The local country star bringing smalltown life to the pop charts

By Robert Moran

Brad Cox, pictured at Jolene’s in Sydney, is the local country boom’s brightest star.Credit:James Brickwood

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Look to the pop charts and see: Australia’s feeling a little bit country. Just last week, US star Morgan Wallen became the first male country singer to top both the ARIA albums and singles chart at the same time since Billy Ray Cyrus did it in October 1992. Elsewhere at the charts’ peak, Luke Combs and Zach Bryan – and, well, do we still count Taylor Swift? – are all highlighting the genre’s sudden pull at home, a local appetite for artists with twangin’ drawls and blue jeans.

Curiously, considering he stands to benefit from the increased spotlight, local country musician Brad Cox is side-eyeing the moment. “It’s actually frustrating, man,” he says with a sardonic chuckle. “All those years, the kids used to make fun of you at school for listening to country music and turning up to the shows, and now… I mean, it’s awesome, but f—in’, it’s pretty funny! I don’t know why it’s happening, but I’m glad it is.”

Acres, a sprawling 17-track opus, is the 28-year-old’s new album, following the breakout success of 2020’s My Mind’s Projection, his major label debut after signing with Sony Music in 2019. Skittering across anthemic FM pop-rock (What Brought You Back), Whitley-esque bar-soaked romance (Memories and Whiskey) and Motown-lite groove (Old Skoolin’), it’s a confident release showcasing Cox’s booming voice, melodic knack and personal worldview, where the road, a committed love and, well, beer can lead to respite and salvation.

Coming amid country’s wider boom, it also seems primed to give Cox that crossover push. “Look, it’s definitely a goal to get more people to hear my music; I’d love to be playing rock festivals and stuff, bringing country music to a different audience,” he says. “But for me, it’s all about the music. Everything else after that is just part of the process or a bonus.”

Cox in 2018, after winning the Toyota Star Maker award at the Tamworth Country Music Festival.Credit:Peter Hardin

Raised in Jindabyne, Cox traces his country career back to the piano lessons his folks – his mum worked for the national parks, his dad was a school teacher – got him around eight, after noticing his musical enthusiasm on weekly road trips.

“We spent a lot of time in the car when we were kids, just travelling on the weekends, and there were three cassette tapes playing at all times: Joe Cocker, Shania Twain, and the Coyote Ugly soundtrack,” he recalls. “I think that’s why my parents got me piano lessons, as I’d started doing a bit of singing in the car. I did bits and pieces of music my whole life after that.”

He grew up in town, he says, but began adopting “this lifestyle, this genre, this world” as a teenager. “I started spending a lot of time on friends’ properties, fell in love with it and never looked back. From there, I went out to central New South Wales and started doing some work on a dryland crop farm, driving tractors and harvesting and whatnot. And then a few years in the Northern Territory chasing cows, and then I came home and wrote my first album.”

The genre’s preoccupations, that affinity for wide open spaces and life on the land, kept calling to Cox. On Acres′ title track, he sings, “I’ve been chasing these acres since I was 18 years old”. He achieved the dream during the pandemic, buying 50 acres near Yeppoon, just outside Rockhampton in central Queensland, where he lives with his partner, musician Sammy White, and their dog Willie Nelson Cox. It seems like a hard life, I say, a classic city slicker. What’s the appeal of working the land?

“I’ve just always romanticised about owning dirt, mate. An old fella told me years ago they don’t make any more dirt, so get as much of it as you can. That kind of stuck with me,” says Cox. The pandemic’s interruption to the usual routine of a touring musician prompted the plunge.

Acres is Cox’s third album.Credit:Sony Music

“I mean, we probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the pandemic – who knows what we’d be up to? – so I am thankful for the world shutting down,” Cox jokes. “We’ve landed here in central Queensland; we’ve got a couple of acres, couple cows, couple chooks, a dog, a goat. It’s just beautiful, it is.

“It’s been a massive goal,” he adds. “It’s a massive goal for a lot of Australians, I think, whether that be a couple acres or a house block, just somewhere to call your own and look after and care-take and work on. For me, it’s just as important as writing songs.”

Cox’s connection to smalltown life resonates in his music. On Wildfires, another striking track on Acres, he paints a sympathetic portrait of rural malaise. “Kids are smoking dope at twelve years old/ And the agricultural bankers cannot keep this town afloat/ I’ve seen boards on the windows on the main street/ Now the boredom in the kids’ eyes has amazed me,” he sings.

“I don’t know if it’s a protest song ’cause I don’t know who it’s protesting against, but it’s definitely highlighting some issues I’ve seen as I’ve toured around this country over the last 10 years,” says Cox. The song, co-written with Alex Hendrickson, stemmed from time Cox spent in western Victoria.

“There was just no life there, no young people. They’ve shut the shops and it’s quite sad because those communities, they’re the lifeblood of this country and I love them dearly and I think it’s important we protect them,” he says. “Even just to show young people that they can have a great life in these small communities, that they don’t need to live or work in the middle of the city, that they can be successful professionals in places like that.”

That such a song can sit beside a rollicking opener like Beer and Fishin’, a song that literally extols the pleasures of, you guessed it, beer and fishin’, highlights Cox’s ambitious purview on Acres. It also raises a thought around country’s current resonance.

Perhaps the genre’s expanded appeal is not so surprising. Long gone is the country homogeneity of yore, the genre signifiers that fuelled classic jokes like: “What do you get when you play country music backwards? You get back your wife, your dog, and your truck.” Even just among the current pop crop, beyond the boundary-pushing iconoclasm of, say, Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves, the sounds are scattered. Wallen’s reigning hit Last Night, driven by his lanky hip-hop flow, is essentially an R&B track; The Mockingbird & the Crow, the latest album from Mississippi star Hardy, earnestly reels in nu-metal.

“I think that’s the beauty of country music and maybe that’s the drawcard for so many people, that it’s not just straight down the line traditional country anymore. You can find something that speaks to you,” says Cox. “The experimentation, it definitely intrigues me.”

While his last album debuted in the top 20 on the ARIA charts, he’s not particularly concerned with emulating his peers’ hit success. “It doesn’t even cross my mind, man,” Cox says. “I don’t care. Obviously, the label works hard for those kinds of situations, and if we can keep them happy, everyone’s happy. But I don’t seek chart attention or media attention. I don’t have any goals and aspirations. The tour’s selling well and that’s a good indication that my fans are into what I’m doing.”

And what about the genre’s home, in the States? At least half of these songs, including the arena-ready anthems Now She Ain’t and Single Life, co-written as they are by Nashville lifers Adam Craig and Brandon Hood respectively, could easily slot into US country radio. Is Stateside attention beckoning?

“Oh look, I haven’t been there in a few years, mate. I really wish they’d stop shooting each other. Definitely makes it hard to get motivated to travel in the States,” Cox deadpans. “But we’ll see what happens, where this album lands, and if anyone wants to give me a gig, f—in’ give me a ring!”

Brad Cox’s Acres is out on Friday. His upcoming national tour includes shows at Melbourne’s Northcote Theatre on June 17 and Sydney’s Manning Bar on June 23.

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