Signs of a nationwide rise in the popularity of country music were clearly in evidence at this weekend’s Wairarapa Music in the Country festival, which drew an audience of thousands to the Tauherenikau Racecourse.
The car park was packed with motorhomes, and the smell of damp grass and food trucks lingered in the air as people danced by the stage or reclined back in the stands to enjoy the tunes.
The festival was struck by more rain than expected, with Wairarapa Racing Club general manager Matthew Sherry admitting on Saturday that the drizzle was “bloody annoying”.
Despite believing that the weather cost the event a few audience members, Sherry said it was still a raging success, attracting an estimated crowd of up to 3500.
“In the bigger picture, we’re lucky compared to some of those other festivals up north with all that rain,” Sherry said.
“There are over 200 motorhomes here, which is fantastic. People come here to relax, and they do it well.”
In saying that, he did wish that more local people were among the crowd.
“I just want people to understand what’s right on their doorstep, I’m not sure if that’s got through.”
The crowd was treated to a mix of original tunes and covers – from Dolly Parton to John Denver – with the sun lighting the stage aglow in the final hours of Saturday afternoon.
When asked how the team booked country and soul superstar – and “royalty as far as New Zealand entertainment goes” according to the festival’s MC – Tami Neilson as the headline act, Sherry laughed.
“We just rang her!” he said.
“Why wouldn’t she come? Artists love this place and Wairarapa.”
Neilson jumped on stage to join the end of southern belle Jenny Mitchell’s set, and the duo delivered a powerful rendition of ‘Trouble Finds a Girl’, a feminist track written together for Mitchell’s latest album.
This theme carried on for the rest of the night, with Canadian-born Neilson pausing during her set to reflect on the nature of being a woman artist in the global country music industry.
“Last year only 10 per cent of country music across North America was female, which is damning,” Neilson said.
“It’s heartbreaking being a woman in country music.
“What if it was a level playing field, what would the landscape of our music look like?”
Neilson thanked everyone for buying tickets to what was “a predominately female show tonight” and kept the enthusiastic crowd at the front of the stage tapping their heels for the rest of the night.
Taking the stage earlier in the day was Tui and Gold Guitar award-winning musician Melissa Partridge, who said it was her third time playing at the festival.
“I loved it up there,” Partridge said.
“It was great playing with the band, they’re a great bunch of talented musicians.”
Partridge grew up singing and playing gigs with her father in Australia and the United States and said she had never known anything different.
“It’s just in my blood, I couldn’t imagine not doing it,” Partridge said.
“Maybe people are just starting to catch on now, but country has always been cool.”