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Thanks, Australia: U.S. Country Music Biz Feels Growing Impact Of Another Country

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Keith Urban performs onstage during the 2018 CMA Music festival at Nissan Stadium on June 9, 2018 in Nashville.

When Dylan Scott's single "Hooked" peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart dated Sept. 22, its top five achievement masked another success bubbling down under the title in the credits.

Two of its three songwriters, Warner Music Nashville artist Morgan Evans and LOCASH producer Lindsay Rimes ("Heaven"), are native Australians. Together with the ongoing success of Keith Urban and Evans' own growth as an artist, the development puts a face on a quiet evolution in Nashville: the rising tide of Aussie influence.

It would be a mistake to call it a full-fledged wave, but the uptick is evident. In the last four years, the number of Australians working actively in the Nashville music business has mushroomed from 30 to 110, according to APRA-AMCOS Nashville member relations representative Mark Moffatt, with about 15 more visiting monthly to work in Music City for multiweek stays. Established Australian songwriters Phil Barton ("A Woman Like You") and Kylie Sackley ("Nothin' 'Bout Love Makes Sense," "Sunshine and Summertime") are entrenched members of the Tennessee capital's music community, and songwriter-guitarist Jedd Hughes ("Put You in a Song") has played a key role in such recordings as Little Big Town's "Pontoon," Dierks Bentley's "Drunk on a Plane" and Lee Brice's "Hard to Love."

Guitarist Tommy Emmanuel continues to occupy his own niche as a world-class guitarist, Kasey Chambers is a widely acclaimed Americana contributor, and the Sydney-bred duo Seaforth -- Mitch Thompson and Tom Jordan -- is already signed to Sony Music Nashville after moving stateside in October 2017.  

"I find that in Nashville, Americans like Australians," says Rimes, whose wife, songwriter-producer Danielle Blakey (LOCASH, Jimmie Allen), pushed for the couple to move to town. "They love the accent and stuff, but you do have to have the talent and work ethic to make it."

Prior to Urban, the only Australian success story in country was Olivia Newton-John, a pop artist who crossed over to the format and created unintended controversy in Nashville. Thus, Urban's sustained 19-year history as an American hitmaker has certainly inspired the current generation of Australian musicians.

"He had those footsteps sort of already marked in the sand of how it is possible," says Evans, whose first U.S. album, Things That We Drink To, was released Oct. 12.

But it's still not easy. Sydney is over 9,000 miles away from Nashville -- flights last more than 20 hours -- and immigration laws prevent Australian visitors from earning an income until they find an employer willing to file a petition for a work visa. Thus, blue-collar Aussies visiting the United States are limited by their bank accounts.

"The cost for people getting here and staying here for a while is generally pretty prohibitive because they can't work," says Ten Ten Music Group owner Barry Coburn, a New Zealander who moved stateside from Australia in 1984. "So they've got to find a way to survive for a work visa. Easier said than done, especially in these times."

It's part of the reason why so few Australians have made it in America through the years. Jamie O'Neal, who was born in Sydney but spent a big chunk of her youth in the States, snagged three top five singles after signing her first recording deal in 1998. Sherrie Austin peaked at No. 18 on Hot Country Songs in 2003 with "Streets of Heaven."

Several executives have found their place in Music City in addition to Coburn. Among them was arranger Bill Walker, noted for his work with Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold and a host of TV productions. His son, the late Jeff Walker, founded AristoMedia in 1980 and was a key figure with both the Country Radio Seminar and Country Music Association.

Part of Jeff Walker's mission was to expand country music overseas, though the perception of country in Australia was saddled with infrastructure problems. The continent has few country stations, and most are in smaller markets. One of Australia's heritage festivals, in Tamworth, is dominated by "bush balladeers," a sort of Down Under equivalent to singing cowboys.

"Mainstream media were heavily influenced by that stereotype," says Moffatt.

A major breakthrough came in 2004 when Foxtel Networks established the Country Music Channel, an equivalent to CMT. It provided a focal point for the genre in markets that lacked a country radio station, and its annual CMC Rocks event, launched in 2008, gave American acts a country-centric festival to play. Artists such as Alan Jackson, Taylor Swift and Sugarland became more frequent visitors and brought the genre's image up to date.

"Success needs no explanation," says Moffatt. "It has changed the media perception of contemporary country, so there's a lot more attention to that. People can see that it's a pretty appealing genre, and it's not all about the bush [balladeers]."

The Australian government, meanwhile, has been aggressive in connecting its creative talent to other countries. A professional development grant of at least $15,000 allows musicians to visit and network with the U.S. music business, though most Australians working in Nashville have not benefited from the program. The government also subsidizes Songhub conferences that allow them to co-write with songwriters from other nations. Evans and Rimes co-wrote "Hooked" with Seth Ennis at a four-day Nashville Songhub in 2016; Evans met his producer, Chris DeStefano (Chase Rice, Brett Eldredge), at a Sydney edition.

Still, what benefits Australians most is simply moving to Music City, once they're able to navigate the immigration obstacle course and commit to living there full time. After arriving, they need to expect a lengthy adjustment period as they immerse themselves in a different culture. U.S. healthcare is more expensive and more difficult to obtain than Australia's, which uses a single-payer system. Guns are illegal in Australia, so immigrants are not likely to bond with an American songwriter over hunting. And the varying styles of the English langauge create some awkward moments in the writing room.

"When I first got here, there would be certain rhymes I'd throw out and they'd look at me like I was crazy," recalls Rimes. "It's like the word 'better': Here it's [pronounced] 'better'; in Australia, it's like 'bettah.' It sounds kind of silly, but there are little things that make a big difference when you're in the room. If you're not part of the language, there's a communication breakdown."

One place that Nashvillians are unlikely to experience differences from Australians is in work ethic. Touring by van is as much a staple Down Under as it is stateside, and country artists there tend to do it for the art rather than the money.

"Touring down there is the same geographically as it is here, but you don't have a venue every 300 miles," says Coburn. "Sometimes you have to drive bigger distances to get to less people."

Thus, Australians who love country music enough to move halfway across the world are bound to be hooked on America once they get through the adjustment period.

"I love that you can travel from one end to the other and feel like you're in a completely different part of the world," says Evans. "But there are country music fans everywhere."