Let me tell you about ‘Lonesome Highway‘, my first feature for The Weekend Australian‘s ‘Review’ arts + culture lift-out. The story – which you should read (or glance at) here before continuing - discusses the challenges faced by Australian country musicians in 2010.
I spent the week beginning Monday, 18 January 2010 playing the part of ‘freelance writer without work’. I was pitching stories every day, and none of them were sticking. By Friday – after alternating between liaising with editors, and catching up with some friends in the Brisbane music scene – all I had was an approval to interview a hip-hop act for an online publication.. who don’t pay for online content, as I learned soon thereafter.
Earlier that week, I’d sent a Dirty Three/Laughing Clowns tour-related pitch to the editor of the Weekend Australian’s ‘Review’ arts and culture lift-out. I’d been email-introduced to her by a helpful fellow editor at The Australian a few months ago, when I was pitching the idea of a story around the Robert Forster book launch/conversation at Avid Reader. (That one didn’t stick either, obviously.)
Fevered as I was in my determination to get a story idea – any story idea! – accepted, I sent that D3/Clowns pitch and promptly forgot about it. I’d prefaced it with a reminder stating that I’m a writer for Rolling Stone, jmag, etc, and that we’d last emailed in November.
At 4pm on Friday, 22 January – generally despondent, after a week of work with few returns – the editor of ‘Review’ called me. That’s 5pm local time from her office in Sydney, owing to daylight savings.
“I’ve got a problem,” she began.
“Oh?” I replied, wondering a) what I might have done to cause a problem, and b) whether I could perhaps solve said problem.
“I need a story on Australian country music following the conclusion of this year’s Tamworth Country Music Festival. My regular music writer’s just gone on leave. Would you feel comfortable taking on this story?”
I paused for several seconds. “…you know I’m mostly a rock writer, right? For Rolling Stone, and stuff?”
She confirmed, and reiterated the question. The story was due on Wednesday; as in, five days’ time. Word length unspecified; it could be 1,200, or it could be 2,000. I inhaled, and accepted the challenge.
Immediately I pictured myself frantically pushing a library ladder around towering bookshelves that represent the contact details of everyone I’ve ever met. “Which of these people knows something about country music?” I yelled, in my mind. I sure didn’t.
In a gesture that would be repeated throughout the time I spent researching, writing and editing the story, the editor took her time to provide me with some suggested paths of research, historical background, and narrative guidance.
As soon as I hung up, I emailed dozens of my contacts within the music industry, searching for anything resembling a lead with regard to country music-related interview subjects. I put the call out on to my friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter. And for the first time, I used a site called SourceBottle, which allows journalists to request sources within a wide range of industries and subject matters.
To my surprise, helpful responses began appearing in my inbox as fast as I could send out requests. My contacts introduced me to experts on the subject. My friends on social networks tipped me off to artists and their managers. And SourceBottle delivered some great offers from watchful PR professionals, who were keen to have their clients represented in a story.
So began a crash course in researching the current players in Australian country music. I read stories filed from the Tamworth festival by The Australian’s regular music writer, Iain Shedden, who I’d interviewed a few months earlier for One Movement Word. I wrote an outline of what I planned for the story to cover, and warmed up with some phone conversations over the weekend. I spent Monday on the phone to country musicians, radio announcers, artist managers, alt-country artists, schoolteachers, historians and record label staff.
All told, I conducted 18 interviews, throughout which I scribbled notes in preparation of listening back to the recorded audio. Tuesday – the 26th, Australia Day – was spent shaping what I’d learned from the experts into a coherent story.
While interviewing, a frequently-recurring topic prompted me to pay more attention to the apparent dearth of media opportunities available to country musicians. Ultimately, this would become the focal point of the story: what was imagined as a mere discussion on where the genre stands in 2010 morphed into a sympathetic piece highlighting the many challenges faced by country performers. As stated in the story, these are related to image, airplay opportunities, marketing, media attention, and even differences within the community.
I submitted my first draft at 4am the next morning. Upon review, my editor suggested that a couple of follow-up quotes were required from Troy Cassar-Daley to describe the genre in his own words. And somewhere between fact-checking and quote-verifying, I’d forgotten to tighten the narrative structure, so my editor reshaped the piece to improve its flow.
Upon confirming her final edit, the biggest story of my career was out of my hands. It wouldn’t appear in print for 10 days. (The cover from the February 6 issue of ‘Review’ is below right.)
It was the most exhilarating journalistic experience of my life. Five days focussed on researching and synthesising the story of a centuries-old art form into around 2,000 words. What a challenge. I’m so glad I accepted it. It even resulted in my first live-to-air radio interview for ABC Mid-North Coast the day before the story was published. (At the time of writing this, I’ve not yet listened back to it, owing to embarrassment…)
In a way, the whole experience – the initial unexpected, but not unplanned-for phone call, the willingness on the editor’s part to take a chance with me – justified the time and effort I’ve dedicated to my writing since I changed my mindset and became serious about pursuing it as a career.
Looking back, it seems that this occurred sometime in June 2009. I’m simply thrilled that eight months later, I’ve been published in The Weekend Australian, one of the country’s biggest newspapers. Awesome. If you have any questions relating to this story, I’ll try to answer them in the comments.
Thanks to the following people who helped with the story.
Interview subjects: Troy Cassar-Daley, Adam Harvey, Graeme Connors, Amber Lawrence, Anne Kirkpatrick, Joy McKean, Felicity Urquhart, Luke Austen, Chris Pickering, Roz Pappalardo, John Elliott, Geoff Walden, Nick Erby, Bill Page, Aneta Butcher, Cheryl Byrnes, and Scott Lamond.
Contact sources, miscellaneous inspiration: Stephen Green, David Carter, Craig Spann, Deb Suckling, Ed Guglielmino, Rick Chazan, Nick O’Byrne, Alison Brown, Dan Stapleton, Deborah Jones, Rachael Hall, Tim Lovett, Blair Hughes, Paul & Deb McMillen, and Matt Weller.