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Live Review: Groundwater Country Music Festival

22 October 2023 | 1:45 pm | Jess Martyn

“Once you stop seeing cowboy hats and boots, probably turn around and walk the other way.”

Groundwater Country Music Festival

Groundwater Country Music Festival (Supplied)

Over its ten-year history, Groundwater Country Music Festival has made a name for itself as the home of country on the coast – and the name itself is proof that simplicity wins.

“We’re on the ground, by the water – so Groundwater made sense,” Mark Duckworth, Director of Festivals and Events for Major Events Gold Coast, says with a chuckle.

That same no-nonsense approach carries through every aspect of the festival, which kicks off with an enchantingly intimate two-hour set from Americana Country Folk artist Rex G Miller. Despite the beginnings of arthritis taking hold, Miller still puts on a great show at almost 70 years of age, rolling through originals Ride Me Back Home and If I Needed You alongside classic country tunes like Wagon Wheel.

Needless to say, it would not be the first rendition of Wagon Wheel heard that day, but it achieved a rather impressive feat by getting crowd members up and dancing at 9am on a hot, lazy Sunday morning.

The Bo’Ness brothers see Miller’s Wagon Wheel and raised him a slew of covers spanning several genres, from a quintessentially Scottish rendition of The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles, accents and all, to rousing renditions of INXSNever Tear Us Apart and Bernard Fanning’s Wish You Well. The only thing more endearing than their brotherly bond and impeccable harmonisation was their playful banter with the crowd and endless gratitude for the support of their many committed fans. Rounding things out with Tennessee Whiskey, Horses and Throw Your Arms Around Me cemented their commitment to the classics as well as their favour with the crowd.

Meanwhile, Billie Jo Porter is mid-set in the Big Top, floating her way through Play It Cool - a relatable tune about pretending you aren’t waiting by the phone for a call from the object of your affection. We’ve all been there – although Porter looks so at home in her shiny hot pink velvet pants that it’s hard to imagine her feeling anything but confident. Of course, the dream catcher she has hung over her microphone stand works in her favour as she enchants the crowd with yet more relatable lyrics in tunes like All We Need and Last Leaves of Autumn.

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While Doug Bruce and the Tailgaters and Kelly Brouhaha were winning over ears and hearts on their respective stages, Tori Forsyth was preparing for an anticipated set on the Surf Parade stage as fans gathered down the streets, some setting up camp chairs along the main drag. Her country-inspired snakeskin outfit set the tone for an edgy, confident set, punctuated by tracks like Take My Money and Black Bird that brought out the stage chemistry she shared with her band. She may have been “boring with H2O” in between songs, but the same could not be said for anything about Forsyth’s performance. With a great blend of slower country songs and high-energy dancing tunes, Tori had something for everyone (including the line dancing enthusiasts), and a sound that carried all the way down the street.

Up next, Jeremy Turner proves himself the perfect acoustic feature to kick off the afternoon, singing honkytonk songs that matched his sweaty shirt and iconic red mullet just so. Although, as Turner aptly remarked, there was very little space to dance, his renditions of Honky Tonk Blues and Never Tear Us Apart still had the crowd tapping along in their seats, the latter accompanied by a memorable story about his run-in with INXS’ own Andrew Farris, who requested he play the song in a pub in exchange for a can of rum. It was his original, Try To Stop Me, that really stuck though, pulling at heartstrings all through the mall.

Caitlin Harnett and the Pony Boys are often tipped as an act not to be missed, and they deliver – from her bright red ensemble and tattoos to her playful stage banter with the band. “Every time I open my mouth, the wind just blows the smoke from the smoke machine into my mouth,” she quipped. “I might choke. I’ll be right. I do enjoy a cigarette so I don’t really know what the difference is.” Even Cowgirls Cry and Living With Yourself were set standouts – relaxed without ever slipping into the realm of downbeat.

