Debbie Kruger
Headline and pictures in APrap
March 2002


Debbie Kruger

18-year old Brooke Harvey arrived in Tamworth on January 4 from the small NSW town of Seaham, fresh from her HSC. Three weeks later she moved to Sydney, played her first professional gig as the support for the prestigious International Singer Songwriters concert at The Basement on January 28, and the industry is buzzing about her.

35-year old Martin Oakes was breaking horses on Janet Holmes a Court’s Northern Territory cattle station when his friend Sara Storer suggested he take his humorous, poetic bush songs to the local talent quest which could win him a scholarship to the CMAA Australian Country Music College, as she had done. He won the scholarship and the word about Oakes in Tamworth was that he could be Australia’s next Chad Morgan.

Only six years old, the Country Music College has become an unrivalled institution for producing professional musicians who, within a year or two of graduation, often become Australian country music stars. They usually go on to enter the following year’s Star Maker quest – Kieran Lancini, Kylie Sackley, Lyn Bowtell, Grant Richardson and Brendon Walmsley are recent winners who were College graduates.

Or occasionally someone like Sara Storer will come through the college, bypass Star Maker, go straight to a recording deal and win a Golden Guitar just a year later.

Remarkably, the College is only held over a short two-week period, but the intensity of the experience and the breadth of knowledge that is imparted equip the graduates for music careers like no other course in Australia. “It would be safe to say that there’s a couple every year who are absolutely outstanding, and then there’s a whole bunch of other people who raise their standard,” says Roger Corbett, who co-ordinates the songwriting module of the course.

With an impressive list of tutors – including Corbett, Dobe Newton, Rod McCormack, Rod Coe, Garth Porter and Beccy Cole – and an equally impressive line-up of guest speakers – Gina Jeffreys, Tamara Stewart, Adam Brand, Brendon Walmsley and Audrey Auld this year – the course covers every angle of artist development: rehearsing, recording, vocal, instrumental, performance techniques, interview techniques and business. But it would be fair to say that the songwriting and arranging sections are at the heart of the course.

“Now and again we get singers who don’t write,” Corbett says, “but we make everybody write because we think it’s important. We accept that the songwriting gift is unevenly sprinkled through the population and that some people have an amazing gift for it and some people have sometimes no gift for it. But it’s important for them to learn what a good song is and how that works. They need to understand the process of songwriting even if they don’t necessarily become fantastic songwriters themselves. And to recognise great songs from crap ones.”

The tutors and guest speakers refer to the students affectionately as “kids,” but in fact there is no age limit. Oakes was the oldest student this year. “We’d take somebody who was 40 or older if they wanted to come,” says Corbett, adding that too young is not good. “When I first started teaching at the college we had 15, 16 and 17 year olds and I said, ‘Look, we’ve really got to raise the age group because these people don’t have much to write about and the experience is so valuable that they really ought to do it in their 20s, when they’re ready to go out into the world.”

Students are divided into three groups, in which they arrange and rehearse the songs they write at college, performing them at a concert for 1000 people on the final night of the course. In those groups of seven or eight students, de facto therapy sessions take place.

“We really stress that we’re channelling songs, we’re not just writing them from our brains, a lot of it’s coming down from the sky,” says Corbett. “We do a lot of opening out of these kids so they get a full-on drama lesson every day, which is fairly confrontational for some of these country-type artists. Such an important part of what we do is opening everybody up emotionally.”

Dobe Newton concurs. “We always get involved in a whole lot of pastoral care issues because it unlocks people’s emotions and that’s stressful. And at the same time they’re also confronted by the talent that’s all around them, sometimes which is blatantly obvious that it’s more advanced than they are at this stage. Some people cope with that fine. But when you’re 28 years old and you’ve been having a go, and along comes a 19-year old with an amazing innate talent, you sort of go, Jesus! But that’s all part of it and we work our way through that with them.

Graduate Lorna McIntyre is not embarrassed to admit that she found the first few days of college so challenging that she was ready to run home to Melbourne. “It was confronting, even intimidating, but it was a journey I had taken, a reality check. It is not for the faint-hearted, but it is amazing what the tutors manage to achieve in such a short period of time. Words truly cannot describe the intensity of the experience.”

