Image by: Roger Bowie

In Search Of Country Music In The Town Of Gore

Roger Bowie

The small town of Gore lies 65 kilometres north of Invercargill in New Zealand. Growing up in Western Southland, as I did, Gore was almost on another planet, way over somewhere east. Then, during university years, it became one of two places which interrupted the effort to get from Invercargill to Dunedin and back as fast as possible. Well, as fast as a Morris Minor 1000 could go, but both Gore and Balclutha seemed interminably long to get through, and the sooner the better. Wished they weren’t there.


On Thursday last week, I drove with my brother from Invercargill to Gore and stopped. Probably haven’t done that since he lived there in the 1980s. But this time it’s different. Gore is also known as New Zealand’s home of country music, a bit like Tamworth, and not a bit like Nashville. And on Thursday night the New Zealand Country Music Awards took place, under the collective sponsorship of Recorded Music New Zealand, APRA (Australasian Performing Rights Association), and the Mataura Licensing Trust (MLT).

Recorded Music NZ (through One Music) and APRA measure, manage and distribute royalties to artists from performances of their music, by others, and in their own right through various media. Recorded Music NZ Ltd also measures and produce the official charts as well as the annual Vodafone NZ Music Awards. Industry heavyweights. The Mataura Licensing Trust was born in 1955 after 50 years of prohibition in the area and owns all the establishments through which alcohol is available and sold to the public. Such monopolies are rare these days, but the community doesn’t mind as the MLT gives back to the community a big chunk of annual profits. Keeps the temperance people happy.

The other player in this game is the New Zealand Songwriters’ Trust, a small local organisation formed to run the MLT Songwriting Awards as part of NZ Gold Guitar Week. In 2011 APRA and Recorded Music NZ formed a new relationship with the Trust to curate the NZ Country Music Awards.

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And of course, this prestigious, national event is just the opening act for New Zealand Gold Guitar Week, which started in 1974 and has forged a close relationship with Tamworth in New South Wales, with mutual visits and appearances of each other’s Gold Guitar winners. The Gold Guitar competition sees approximately 700 competitors in age group and genre categories sing their way through auditions and finals from which ultimately emerges the Gold Guitar winner. Arun O’Connor from Invercargill won last year, and subsequently performed at Tamworth as well as going to Nashville to record a single under the guidance of one of Nashville’s many successful producers.

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All of these annual Queen’s Birthday Weekend shenanigans add up to the justification for Gore to be New Zealand’s Country music capital. And this all happened after the days I wanted it to disappear so I could get home faster. I came down to Gore to cover the NZ Country Music Awards, but you can’t help to be drawn into the concurrent Gold Guitar atmosphere and events because the town is small and there is music everywhere.

Day One

Thursday is a cold, miserable Southland day with cloud covered sky and almost perpetual drizzle. We meet Jeff and Julie from the Songwriter’s Trust at the venue as they prepare for this evening’s event and then it’s off to the RSA (Returned and Services Association) for Jammin’ at the Razza, an open mic style event with a backing band comprising Gore’s finest musicians from the Dusty Spittle days.

On the way, there are a couple of small crowds gathered on the sidewalk to watch the school kids doing their Freeze ya bits off busking competition. But it’s the other side of the road, too far away. And I want to keep what’s left of my bits to myself.

At the Razza, we find Brian Kennard on lead, Ken Ashby on bass, Brendan Burgess on keys, Nick Bourke on rhythm, and Terry Bartlett, who is blind, playing an electronic drum kit for the very first time. All accomplished musicians and one of four or five backing bands over the various venues who support one-off performances by contestants and anyone else who wants to have a go. A lot of chord sheets. Someone must have to work hard to get them all in place. Behind the scenes. During the night. Someone has to do it. Un-song heroes.