Another who steers well clear of downbeat is Col Finley, whose three-hour-long bar set never lapses. An hour in, he’s up on the bar alongside his lead guitarist, strutting up and down as his band looks on from the stage below. A cover of the Paul Kelly classic All The Dumb Things, a handful of other classic covers and a few “sexy sax solos” for good measure – this was truly a recipe for success.

One of a handful of international acts, Jackson Dean proudly takes the festival stage for his third-ever performance in the Land Down Under. His powerful voice stands out amongst the glorious four-part harmonies created by his band, although he’s almost overshadowed at times by his lead guitarist as he shreds the crowd favourites, Heavens To Betsy and the 4 Non Blondes classic, What’s Going On. His stage persona was confident almost to the point of nonchalance, particularly when he played his guitar with one hand, although the sweat on his forehead was a clear sign of a man hard at work. Hilariously, no one was more enthusiastic about the performance than the band’s stagehand, who could be seen from the side singing his lungs out and headbanging in time with the band. Let’s just say there was a lot of hair to go around. With crowd favourites Don’t Come Looking and Red Light, the performance culminated in a hair-flipping contest with his lead guitarist, not long before the band left the stage red, sweaty and a little breathless.

As Jackson Dean was wrapping up an impeccable set, Pete Cullen and The Hurt were just getting started on their two-hour show at The Broadbeach. The place was packed for the boogie set, and Pete made the best of a small stage, working hard to keep the crowd engaged. Set starters Chase The Dream and Peace and Love summed up his philosophy, but it didn’t end there – a long list of classics including Easy Money, Boot Scootin’ Boogie, Rhinestone Cowboy, Disco Cowboy (yes, it’s a different song), and even a cover of Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 made the set a roaring success, getting all the line dancing ladies on their feet.

Meanwhile, hundreds of punters were dusting off their cowboy hats and setting up their camping chairs along the main stretch to the stage in anticipation for the King of Country, Lee Kernaghan – and the set delivered exactly what they ordered. With the exception of a few rock ‘n’ roll numbers slipped in, it was all country, all the way. Tunes like Hat Town (Pete Cullen’s favourite song, according to a Facebook live done before the show) and Planet Country had the crowd singing and dancing along, paired with sentimental slide shows of family photos. It all led into a touching tribute to Slim Dusty, the original king of the boot-scootin’ genre, and the song Kernaghan wrote about a serendipitous plane journey that saw them seated side by side. Great Balls of Fire was a crowd pleaser, as was the simply named Ute Me, with words so simple and catchy that even country novices could join in.

A quick stop in to soak up the epic banjo and lead guitar solos coming out of Juke Joint’s Den Devine set (and to enjoy yet another rendition of Tennessee Whiskey), and it was on to the headliner, Tyla Rodrigues. Despite the long hot day that had been, the crowd revved up the energy when they saw Tyla’s quintessential country girl outfit – full denim jumpsuit and cowboy hat to boot. With a stand-out band featuring Jeremy Turner and crystalline vocals, she was ready to stand and deliver. Her covers of Tim McGraw’s I Like It, I Love It and Josh Turner’s Just To Be Your Man were a lesson in stagecraft and the delicate balance between performing and engaging, eliciting whistles galore from the crowd. In a memorable moment for a young fan, Tyla dedicated a song to a 12-year-old girl who had stood outside a previous show dancing as she was too young to get in. The song? Country Roads, of course – and the crowd couldn’t get enough of it. The cover of Tennessee Whiskey got much the same reception – and that was only the beginning.

As Festival Director Mark Duckworth said, it really is all about great homegrown Australian talent.

“We have so many great Australian artists here this year, and then we've also got some international flavour with Asleep at the Reel and the Jackson Dean. We've got The Dungarees here from Canada. We've had Melissa Carper coming here from Texas. We've got some really nice international acts that we're seeing coming back now after a few years of that being a real struggle, so it's added a nice flavour to the event,” he said.

“They also have international fan bases that come and watch. We have two guys from Japan that I met the other day that come every year and they hang out and they love it. Turns out there is a small country music contingent in Japan – and stuff like that, those are the cool stories.”