AMAMOOR CREEK HALL
There we all were, stranded in the old Amamoor Hall. Musicians, travellers, country music fans, entertainers, drunk partiers, hopefuls and world wearies, all waiting for the next bus out of town. Once this run-down country hall would have been the setting for social dancing, maybe a country wedding, or a touring band of minstrels or actors, but now, like nearly every other country hall scattered along the highways and byways of Australia, it sits there empty, dusty, unused; with an out- of -tune piano in the corner and the cold, musty smell of abandonment filling the damp air. It hadn’t seen this many people in it for many a year.
Tonight we were waiting, like some impatient ghostly throng on the shores of the river Styx, for Charon and his ferry to carry us across to the other world.
We were, in fact, trying to get into the annual Gympie country music muster but the creeks had rapidly risen after 48 hours of heavy, constant rain and the way in was closed. The water was cascading across the road in several places and was still rising. “If the good lord’s willin’ and the creeks don’t rise”. I was reminded of Hank Williams’ words. The show must go on. It just doesn’t feel right if you don’t play the gig. All of us were waiting for one of those high wheel-base vehicles that could cope with the depth of the water .Apparently, we were told, such a vehicle had to be got from the Fraser Island tourist centre. After the first hour we were told that the bus had mysteriously broken down so we waited, and waited….
I was there with my band, the Cajun Combo, from Melbourne, a group of fine musicians who had flown up that morning from the “Florence of the South”, Melbourne. We had our lanky accordionist/ tour manager Stretch from the outback keeping our spirits up with little plastic cups of cheap wine; Scotty from Warbuton, our bass-player, big and tall and a look-a-like for Tim Robbins, the Hollywood actor; Western Sam ,the hottest guitar player in the country; Sharkey the quiet drummer who still listened exclusively and obsessively to Frank Zappa and Jimmy the Hustler, steel guitarist and rodeo outfitter from downtown Ipswich
Our day had started with a trip to the airport. As we went to jump in a maxi –taxi, which had been carefully booked the night before with our guitars, accordions , fiddles and the big double bass. “You’re not gonna fit in this cab- you ordered the wrong one.” exclaimed the nervy driver on arrival. “What do you mean” I said “I carefully went through all the details on the phone with the operator yesterday…we got a plane to catch, we got a show to do” . “ Well you can’t fit in here” he continued adamantly “you should have ordered the long –base-this is a short base”… “ Look , just get us in we haven’t got time to muck around”… “Mate, I’m just the driver, I’m just doing my job…it’s not my fault.” This ominous line was to echo in my head time and time again over the weekend. Eventually, thanks to Stretch, who had the “gift of the gab”, the nervy driver backed down and we all squeezed in. It wasn’t really a big deal after all, but people, these days seem to get worked up over all sorts of little things .
After the empty-your-pockets and magic wand security checks, the over-size baggage checks and the over-expensive and under-flavoured coffee we flew out of the Florence of the South and headed up to the deep North, to Brisbane, the city founded in 1824 by John Oxley and named after the then governor of New South Wales, Lord somebody- or other Brisbane. Before colonial times the place was called Mein jin and had been the much –loved home of the Jagerra language groups of peoples before they were removed, murdered and displaced by the new colonial administrators who were “just doing their job”….