I always joke that the only reason I like to visit Invercargill these days is because it’s the only place in the world where I still get called “young fella”. That hasn’t happened yet on this visit, but in this audience, I can feel it. Someone is singing Connie Francis, Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool. Someone else does Help Me Make It Through The Night. There’s a sound glitch, and Ken Ashby fills in on ukulele playing George Formby’s ode to window cleaning. I used to clean windows as a young fella. Jim Waddell from Invercargill sings a Buddy Holly song and then hams it up on We Fall To Pieces. Someone recognises my brother from 55 years ago. Thankfully someone has brought their little kids along, to reduce the average age. To about mine. The Line Dancers appear. Someone sings Green Green Grass of Home. Jammin at the Razza. Young fella.

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We have a couple of hours to fill before the welcome function at 6pm so we walk through the drizzle to the Eastern Southland Art Gallery. Curated by Jim Geddes, another local hero. What a surprise! Not only is there a Ralph Hotere gallery, the New Zealand born, Harvard educated sexologist John Money has donated an amazing selection of African art. Big pieces. Small pieces. Wooden statues, masks, kings and queens. From the most undemocratic New Democratic Republic of Congo, from Benin, from Mali, from the Cote D’Ivoire, from Gabon. Places John Money never went to, but I did. And now, here in Gore. Who’d have thought it?

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Just across the road is the Hokonui Moonshine Museum. Remember the Mataura Licensing Trust? Born in 1955? Because for nigh on fifty years, the locals voted for prohibition. It was a close-run thing, the forces of good against the forces of evil. Folks demanded a recount. Reckoned the election was rigged. Probably the Russians. For fifty odd years it was illegal to produce, but not to consume, alcohol. So the pubs just outside the area continued to thrive. And the folks in the Hokonui Hills, the McRae clan and their mates, continued to distil their moonshine, a sort of half-way whiskey cum hootch, sometimes good for you, but blindness could set in, even amongst the coppers sent into the bush to find it.

Mary McRae, newly widowed, emigrated from Scotland in the 1870s with her seven kids, and, in an act of defiance unheralded in the annals of emancipation, packed in her suitcase a small distilling unit, and a recipe. Legendary. The first great Southern Woman. Who would have dared look into a woman’s luggage?

This is a wonderful little museum, describing the context, the process and the keystone cops’ efforts to locate and catch the distilleries and their distillers in the act. Not to forget the dogged inspector of customs, determined in the belief that an untaxed, unlicensed effort was prejudicial to the efforts of law-abiding big brewing companies. In defence of regulation. Must have voted Labour. There’s a Tiger Moth involved. Enough said. Go see it for yourself!

Julie Mitchell from the Songwriters’ Trust (and Jenny’s mum) has told us to meet at 6pm at “Baileys”. Must be a new bar somewhere. Irish Cream. Turns out its Bayley’s Real Estate, a cover gig for a lot of what is Gore Music Inc. Fiona Scobbie (pronounced Scobie) welcomes us in. Could be a cuzzie, but someone probably misspelt it sometime and out the extra “b” in. Wine and cheese. Holly Arrowsmith walks in with husband, carpenter Mike. Gorgeous couple. Kendall Elise arrives, with her drummer and partner Chris. Another gorgeous couple. Kerryn Fields, whom I had bumped into earlier, arrives with her partner. Yet another gorgeous couple. Luke O’Shea is here, big Aussie troubadour, 9 times winner of the Tamworth Gold Guitar, and guest performer for tonight’s show. Brother Ken introduces me to Lachie Hayes, currently Southland Entertainer of the year, and the other guest performer. Lachie hails from Tokanui, on the edge of the Catlins, and is a scion of the famous Possum Pickers Hayes family. They’re from the McDonald clan, Lachie tells me. So are the Bowies, I reply. Kith and kin (but why can’t I sing?). Tami Neilson arrives, resplendent as always, and then Jenny Mitchell, Gore’s hottest new star, and proud provider of this year’s birthday present from brother Ken (both of her albums). We finally meet. (I won’t get the Gold Guitar this year, but I did get my Gold... card). Dusty Spittle died earlier this year, but his widow is here tonight because they are going to do a tribute to Dusty in the show. She hails from Tuatapere. I was born in Tuatapere. And, is that the pharmacist over there? Yes, I am told, it really is Bernie McKone, a huge personality in the area and Chairman of Southland Rugby. We bonded over a few whiskeys in Melbourne a few years back. Reunion. I feel at home... 

