A polished, golden new talent emerges in Tamworth

James Johnston has swiftly become one of Australian country music’s leading lights, and he took home two Golden Guitar Awards in Tamworth including new talent of the year.


Backstage at Tamworth’s biggest music venue on Wednesday afternoon, country singer-songwriter James Johnston was catching his breath after finishing a full production rehearsal.

In a few hours, about 1900 people would gather to witness one of the best-selling concert debuts by an emerging artist in the history of the NSW city’s annual country music festival.

And a few days later, on Saturday night at the Tamworth entertainment centre, Johnston stood to earn as many as six Golden Guitar Awards, as the year’s lead nominee – an impressive feat in a sector where change is usually slow.

“This is the dream, to come and put your own show on,” Johnston, 32, told The Australian. “I was six years old when I started busking on Peel Street; I was just a kid with a guitar, playing Lee Kernaghan songs. I say it’s the dream, but you don’t even really think it’s going to happen, because it’s almost untouchable.”

Born in the NSW town of Wingham and led by songs including his autobiographical single Raised Like That – which has racked up 11 million plays on Spotify alone – Johnston has swiftly become one of Australian country music’s leading lights.

Backed by a three-piece band, his headline concert shone with the polish of an experienced performer. The capacity crowd skewed young, with plenty of children in attendance – a great sign for festival organisers, who have typically struggled to bridge the gap between family-friendly free events and ticketed shows attended by older crowds.

Asked how he was preparing for the Golden Guitars, where Johnston was also among the performers, he had opted to keep his expectations low by reminding himself to enjoy the moment, no matter the outcome.

The father of two said, “I just want to walk into that room, and if I don’t win a single one, I’m actually totally fine with that. If I win them all, I’ll be stoked, don’t get me wrong – but the truth is that it’s all just a chapter in the story.”

“There’s so much to celebrate this week that if that one doesn’t fall my way, well, I’ve still had one hell of a week, haven’t I?”

That he had, and on Saturday night, two awards fell Johnston’s way: he was named new talent of the year, and won vocal collaboration of the year for Same Songs, his track with Kaylee Bell.

Gold Coast singer-songwriter Casey Barnes won album of the year for Light It Up, which was also the genre’s top-selling album of 2022.

Elsewhere, the remaining awards were spread evenly across nominees, another positive sign of growth in a musical sector where well-known names tend to alternate years of racking up gold statues at the hands of industry voters.

Andrew Swift and Amber Lawrence were named male and female artist of the year, respectively, while musical couple Brooke McClymont and Adam Eckersley won both song and single of the year for their tracks Star of the Show and Memory Lane.

The annual awards capped the first Tamworth Country Music Festival to be held in its usual summer calendar spot since 2020. After several years of Covid-affected shuffling, organisers were pleased to see the town jumping with live music at all hours for 10 nights in January.

The writer travelled to Tamworth as a guest of Tamworth Regional Council.

2023 Golden Guitar Award Winners

Album of the Year: LIGHT IT UP

Casey Barnes | Producers: Michael DeLorenzis and Michael Paynter

Alt Country Album of the Year: LOOKS LIKE HEAVEN

Kim Cheshire | Producer: Rod McCormack

Contemporary Country Album of the Year: WISER

Lyn Bowtell | Producer: Shane Nicholson

Traditional Country Album of the Year: IN THE MOMENT

Ashleigh Dallas | Producer: Brett Dallas

Male Artist of the Year:


Female Artist of the Year:


Group or Duo of the Year:


Vocal Collaboration of the Year: JAMES JOHNSTON & KAYLEE BELL

Same Songs

Bush Ballad of the Year: OUT ON KILLARNEY

Dean Perrett | Songwriter: Dean Perrett

Heritage Song of the Year: SOUTH EAST QUEENSLAND

Luke O’Shea | Songwriters: Luke O’Shea, Fred Smith, Mitchell Lynham

Instrumental of the Year: SODA CAP BOOGIE

The French Family Band

Bluegrass Recording of the Year: GOOD MORNING MOON

Kristy Cox

New Talent of the Year:


Song of the Year: STAR OF THE SHOW

Brooke McClymont & Adam Eckersley | Songwriters: Brooke McClymont, Adam Eckersley, Dan Biederman, Tiggy Heart Eckersley


Luke O’Shea | Director: Luke O’Shea, Jay Seeney

Single of the Year: MEMORY LANE

Brooke McClymont & Adam Eckersley

Top Selling Album of the Year: LIGHT IT UP
Casey Barnes