The TAFE-accredited course, sponsored by industry organisations (APRA is a founding supporter), costs students $935 including full board, meals and all tuition. Around 20 students are accepted each year, and it is probably the best investment an aspiring musician and songwriter with an interest in country music can make.

If a student shows talent that isn’t strictly country, that’s absolutely fine. Brooke Harvey, a self-confessed “old soul” who doesn’t classify herself as a country artist, has been writing since the age of eight, mainly influenced by alternative country artists such as Lucinda Williams, Khimmie Rhodes and John Hiatt, but there’s definitely some Alanis Morissette in her delivery.

Fellow-graduate Carla Herrod, on the other hand, grew up listening to Slim Dusty, Stan Coster, Johnny Horton and Hank Williams, and now admires the Dixie Chicks and Jo Dee Messina. The 23-year old from Hughenden in Queensland had been writing for 13 years before her first trip to Tamworth for the college this year. One of the most valuable lessons she learned was about creating more commercial songs. “I tend to write stuff that’s not too mainstream, and it’s hard to get a wide listening audience for that, because the average person doesn’t connect that well with it,” Herrod says.

“The rules they were giving were like a basic guide, an introduction for people wanting to learn how to write songs and it set up an instruction to help them so that if you didn’t have too many ideas you could at least work from that. But they did say that if you’ve been writing lyrically, like Brooke and I have, then don’t sacrifice the way you’ve been writing just to fit the structure. The structure was to assist people, not to limit or restrict you.”

The flexibility in the teaching style was evident when Harvey felt an important song bubbling within, only three days into the course. It was inspired by her father, a poultry farmer, losing his contract. Rod McCormack saw what was going on, and told her to skip classes and go write the song. Harvey’s “My Home” was one of the most potent songs to emerge from the college this year.

McCormack tells another story of helping a student uncover his true inspiration. The student was writing Australiana. “I could just tell that that wasn’t his thing, he had a deeper more interesting side to him that he just wasn’t willing to delve into. So for a couple of days I pushed him and pushed him – it’s almost like you challenge them to dig deeper to write something more meaningful about themselves. So eventually one by one you have to take everyone aside and it’s like you talk about their lives and just about them. Then you point out that they’ve got all this interesting stuff that they can write about that would be really interesting to find out about. And sometimes that just twigs off events or moments in their life that they start to want to write about.”

For the student in question, it meant an afternoon spent in tears remembering about how he proposed to his wife, afraid to articulate the experience. Relates McCormack, “He actually wrote it on a little post-it note, and he put it in her Christmas present, which was the engagement ring, on Christmas Day. And that was how he proposed to her, just a little note that said, ‘Will you marry me?’

“And I said, what a great story! Why don’t you write about that? It took him a day to come to terms with it, but then he eventually wrote it and it was great. Things like that are really good.”

Students at the college are given a warts-and-all view of the industry, with guest speakers discussing frankly the difficulties of starting a career. “Everyone assumes that maybe you stepped straight into the spotlight,” says Gina Jeffreys. “But it’s hard when you start out and you let them know it’s hard.”

A few students even show signs of wanting to develop outside the performance field. “A couple of the students this year had business backgrounds,” Beccy Cole points out. “Perhaps they’ll move into that rather than performing. We’re desperate in this industry for good managers, agents and business people.”

There is a strong support system for College alumni, through the CMAA website ( and the networks established during the course. Dobe Newton says that the success rate for graduates is high, with up to 95% maintaining music careers at differing levels of success after college. Those levels, all tutors agree, are constantly lifting.

“I think that every year they get more talented,” says McCormack. “I just think it’s the natural evolution of what’s happening in the industry. Just the fact that the high jump bar gets raised every year, the records get better, the artists get better, and we have to be better.”

“When I started ten years ago there was no-one giving advice. Those kids get to go there and learn guitar, learn singing, learn business, talk to industry people… We talk to them about how to have their photo taken, how to do interviews. Every little detail that I had to learn along the way, they’ve had someone go along and tell them. I think it puts those kids just one jump up on anyone else who want to break into the industry.” – Gina Jeffreys

“They’re like sponges, they really want to learn. I’ve had several managers, made lots of bad decisions and lots of mistakes, lost money… I can share that so they can learn from my mistakes. I can tell them to slow down and trust that if they have talent it will win through. I really enjoy that I have that to offer.” – Beccy Cole


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