There are Fords outside to take us 50 metres to the theatre. Red carpet. We go with Miller Yule, a finalist in the songwriter competition. Miller’s dad, Phil Yule, legendary sound engineer in Auckland, was born in Wyndham, just down the road. Big, small world.

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And now here we are, in the St James Theatre, a magnificent old art deco establishment built in 1936 and accommodating 450 people. Almost all of whom are here tonight.

Jeff Rea, Chairman and founder of the Songwriter’s Trust, is tonight’s MC. The first half of the evening’s bill is the songwriting awards, sponsored by the MLT. Mayor Tracy Hicks welcomes us all, with special mention to the visiting Tamworth Queen Rebecca Hunt and the Gore Country Music Queen Melissa Wishart and her runner up Leah McMath. And off we go.

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Jenny Mitchell

First up is Jenny Mitchell, with the first of two songs picked for the final. Tug of War, supported by veteran multi-instrumentalist Mike Hood. This is the first of 10 songs selected from hundreds submitted. The judges have a day of speed listening to pick 10. Then they go home for immersion listening to the ten songs over a couple of weeks, before doing their rankings. The rankings are ranked, without interference from Russia, and decisions made.

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Kerryn Fields

Next up is Kerryn Fields for the first of her two songs. Straight into the song. No banter. Each song is introduced instead by a brief video clip. Kerryn’s first song is Mamma. She’s gonna see you right. I saw her sing this when she supported Wallis Bird at Auckland's Tuning Fork in March. Hadn’t heard of either of them. They both blew me away. So great to see her here.

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Miller Yule

Miller Yule, the young man with the rock ‘n roll name, is up next with Tangled Up. Rich Americana voice reminds me of Aaron Lee Tasjan. Great song. Miller has opened for Ben Harper. Watch out for him.

The next song is one which is written by Tami Neilson and Kaylee Bell. In the APRA songwriting workshop held in Auckland last year. Getting Used To Getting Over You is sung tonight by Kayla Martin, a local singer who is also a Committee Member for the Gold Guitars event. Kaylee Bell is not here tonight, and we are going to see a lot more of Tami. Beautiful song, beautifully sung. Well done Kayla.

For the most part, these songs are backed by a fine band of Dunedin musicians. Doug Wright is the musical director and on keyboards. James Davy on guitars, Craig Reeves on percussion, John Dodd on bass, and that would be former Mother Goose drummer Marcel Rodeka pounding away (thanks for the tip, Bernie).

Next up is Olivia Sutherland, a young university music student from Kamo in Whangarei. Her song is Don’t, but she seems nervous, and the song a bit poppy, don’t quite make it. But hey, well done for getting here. Dianne Swann is from Kamo, and so, wait for it, is Keith Urban. Illustrious forbears. So don’t be discouraged, just keep at it!

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Kendall Elise

Flame-haired Kendall Elise is from Papakura, not far from Gore, but closer to Auckland, way up north. I wonder if she’s ever been here before. Her song is Slippery Creek, from her Red Earth album, a sad song about two friends who both lost their lives in road accidents leaving behind a pregnant partner. One of whom was Kendall’s mum. It’s truly a beautiful song, impossible not to like it.

You know this is a country music gig. It’s not a country and western gig. Or, not only. Actually, to my ear, which is only recently been attuned, it’s Americana, that mixed up genre championed by the Americana Music Association (I’m a member). Eclectic is a fancier and more complementary descriptor than “mixed up”, but I am one of New Zealand’s biggest champions of the newly crowned genre (they have Grammy Awards for Americana). It’s everything which is not precisely something else. It’s a broad church. It is celebrated every year in Nashville during AmericanaFest. I want to avoid a semantic squabble, but let’s just say that all of the songs so far would fit on Nashville’s Americana stage.

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Ron Mitchell

And that’s why, at the risk of offence, Ron Mitchell’s song, up next, I’ll Be Country, I would dare to categorise as a protest song. It’s a beauty, full of the droll ruefulness of Merle Haggard’s Okie, and a great, great country song. But more on the Western side. (I’m old school and proud of it. Remember your roots. This is Gore after all). A magnificent reminder of what has gone before. The more it changes, the more it stays the same.

