Lyn Bowtell on Academy X in 2021

The CMAA Academy of Country Music has been an unqualified success, with graduates from its senior and junior programs appearing throughout the Australian country music industry and producing great work. Now called simply The Academy it, like so many institutions, has had to change from business-as-usual to business-as-not-previously-imagined. In 2021 this means that instead of the Academy taking place in person in Tamworth prior to the Country Music Festival, it will take the form of Academy X, a two-day online course with an incredible line-up of tutors taking place on 9 and 10 January 2021.

The very best person to talk about Academy X is Lyn Bowtell, who is not only the director of the Academy but a graduate of the very first year of Academy, when it was still the College of Country Music, in 1997. Bowtell is also one of the most revered artists in the industry, as a solo artist and as part of Bennett Bowtell & Urquhart, and her professional development began with the Academy.

‘I won what was called back then the Champion of Champions,’ says Lyn of her path to the College, ‘which in Queensland was basically at the end of the year, the best of the best would be invited to come and perform. What that meant was if you got a first or a second, I think, depending on how many people were in country music festivals – they used to hold the competitions and the talent quests and they were big attendances, it was huge. So if you got a first at these affiliated places, you then got invited to a very prestigious Champion of Champions. So Meryl Davis, who is Barry Thorton’s daughter, had a lot to do with it, as did Barry and his beautiful wife. So that’s how I met them. That’s how I had my first real link into the industry, not just a kid singing Dolly Parton songs!

‘When I went to Academy, it was brand new,’ she says. It was this beautiful experience. There were, I think, about 21 of us. We didn’t have the instrumental arm or anything. There were just three groups. Rod Coe was my group leader. So I had that connection with Slim Dusty the whole time. Barry Thornton was Slim’s guitarist and him and his daughter were a big part of the committees for Champs. And I’m pretty sure that had a lot to do with why I won and got to go. And then the group I was put in was with Rod Coe, who was Slim’s producer and bassist, and just the most incredible human. He really is, to this day, one of my favorite people. And he gave me so much confidence in playing my guitar. I’d always been praised for singing, but I didn’t really feel confident as a musician. And he put me on the bass, got me playing a song or two on the actual concert.

‘I met some of my long-term friends there. I met Karen O’Shea, who ended up being in Bella with me. Daniel Thompson, who does the Johnny Cash shows, who’s a lifelong friend. And the list goes on. Aaron Pye was in that year, and he’s gone on to do great things, but we’ve worked together so many times. So it was quite an impactful thing for me.

‘And then I went on to win Star Maker straight after that, the day after Academy finished. Back then, 20 contestants all got together in the town hall, day one, and then the end of day one they made it 10. And then you came back in the afternoon for another soundcheck and in the evening the 10 performed and they chose the winner. Hoedown was huge then. 2TM was one of those stations that they had left over from the war so it could go all across Australia. You could hear it in Darwin. So it became a very popular station, Hoedown. They used to have Star Maker on the radio live. It was amazing, the amount of people who heard my Star Maker win. Back then I used to do hand mailouts for fan mail. That was literally how you did it! And I’d write a letter for Capital News and tell people that if they’d like to be a part of my mailing list to send me a letter in the mail.’

Connections with the Academy tend to endure, with several former students returning to teach. Bowtell was amongst them, going back in 2004 to mentor as a group leader and teaching the singing arm of the course, which she did for several years.

‘When I was approached to be the director, I’d never even thought of it,’ she says. ‘It was hilarious. Peter Winkler had been director, so had Rod Coe. I had some pretty awesome people to learn from just by being around them during their reign, as such. So when I was approached by Roger – because Pete was stepping back from the role – first I thought, Oh my god, I can’t do this. That’s too much! And then he said, “You can do this, Lynnie. Come on, how bad can it be? You can do this!” Anyway, I’ve never looked back.

‘I’m just so proud of all my involvement with Academy, and now Academy X is happening and wow, it’s been a mammoth change. And we all were in shock as a nation, as a global community, over COVID and music has taken a massive dive, as we know. We had to cancel Junior Academy in July and that was devastating. So the thought of actually just canning Academy for January, which has run every year since ’97, it just broke our hearts.

‘So as a group we got together and we talked about so many different scenarios, but in the end it felt better to try something new and try to address the issues that we’re all experiencing at the moment. And by doing it this way we all stay safe. Our community stays safe, our kids stay safe, our older artists stay safe and our teaching artists stay safe. So I think it was the best choice as we moved into lockdown starting to ease. Sometimes I get a little pang and I think, Maybe we could have done it! But when the council’s involvement in the festival was called off it just seemed like the right choice.

