Country music doesn’t always know what to do with rule breakers, even if the rulebreakers are polite, interesting and not really the type to break rules, not least because they love country music and are playing, right here in front of you, country music.
It certainly has never really known what to do with women: fear them; venerate them; ignore them; tolerate them; give them room; rein them back in; did I mention fear them?
Rule breaking women? Hoo-eey.
If you watched the Ken Burns series, Country Music (on disc hopefully, for the full 16 hours, not the seriously truncated version aired by SBS) or if you tune into the two-part ABC TV series, Going Country, which goes to air next week, you would have a sense of this innate characteristic.
And whatever you say about country, when it’s Australian country it can be amplified, whether it’s at the Golden Guitars awards each January, the radio and TV shows, the venues or the mainstream awards. Take last week’s ARIA nominations for best country album for example.
Despite the fact that any objective observer would tell you that a lot – in my view, most – of the best Australian country made in the past decade, and certainly the past few years, has been made by women, there was only one woman in the five nominations. And she was part of a duo.
That nominee is Felicity Urquhart, an unlikely rebel in many ways, but one nonetheless, for some time, as Wind Back Wednesday reminds us in this interview from 2009. A lot has changed since then for Urquhart, some heartbreaking, but how much has changed for Australian country as you read the story below?
Ah, yes, a good question.
IT’S A PERVERSE TRUTH OF AUSTRALIAN COUNTRY MUSIC that the best way to succeed, or at least to succeed within the narrow definitions embraced by the local industry, is don’t be different, don’t be risky and whatever you do, don’t be too obviously country.
The way to do it is this: play a standardised brand of what would best be called pop-with-fiddles-and-hats; sing only of the salt of the earth bush folk and the vagaries of the heart; and have it recorded by the same small group of producers, most of whom learnt at the knee of the hugely successful writer/producer Garth Porter.
However, if you play bluegrass or swing or raw and rootsy music or look to sell a few copies to city dwellers who don't see themselves as country enthusiasts though they’ll buy a Lucinda Williams or Steve Earle record, you'll find yourself ignored (as a bit odd) or ostracised (as someone betraying their "real" country audience) by the self-appointed traditionalists.
Ask Kasey Chambers who, pre fame, saw her family group on the outer for years for not toeing the corporate line. Or ask Felicity Urquhart.
Until this year, Urquhart's best album was 2001’s excellent lively western swing album New Shadow. It was not a success. "A lot of people didn't know what to do with that," she says ruefully, but honestly.
So after that Urquhart played the game, making cautious and controlled music, maybe pleasing the burghers but failing her own test of quality.
"There's only a handful of shows or artists that I get around to seeing at the [Tamworth] festival because there's a lot that I find very mediocre," says Urquhart. "When I grew up there and the early days [of going to the festival] it always seemed exciting and different. You used the phrase schmick and polished but I think back then it was a little more loose and spirited, rather than contrived and ordered from somewhere. It has become very controlled."
But no longer for her. This year's strong, varied and impressive album Landing Lights, made away from the usual suspects, finds Urquhart free of those directions and refreshingly country sounding.
"I honestly was going to throw it all the way," she says. "I said that's it, I've had enough of people telling me to do this, that and the other, pushing me to this stylist, point me to that producer and all that sort of stuff. Now, I know where I want to go and bugger what anyone thinks, I'm just going to go with it."
She only half jokes that she has a simple criterion now for judging her music. "I have to be content that if Allison Krauss walked in the room and I was performing I could hold my head up high and not think, oh God she's seeing this gig."
But there is no joking about how close she came to giving up not just on music but herself.
"When I found myself without a record deal I struggled with the emotion of that, of the promises I was given and believed. I thought I'm no good and doubted everything I did so I thought the best way to combat that was to go into a little shell and not play. I thought they didn't really care anyway, they won't miss me," Urquhart says.
"I was so miserable though that I couldn't even see the end of the day basically. I was on the edge of that horrible depression thing where every day was a struggle to think what tomorrow could be. It was literally getting through a week at a time until I felt like myself again."
The situation began to change when she picked up a guitar again and started writing down the emotions.
"I was lucky to have Glen [Hannah, musician and producer and now her husband] who said, just put these songs down, record them here on an acoustic guitar and play them to some people before you throw the towel in completely. So I got back on the horse so to speak. And I'm glad."
Since then, she's been eager to help organisations devoted to those suffering with depression, speaking openly of her own struggle. And along the way she’s fixed a few other things in her life.
"It made me realise who the important people were in my life and in my musical circle. Who actually did give a damn. My circle became a lot smaller and a lot tighter."