But daughter Jenny’s next offering, and her second song in the final, Lucy, takes us back into the future. A touch of Nadia Reid. A touch of alt-folk. Americana. But a great song. Mike Hood on slide, Vanessa Hardy on fiddle. (She must be a winner... )

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Tami Neilson

Song number 9 is Tami Neilson’s Queenie Queenie, a song from her next album, and, finally here she is, a four-time winner of the Country Artist of the Year award, and a 2017 inductee into the Gold Guitar Hands of Fame (put your hands into concrete, and get them back!). This song is just Tami and percussion, and rockabilly, and she played it a few weeks back supporting Mavis Staples. Awesome, but the best of Tami is still to come.

Final song is Kerryn Fields again, a beautifully poignant Until You, a love song which shows off her incredible vocal range. This might be the best song, at the risk of me suffering from last song syndrome.

No doubt you have already read the news, but in case you haven’t, the 2019 MLT Songwriters Award goes to... Kerryn Fields... for her song Mamma. Wow, fantastic. Awesome. Well done Kerryn.

Horace McCauley is the Chairman of the MLT, and he gives the NZ Treasury a lesson in the managed leak department by prematurely announcing tomorrow’s annual MLT financial results. Another stellar performance, and $1 million in grants to community activities in the past twelve months. Have another drink. It’s all to a good cause!!

Ok it’s half time, and time for another type of leak.

The second half of the show sees Lachie Hayes sing three songs. Southland’s Steve Earle. A song about the old movie stars. Then comes Things That Sent Me Running Home Blues (probably hunger). And a song called Lonesome Hearted Conversations in Small Towns. This guy is disgustingly talented. Guitar and harmonica. Earthy country blues voice which can go high. Watch out for this young man too.

Luke O’Shea is a special guest from Australia, a big Aussie wrangler with 9 Tamworth Gold Guitars and a world of travel behind him. Archetypical good bloke. Three songs from Luke, accompanied by guitar virtuoso Phil Doublet (Doo-blay) from Christchurch. A song about sheds, My Old Man’s Shed. My brother does Blokes ‘n Sheds all over Southland so this song is for him. A song about the three brothers who go off the “the great waste war” and don’t come back. And a song with a Dylanesque intro but which pays homage to the country greats, Kristofferson, Cash, Rogers and Miller.

Now comes a special moment. Dusty Spittle, Eastern Southland’s world-famous country gentleman and an inspiration to countless country fans, died in January this year, aged 79. New Zealand’s Slim Dusty, in style as well as name. Ron and Jenny Mitchell, along with Jeff Rea, our MC, come on to centre stage with a rendition of one of Dusty’s great songs, Cardigan Bay, the horse who grew up just down the road in Mataura. Magic.

And now for the APRA Country Song of the Year. Tami Neilson starts with Manitoba Sunrise At Motel 6, the song I was desperate for her to sing a few weeks back when she opened for Mavis Staples. Best song on the Sassafrass! album in my humble view. Tami shares with us that Motel 6 have offered her free accommodation as a result of this song, and she’s kicking herself for not putting The Hilton in there instead.

Next up is Holly Arrowsmith, with her beautiful song initially recorded in a little bach in Colac Bay (that’s in Western Southland I’ll have you know). Slow Train Creek does have her sounding a lot like Joni Mitchell.

Next up ought to be Jamie McDell, but she is living in Canada right now, so sends us a message. But no song. Paint On A Sign is the song we don’t get to hear, off her last year album Extraordinary Girl, which is also the basis for her nomination for the major award tonight, Recorded Music NZ’s Best New Zealand Country Artist. I rated Extraordinary Girl as one of my albums of 2018 (it’s only just been released in America), so definitely she’s up there in good company for the Best Artist Award along with Tami, for Sassafrass!, and Jenny Mitchell for Wildfires. So it’s a shame we don’t get to hear her, even on video. Perhaps there’s been a technical glitch. 