‘Moving it online and doing something different, with the same principles where we want to engage people, connect people, talk to them on a real level, have a conversation with them. There were obviously things we wouldn’t be able to achieve that we do in Academy, but we felt that two full days of keynotes from awesome human beings in our industry – superstars of our industry – was pretty good … and people seem to be very excited about it.’

The Academy X format means that anyone can attend, whereas usually acceptance to the Academy comes via an application process. Bowtell says that they try to let everybody in but there are always more applicants than places.

‘So the opportunity this presents is not only for more people to experience something like Academy, very close to,’ she says, ‘but it also means like sometimes there are people who win scholarships or want to come from WA or South Australia or Darwin, and it’s not necessarily the cost of the tuition, it’s everything else and the travel and all that stuff that we know goes hand-in-hand with long distances in this country. So I’m really excited to know that we are making it accessible to everybody who has internet and some kind of device. You can watch the webinar on your phone, on your tablet, on your laptop – on your Commodore 64! But we’re really keen to see where this goes and it may be something that we do every year, not instead of but as a complimentary part of the Academy.

‘I’ve never run a webinar before, so I had a lot of learning to do and I still have a lot to do, but I think it’s a good thing. And we’ve always talked about having a conference or something, and it’s amazing what necessity does. It’s the mother of invention. And that’s what’s happened with us – “Right, let’s make this happen! Stop talking about it.” For me, it’s just going to be lovely to connect with my friends in the industry and have a conversation with them.

‘We open up with Kevin Bennett having a conversation with Troy Cassar-Daley. That’s a pretty good, strong start, I think. And from there it just gets better and better. And we’ve also involved as many ex-graduates as we can. The beautiful Kasey Chambers, who always comes to Academy and has a jam session with our students, is coming on and talking about being authentic in an inauthentic industry. If there’s one person I think who can talk about that, it’s Kase. I’m sure she would say she’s struggled at times, but for those of us on the outside looking in, I’ve always felt that she’s balanced that whole persona and being real and authentic very, very well.

‘We’re also talking about business stuff as well, because that’s important. It is a business that we’re running. We’re doing a talk on releasing and recording music because in an ever-changing world, albums are becoming a thing of the past and people are releasing singles or mini albums or EPs. And we’re talking about what’s the best way to go, potentially and what are some of the best practices when you record your music? So we’ve got Matt Fell, Jules Parker, and Sam Johnson, three absolutely stellar producers and award-winning musicians in their own, and Roger Corbett’s going to be moderating that. So that would be lovely. That’ll be a good chat for people. But for those who find that a little too cerebral, don’t worry, we have Beccy Cole coming on.’

Cole and Bowtell have a long friendship, having met on Norfolk Island in 1998.

‘She took me under her wing as a fellow Star Maker winner and has been such a good friend to me in many ways since then,’ says Bowtell. ‘We went out on the road together for about five years. I was in her band. I was her opening act. And she just really is a joy to be around and someone who has so much to give. Her talks about performance are really great. She used to come to Academy and mentor a lot, and she has this beautiful way of talking about all different types of performers being worthy. You don’t have to just be an A type performer, going out there with “Hey, look at me” kind of vibe. She’s very good at talking about shining a light on everybody and how they can actually utilise that on stage. So that will be very cool.

‘And we’re talking a lot about mental health throughout the whole two days. We’re going to be addressing COVID a lot and what it means for our industry, but we have two particular segments that are focusing on that. And the first one will be mental health and resilience in the music industry. I think that being in the music industry, to succeed resilience is key because there’s always more knockbacks than yeses. And then in a post-COVID world, what are the opportunities and roadblocks that we have in our way and opportunities that we have, that we could be grasping and making the most of. So I’m really proud to have Support Act coming back and helping us. They came to Academy in January and were wonderful. Warren Workman was the presenter then and he did a fabulous job, and we’re hoping he can do this one for us.

‘One I’m looking forward to is Brooke McClymont chatting about writing country- pop songs with Caitlyn Shadbolt. I think those two will be naughty,’ Bowtell says with a laugh. ‘That’ll be great. And Duncan Toombs has done so much work within our industry creating great music videos and Amber Lawrence has more music videos than any human being I know, so we thought she was the best to talk about that.

‘Then Roger [Corbett] and Catherine Britt are going to be talking about how COVID-19 might shape the Australian music industry for the better. Because I think it will change. It has changed the way people are viewing music. Literally they can’t dance, they have to stay seated and actually experience music, so that’s pretty cool. I’m not going to complain about that. I think that also there’s this definite thirst for music again around the community. People are saying, “I just really want to see a gig”, or when they see live music, “Oh, wow. I forgot how awesome that was.” I think there’s a lot of work to be done to rebuild our industry, but I think it will bring back the smaller venue and the smaller crowd and the more listening crowd.

