its time”. “It was young people’s music, it was rebelling against the city toffs, it was useful, and it had an edge to it,” says Stenders.
Truth-telling through the genre is a strong theme of the show, an idea explored by several interviewees, including novelist/singer Nardi Simpson, who makes compelling watching.
“What I love about Nardi was that whole story of connecting Aboriginal people with white folk and country music, the way that it’s a binding genre, and I loved that idea that it’s a real point of connection for both cultures,” Clarke says. “And the idea that before there was any music here that we [as Europeans] brought, there was the music of country. I love that way of connecting it back to the land that we all live on.”
So many stories are documented through country music — simple, life-affirming tales of love and family, stories of grief and loss, historic moments, politically charged sentiments — while others contain revelations. For Clarke, connection is one of hallmarks of the genre, inspired by the many country artists, led by Slim Dusty, who toured incessantly through small towns and big.
“I love that artists since the 1930s and 40s have been navigating some of the roughest roads in Australia,” she says. “I hope that people will really listen to these songs and find something in them that connects with them and be reminded that we do cherish music in this country, that it’s in every corner.”
Highlights include a collaboration between Troy Cassar-Daley and Briggs, who reworked Cassar-Daley’s Shadows on the Hill — about a massacre of Aboriginal people near where he grew up — released this month as Shadows. “It’s an amazing song in its own right but it’s absolutely incendiary when performed by Troy and Briggs,” says Stenders.
Another showstopper is the extraordinary rendition of My Brown Skin Baby They Take Him Away by singer/songwriter Emily Wurramara. The song was written in 1970 by Bob Randall of the Yankunytjatjara people from central Australia and is often referred to as an anthem for the Stolen Generations; he was forcibly removed from his mother when he was seven years old. “The editor and I, every time we had to cut that tune, we ended up in tears,” says Stenders.
Since filming Going Country, Clarke has been playing guitar every day, honing her skills and writing new material. “It was really inspiring to get the opportunity to talk really frankly about what music means to [the artists], what they feel their value is and to hear their thoughts on music. The thing about this show that’s so beautiful is it reminds us of the power of music … It’s what makes us human.”
Going Country is on ABC, Tuesday, 8.30pm and iview.
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