After collecting our musical instruments , meeting Jimmy the Hustler, and picking up our Hertz Tarrago van (I always remember the old musicians –on- the -road joke –“ it Hurts to rent a truck” and still get a laugh thinking of the times we never got paid because of the vehicle hire bill) We headed up the busy Bruce Highway,(which I noted had been re-named as Steve Irwin Way-what a way to go –speared through the heart by an angry stingray)in the grey and white teeming rain , looking forward to our first very average roadhouse meal and filled with that romantic, slightly reckless and adventurous spirit that only being on the road can give you….welcome to the Sunshine State…
I’d been coming up to Queensland to play music for years and years. I first played the Gympie Muster back in ’84 with our little western swing band The Dancehall Racketeers. The talent spotter for the muster had spied us busking on the streets of Tamworth in our white suits and black string ties and liked our sound. That was the year that we came second in the busking competition. We lost to a musical saw player who now happens to run a very successful carpentry business just outside Moree, but that’s another story. In those innocent days, the muster was run by a country music family, the Webb Brothers, who had had some kind of career in country music culminating in their hit Who Put the Roo in the Stew? Funny, I can’t remember how it went, but it was part of that country novelty song craze that helped build the Australian Country Music Industry into what it is today. Songs like Red back on the Toilet seat, the Goondiwindi Grey and of course the big hits:- Pub with No Beer, I’ve Been Everywhere Man and Old Man Emu.
So the Webb Brothers were singing farmers and local show biz heroes and they started this muster idea off. It became a yearly get together for musicians and country music fans. In 1984 when we went to play there the line-up included The Sheik of Scrubby Creek, Chad Morgan, that curious, eccentric bush entertainer; The Emmanuel Brothers ,still playing hot country-style guitar pickin’; a circus tent with a big dance floor ,full of dancing ladies in big bright flowing dresses and men, all spruced up smart, gliding round the floor into the night. It was a glimpse of an old Australia, specifically Queensland country life and a far cry from the mega-festival that the Gympie Muster had now become.
So what has happened in those intervening years? What’s gone wrong? The world has got bigger and harder. Everything’s got more competitive and Australia’s not so far away from the rest of the world as it used to be. It’s as if the innocence has been lost and everything that was once just pretty or fun or just interesting has been caught up in the huge net of modernity and packaged- up and sold back to us. Everything human: love, music, art, poetry, humour, dancing, magic was now all just business. All that was small and hidden was now big and exposed. All that was private was now public. Karl Marx was right. His broad analysis of the future of a world where all was seen and valued only as stark economic entity was spot on. “A spectre is haunting Europe” – he wrote in 1848, ushering in the modern era.
Back in the old Amamoor Hall everyone was still waiting. I was reminded of Hank Williams again:- ‘did you ever know a night like this when time goes dragging by, The moon just went behind a cloud , to hide his head and cry’
The musicians were getting worried. There were shows to do and time was running out. Being band leader I rang the organisers. They sounded as though they were in disarray but told me to wait and the bus would come. They were doing everything they could. There were many fans at the muster waiting to be entertained and we had come so far to play. The rain hit the old tin roof and the rivers and creeks of the district slowly rose all around us.
Then the news came. The bus was nearly here. We were filled with anticipation and gathered together our instruments and equipment, as did everyone else. Finally it rolled in out of the night and parked in front of the hall. It didn’t look that big, maybe 30 or 40 seater and there was double that number of people in the hall. Suddenly, out of the rainy darkness of night a host of nameless, faceless people appeared, all loaded up with guitars and amps and just started jumping on the bus. Who were they? How come they’re getting on? And then it became clear. The stars, the name acts, the headliners, the Country music A team who had been waiting in their hire cars, on their phones, out in the dark, had been given priority over the rest of us. In about 10 minutes the bus was full and rumbling out to the festival site. Ok, business is business and the Muster had become big business, but no-one had thought of mentioning the way things really work to the crowd of people who had been left in the hall. Indignant, I went up to the organiser to make a protest. “This is not fair, people have been waiting here for two and three hours. We were told to wait in the hall.” “I’m just doing my job mate, “he answered, “It’s not up to me who gets on the bus, maybe you’ll get on the next one”.
There was no “next one”. We didn’t do a show that night and I sat in my hotel room with the steady Queensland rain a’fallin’. I spent several hours writing fiddle tunes and fell asleep thinking about the Amamoor country hall and the simple pleasures of the Saturday night dance in a world that was no more.
(The tune Amamoor Waltz was composed that evening and the recording of it can be heard on Soundcloud at www.andybaylor.com.au )