‘We have Dan Biddle and Natalie Waller coming on board and talking about record deals, which is always a question we get asked at Academy – “Should I get a record deal? How do you get a record deal?” And then something I’m truly looking forward to is Shane Nicholson talking about alternative country music and how you might write an Americana song with Lachlan Bryan. So that’s a great way to finish it.’

However, Academy X is not just about watching these amazing artists talk – there are also mentoring sessions each afternoon. ‘So people watch the webinar and then break off into smaller groups and have a chat one-on-one within mentor,’ explains Bowtell. ‘You can ask questions during the webinar. Sometimes they’ll get through to the panelist and sometimes you don’t get to every question. So we’re trying to address that, give people an opportunity to say to their group leader, they might ask Ashleigh Dallas that they wanted to ask earlier on, and also to discuss how they are going and what they understand and, and also to help them make connections in a small group.’

For those interested in attending Academy X there’s an early bird price for the entire two days of $330, available until 30 November. Thereafter the cost will be $385 and registrations are taken up until 8 January 2021. The Academy is also offering four scholarships, one of which has already been placed.

Connections made in the past at the Academy certainly endure, with artists staying in touch not just with each other but with their mentors. When asked what she thinks the special magic of the Academy is, Bowtell says, ‘It’s truly about finding your tribe. When I went, back in ’97, there were people who I had that instant connection with and I wrote songs with, I became friends with, I learned from. And then of course, Gina Jeffreys, Rod McCormack, people like that came through the Academy – the College, back then. And they were like, “Oh, you’re good, who are you?” And I made connections there and I went on to record the Bella album with Rod and Gina. Gina was our stylist. That’s how the connections work in Academy.

‘I also think that it’s an opportunity for people to let down their guard. The two weeks is what I think is key as well. I usually see it around day five. People start wearing a bit less make-up. They’re not too concerned about their hair. They’re more concerned about being creative. The guys drop their guard. So for me it’s that little bubble that you’re in that gives you this extra boost of confidence once you allow it. And as a mentor, as a director, it’s also a joy and you learn something every year. It keeps you on your own path as well, I think. And just the songwriting aspect as well, even if you’re not a songwriter, it’s important to understand what a good song is and how good songs exist and why they are. And the business side of it that we cover, it’s just very empowering.

‘But I think what it truly is, is connection. I think it’s finding your tribe and connection. And after you come through Academy, you’re in our family. So if you ever have a question, you can talk to us. If you have worked with Kevin Bennett, you can talk to him. We just want to see our industry go from strength to strength, and I really do believe the way to do that is to educate people and give people the tools, and what they do with them is up to them. Some people come to Academy and realise music isn’t for them. And that’s their learning experience.’

Bowtell also emphasises that part of the success of the Academy comes from the team that works there. ‘I wouldn’t have anyone on board who would take it to heart that someone younger, thinner, and more talented than them exists,’ she explains. ‘That’s pretty much just how it is, you know. If you ever start believing your own bio you’re going to get a shock. Not everyone in our industry is a sweetheart, but the general feeling about country music in Australia is we are a boutique industry and if we stab at each other we’re only going to kill our industry. So there’s definitely just that sense of survival by lifting each other up.

‘Beccy taught me that as well, because girls can be bitchy. She said, “No, no, no, you always lift each other up.” She would talk about that all the time in Academy and she’s truly the perfect example of that. She’s done so much for our industry, with people she’s had in her band. So has Kasey. So has Shane. Shane gets people involved in his gigs every single year that are up and coming. So we do try and instill that in our industry. And I think that if it doesn’t come naturally, you learn, because otherwise, as I said, it’s only detrimental to ourselves.’

Apart from her role as Academy director, Bowtell’s fans will be very pleased to learn that she has been writing songs this year and hopes to go into the studio next month with producer Shane Nicholson, who produced her exceptional 2014 album Heart of Sorrow.

‘I’m very excited to work with him again,’ she says, ‘and to be putting out some new music. That’s something I’m really proud of. So it’s taken me a little while, but I think sometimes that’s for the better.’

Bowtell has also started playing shows again, and anyone who hasn’t yet seen her play live should make this a priority. Even without her impact on the industry through the Academy, Bowtell is a national treasure – an artist of grace and excellence we’re so lucky to have.

Learn more about Academy X at https://academycountrymusic.com.au/academyx/

Learn more about Lyn Bowtell at https://lynbowtell.com