Final performances for the night come from Tami and Jenny, and it’s all over, with the winners (for those of you not reading the news):

• Best New Zealand Country Song goes to Holly Arrowsmith for Slow Train Creek

• Best New Zealand Country Artist goes to Jenny Mitchell for Wildfires.

I think this all works out just fine. They are all winners (I’m sure in everybody’s mind). It’s also clear, and has to be recognised, that Tami Neilson is just way out there in terms of her experience, maturity and global footprint. When you see her in Gore and remember the first time you saw her, maybe 4-5 years ago, you can see how far she has travelled in terms of confidence and impact. And yet here she is, a past recipient of this award several times over, both competing with and encouraging her fellow contestants. A leader in the emerging dominance of the female artist in the NZ music scene, across all genres. Go Tami!

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Dusty Spittle by Emma Dawe

An emotional Jeff Rea pronounces divine justice in the passing of one local hero and the emergence of a new one, and a truly remarkable evening comes to a close.

Day Two

It’s a clear, cold day in Invercargill. By the time we get back to Gore there are snow clouds gathering in the distant hills. Men are wearing shorts. Because the sun is shining. It’s 5 degrees.

The Gold Guitar Awards auditions have started bright and early at 8am. Must be like singing in the shower. We sample a few entrants in the intermediate category at the RSA, then at the Town & Country Club, which has a capacity of 1,500 people. Sports arena. NZ song category and then Male Vocal Solo. Across the road are the Albion/Excelsior clubrooms. A little rustic. Maybe rusty. The 40 plus categories. Gospel and Country Rock. One song at a time. Same proliferation of chord charts. Musicians reading them intently. It’s a tough gig for the contestants. No time to warm up. Three or four goes over a couple of days while the judges whittle down the names as well as their pencils.

At least four versions of Jenny Mitchell’s Troubadours from across the various venues. The boys like Zak Brown. Someone has a go at Tennessee Whiskey. I reflect how much extra respect one acquires for the original artists when someone else tries their song and just doesn’t quite pull it off. Harder than you think, some of these great songs. But hats off to the triers. It must be great experience even if you are too scared to remember.

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Somewhere amongst all these aspiring artists, there will be flowers towering above the weeds, and a winner will emerge. But we don’t see him, her or them. Sunday night will reveal all.

On the street we find buskers. Must be nearly 3 years old. Start ‘em young, down in the deep south.

At 6pm we head to the Art Gallery for Songs in the Round.
It’s a magical thing, music in an art gallery. It’s like in a church. Acoustics so subtle you can hear a pin drop. Even a leaf. Jeff Rea is there along with his great mate Mike Hood and his son James Rea. It’s Jeff’s turn to sing.

Jeff Rea milks cows in Crookston, about 40 kilometres north of Gore. It’s West Otago, and at the edge of the Blue Mountains. But he also sings, if not for his cows, for the rest of the world, and along with his choreographer wife Margie, are avid members of the West Otago Theatrical Society. They love Les Miserables down there in Tapanui. In the 80’s Jeff took his family to Nashville where they lived and worked for ten years, collaborating with renowned country singer and Broadway actor/singer Gary Morris. Gary’s most famous part? Jean Valjean in Les Mis. Connection. And of course, Jeff is the founder and driving force behind the New Zealand Songwriters’ Trust, the organisation which organises this event in partnership with the industry heavyweights from Auckland.

Jeff has just released his third album but has been too busy organising the previous day’s event and this evening’s gigs to bring some along. Never mind, let’s hear some songs. He has what you might call a classic country voice, baritone smooth but with just a touch of “dirt” (meaning soil) to qualify in the Americana arena. He sings a song co-written with Mike Hood (also from Gore, but living in Moeraki), See Me Now, a song to their Dads. Nice harmonies. James coming in high. And an “old codger’s song”, Every Time I Play. A couple more, My Old Flame, and Sad But True, before Jeff invites Kerryn Fields to the mic.

