Jimbo Stokes walked away from a successful career as a management consultant in Sydney to move to Scone in NSW and write and sing country music.
Wade Forster grew up listening to Johnny Cash, George Strait and Garth Brooks while travelling around cattle stations and going to rodeos in western Queensland. He finally picked up a guitar four years ago and now he's got his own songs on Spotify.
Mia Louise Haggarty grew up in the small village of Seahampton on the outskirts of Newcastle. She always sang, but fell in love with country music when she first heard Kelsea Ballerini sing. Now, she has heart set on trying to make it as a singer in Nashville when she turns 21.
The three young singers are among 29 who were invited to attend the Academy of Country Music's 2022 senior course in Tamworth. The 10-day course was cancelled this week, because of the difficulty of operating under pandemic-related regulations. But all 29 were invited back next year.
The students are mentored by some of the best in the business - like Troy Cassar-Daley, Kasey Chambers, Mike Carr, Catherine Britt, The Buckleys and Aleyce Simmonds - as they take on board advice and skills that could see them reach the top of the industry.
Lyn Bowtell, a Golden Guitar winner and director of the CMAA Academy of Country Music, has seen hundreds of emerging singers and songwriters come through the academy.
"One thing I have learned: you don't judge someone's success based on their talent alone," she says. "It's a very tough business. Covid has made that clear, you have to be stoic. I have learned, you have to really want it. Just because you're incredibly talented, doesn't mean you will do as well as a person who is not as good of a singer or songwriter. They have the drive, ability to listen and be part of a bigger picture.
"It's not just about you, it's about people around you. If you want to be sought after, you have to be a team player."
The passion for performance began early for Shyanne Irwin of the Hunter Valley.
"I remember singing at my Pop's country music club when I was just eight years old," Irwin says.
"I'd progressed from You Are My Sunshine to Taylor Swift's Love Story and I would belt it out at the top of my lungs, with my dad and pop playing along on guitar and squeeze box. It was a big leap from my home-made concerts to having a captive audience!"
Irwin, still a teenager, plays guitar, violin, flute and mandolin, and sings.
In June of 2021, Irwin released her first single, I Don't Want This To End, which she wrote.
She's opened shows for Fanny Lumsden, Amber Lawrence and Bowtell, and has her eyes firmly on playing the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville one day.
Other members of the incoming senior course are just as keen.
Zara Lindeman is playing shows around her hometown of Deniliquin. She completed a Diploma of Music Industry (Performance) at Illawarra Tafe in Wollongong last year.
"I'm an associate teacher with South West Music Regional Conservatorium," Lindeman says. "Between gigging, writing, practice, and teaching, music takes up most of my time - but I wouldn't have it any other way."
The inspiration for her own songs comes from experiences she's had or shared with others, conversations, and being out on the family farm.
Curly Mills from the Riverina has also been gigging in the region while holding down work throughout the pandemic-affected year.
Olivia Foy, from Fitzroy in Victoria, released her debut EP First Love in 2018, and put out a single in March 2021, Boy It's You.
Laura (Owens) Moore, a childhood fan of the music of John Williamson and The Highwaymen, is an opal miner from Cunnamulla in Queensland, who writes songs about her experiences.
Amber Kenny's love of music began at Leura in the Blue Mountains of NSW before heading south to Robertson in the Southern Highlands where she lives on a farm with her family and horses. Although a late starter to making music, she's made her first EP and playing locally.
For Jimbo Stokes, who grew up on sheep and cattle farms, he felt he needed to escape the city and try his hand at music, landing in Scone last year to focus on his art (portraiture) and songwriting.
"Bob Dylan is a big influence in terms of lyrics," he says. "The song needs to have a meaning or message. It doesn't have to be 100 per cent explicit. But it needs to have something to say. If it's not authentic, people can see that quickly."
Nowadays, budding stars have their own Facebook page (Zara Lindeman Music, Mia Louise Music, Curly Mills Music) or Instagram handle or Spotify channel to find an audience.
"When I started out, we didn't have social media," Bowtell says. "I wrote to a fan club. Typed out letters, sent dodgy photos of my gigs. I would send a mail-out once a month. I used to complain about the couple of hundred on the list. But those people are fans for life. They are still my fans. They are still coming to my shows."
Her take on social media: "There is more opportunity, but it's even harder. It's so accessible now. It's harder to reach people because they are scrolling through their phone."
The up-and-comers are all driven.
"I started making music back in 2017," Wade Forster says. "I had moved to Mount Isa for work and didn't know anyone so I brought a guitar on Facebook Marketplace for $100 and taught myself a few chords.
"From there on it was addicting. I started to take it more serious around a year later when I was at a rodeo singing at a mate's truck and my mates told me I should go further with it."
Forster gets that country music is really about family.
"Growing up a country boy and having worked here all my life has helped me connect with the working class country crowd," he says, "and I feel successful to connect with them and let me tell them my story."
Curly Mills from the Riverina started playing guitar in 2002, but only got serious about it about four years ago, when he began singing as well, with a performance at Bidgee Blues Club in Wagga Wagga.
"The definition of success in music regularly shifts for me," Mills says. "When I started singing, my success was defined by being able to play and sing with mates around a camp fire. At the moment, my main goal is to record and release music to feature on Blues and Country charts and to play more blues, country and general music festivals."
Pheobe Dawson of Bathurst has been playing drums since she was seven years old.
"I'd never really thought about writing my own music until a year ago when the opportunity to attend the CMAA came up and that's when I started getting serious about a career in the music industry," she says.
"At the moment music takes up a big part of my life, I have been studying a Bachelor of Education at CSU uni and also work two other jobs but my biggest priority is always going to be music.
"I believe that as long as I'm happy and doing what I love then I've been successful. I live in Bathurst at the moment and I gig across the central west in Mudgee, Bathurst, Orange and Rylestone with artists such as Mickey Pye and Tameka Kennedy."
You might see some of these talented youngsters at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, January 14-23, at Tamworth.
Listen: new country music podcast
To mark the 50th anniversary of the iconic Tamworth Country Music Festival, ACM (publisher of this website) is launching a new podcast, Celebrating Aussie Country.
In the 10-part series, available on Spotify from January 1, you'll hear from established and emerging artists and their music.
To listen, you'll need to download the Spotify app on to your mobile phone and search for Celebrating Aussie Country. If you already have Spotify - and you're reading this story on your mobile - click on the banner below and your phone will take you direct to the podcast.
Each podcast episode includes an interview with the artist and some of their music. People with free Spotify subscriptions will hear a 30-second snippet of the song, while those with premium Spotify subscriptions can enjoy the full version.