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Jett Williams and other artists perform her father Hank Williams’ song I Saw The Light. Image: AI Slade
Geoff Helisma The main ‘street’ that bisects the 700 caravans and mobile homes at the fifth Clarence Valley Country Muster (October 23 – 29) is dusty; but the dust belies many bogging incidents following torrential rain earlier in the week – evidenced by the road’s undulations. It’s the third day of the festival and people carrying chairs are making their way to the main stage, under a vast iron roof, to enjoy being entertained by country music stalwarts, budding stars and those taking the opportunity to test their musical skills in front of a large audience. The atmosphere is familial, as house band Suburban Country – local musicians Johnny Warren, Neil Payne and Peter Johnston – back the 29 walk-up performances programmed for the day. Each artist plays two songs and it’s clear that each performer is rehearsed and ready to give it their best shot – at the end of the week a “young guy, Anthony Baxter”, says muster organiser Wendy Gordon, was judged to be the best and won a $2,000 recording prize. Last Year’s winner Pete Smokey Dawson performed on this year’s main bill. As I stop and speak with people around the muster, many of them single out ‘Wendy’ for her oversight of the event. “Nothing is too much trouble,” Kerry and Diane Tozer from the Gold Coast say. When asked what’s special about the muster, MC Doug Stewart says: “The lay out (for caravanning – there’s no limit), the area, the friendliness, the production, Terry [Gordon] does a brilliant job [booking the acts] and Wendy spends 12 months getting it ready – it’s so well organised it’s unbelievable. “It’s family; everyone seems to know all of the organisers here. Wendy’s known by everyone, she’s never off the phone, and she’s out there talking to everyone.” I catch up with Wendy four days after the muster ended. The last of 70 port-a-loos is being loaded onto a truck and, surprisingly, the working farm looks just like it did before thousands of people spent a week soaking up the atmosphere. “They left no rubbish, they were so respectful of the property,” says Wendy. On the final night, many of the professional performers joined headliner Jett Williams to sing her father Hank Williams’ song I Saw The Light. “Jett said it was an honour to be on stage with so many great Australian country music performers,” says Wendy. “She received a standing ovation.” Adding to the ‘familial’ feel, Tania Kernaghan ‘married’ 18 couples who renewed their wedding vows on Sunday morning, the last day of the muster. There were charitable outcomes, too. A handmade bullock yoke raised $5,500 and a guitar signed by the performing artists raised $1,800. Proceeds were donated to Westpac rescue helicopter ($4,000) and to several “needy families … some have cancer … it’s nice to be able to give back,” says Wendy. Meanwhile, the muster is muscling its way onto Australia’s country music festival scene – the proof: half of the sites for next year’s event are already booked.  
One of the walk-up artists, 87-year-old Bill Shipman lives for his music. His wife Aileen passed away three years ago, however, the Coffs Harbour man wasn’t content to let the grass grow around his feet. “I thought, ‘what the hell am I going to do?’ he says. I thought, ‘Well I’m not a drinker; I’ve never got drunk in my life.’ I said, ‘I can go to drink, I can go mad or I can commit harakiri.’ I didn’t like any one of them, so I got back into the music again and started travelling around. I love travelling, I love playing music, I love meeting people, and this is what I do now.” Image: Geoff Helisma
Above: The charge of the 4th Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, Turkey, late in the afternoon of 31 October 1917, remembered as the last great cavalry charge, was commemorated at the muster. Image: AI Slade
Above: Chad Morgan entertaining the crowd. Image: AI Slade
Above: Jett Williams on the stage. Image: AI Slade
Above: Tania Kernaghan (left) ‘married’ Shirley and Pat Greene, one of 18 couples who renewed their vows. Image: AI Slade