Kerryn Fields spent six of her teenage years in hospital in the Waikato because her body was growing faster than her bones, and they were giving up. She learned guitar, while her doctor fought for her right to walk through numerous complex surgeries and stem cell transplants. She came through it all, tall and fragile, but with a wicked sense of humour born out of despair. And she tells her stories through her songs, with an incredible voice which also grew but never gave up, to produce an Armatrading baritone all the way up to the top of the scale. She’s been playing in Australia and Canada for years and released an album in 2014. The award she won for (the two) Best Song(s) will give her a real boost towards the follow-up. She deserves to be famous at home. She will be. And tonight, in the Eastern Southland Art Gallery she plays her songs. Pure Magic. Very emotional. Very funny as well.

There are some no-shows, but we forgive them because Jeff and Mike fill in with more songs of their own and Kerryn does an encore.

The Warratahs are playing soon at the Marquee in the street beside the Thomas Green (restaurant and bar), but we have in mind going to see Arun O’Connor in the pub next door and then drop into Mataura on the way home. And the Warratahs gig is sold out. And there are the Bristows, Spike and Liz, Jackie Bristow’s parents. Better have a drink!

Arun O’Connor is the reigning Gold Guitar hero and here he is with his pub-rock trio, belting it out to a youngish audience. That classic song by that classic country band P….ink Fl…….oyd, Another Brick In The Wall. They must be building a wall down here too. It’s a broad church, this country music thing. And then Tennessee Whiskey, the Chris Stapleton song which won him (Arun) the award last year. No wonder it’s a popular song at this year’s context. Arun is an accomplished guitarist, obviously across all genres. Tonight it’s electric and rock. And he can sing. It’s a tough song to sing.

Message from Snapper, we’re on in 10 minutes, your names’ on the door. What, all of us? Yes, all of you. What a legend!! Better have a whiskey in the car park. The one in the middle of the road. We are after all, in the foothills of the Hokonuis. Do you like whiskey Spike? I lurrve whiskey, he replies. Hurry up Ken, it’s freezing. Ya have to freeze to get warm, it would appear.

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Seeing The Warratahs live in a marquee in Gore in the middle of winter must be a special thing. Mulled wine. Hay Bales. One of life’s magic moments. First set of 45 minutes. Warratahs’ greatest hits. We know all the songs. So do you. And the last song the title track from Barry Saunders and Delaney Davidson’s fantastic recent release, Word Gets Around. I’ve already reviewed it. Check it out here.

But it’s already after 9.30pm, and we have to hit the road. Luke O’Shea is playing in Mataura, on the way home. We just have time.
The Falls Hotel in Mataura is just your typical country pub, and the audience tonight contains a fair number of locals. Come to see the music. We’ve missed Jenny Mitchell, but Luke O’Shea and Phil Doublet are in full swing and in fine form. He plays Dad’s Bottom Drawer, just for me, because in that drawer he had found a Jim Bowie knife. Family. More authentic than Dave (he was a Jones, trying to keep up with the Bowies). And what did Brother Ken find at the bar? That legendary possum hunter and top cymbal maestro Neil “The Bolt” Walton, not seen by me for 15 years, and probably twice in total in 45. Another reunion. A bolt from the blue.

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Roger Bowie and Neil 'The Bolt' Walton

Saturday morning, another bright sunny start with rain clouds threatening as I take the best drive in the country, from Invercargill to Queenstown, through the green green grass of home. Still 5 degrees. Listening to Luke, Lachie & Jenny on the CD player. Marvellous two days in Gore. The Country Music Capital of New Zealand. With a dirty little secret... apparently, there are some people who live there who don’t care much for country... must be rednecks... 

Written By: Roger Bowie Roger Bowie has been collecting music since 1964, starting with 45 rpm singles, and then building an LP and CD collection from 1970. 1.8 per week since then. Not a vast collection, but eclectic and occasionally obscure. Roger is a big Americana fan, and regularly attends AmericanaFest in Nashville, held every September. Also, he once played golf with Alice Cooper...

What people are saying

  • Ken Bowie - 20 months ago

    Yay, bro ! And all true, from Man's Shed to Bowie knife, and everything in between. From Tuatapere to Kaitaia. From voice to instrument. From toddlers to over 60's. From young ladies to old men. From mulled wine to Hokonui Moonshine. From Gore to Mataura, in MLT country - NZ's cream of country music !! Dare we call it New Zealandicana ??