How Dolly Parton’s Jolene inspired our next country star

How Dolly Parton’s Jolene inspired our next country star

Sydney musician Imogen Grist says we’ve got it all wrong about Dolly Parton’s 1973 hit Jolene.

“I was obsessed with that song when I was younger and how it’s this quiet conversation between these two women about a man,” Grist says. “It’s really not a hate song, it’s almost like a pleading song.”

Babitha’s debut record ‘Brighter Side of Blue’ has been garnering international attention.Credit:Marcus Gordon

That perspective inspired the creation of alt-country sensation Babitha, Grist’s musical alter ego. Babitha, she says, is a window into the “archetypal other woman”.

“It was kind of a joke with an ex of mine that whenever one of us was late, we would be having fake affairs; oh sorry I was with Nathanael, sorry I was with Babitha,” she says. “I’ve always liked the idea of embodying someone else, so I thought, what a wonderful way to express some of that energy through this fake woman who’s been having an affair with my partner.“

Grist has spent the past three years crafting something special, bouncing between Sydney, Wollongong and her childhood home of Kerr’s Creek in the NSW Central West. Her debut album Brighter Side of Blue has amassed hundreds of thousands of streams since its release in late January.

A revitalising brand of alt-country, Brighter Side of Blue employs soaring pedal-steel guitars and thumping vintage bass lines under Grist’s vibrato-heavy vocals, defined by encouraging lyrics that try to paint over pessimism with unbridled optimism.

Certainly for Grist, there is something special brewing. She has been building her fanbase at lightning speed, even spawning a support slot last month for King Stingray in Melbourne.

She has a diverse array of influences – anything from ABBA to Neil Young. No more evident is this than on the track Ants, one of her more unconventional approaches to songwriting.

“I was actually very nervous about putting it on the record because I didn’t know if it was too different from what I think Babitha is, but I love when artists are able to bring together a range of different sounds and ideas,” Grist says.

As any independent musician would tell you, social media is now crucial to breaking through but Grist prefers to take risks with her artistry and let it speak for itself.

“The problem with platforms like TikTok – as much as I love a doom-scroll – is that it commodifies a very sacred thing, the metrics outweigh the art,” Grist says. “I think people can get trapped in a belief system that more is more, when if you can just write a great song, that can last forever.”

Music-wise, Grist, as well as her local counterparts, have little to be cynical about. Brighter Side of Blue is at the forefront of a local country music renaissance, helped by the likes of ARIA nominee Andy Golledge and Sydney favourites Caitlin Harnett and The Pony Boys. These days you just might find Australia’s next big thing playing to a youthful packed-out crowd in Sydney’s inner-west among a sea of Akubras and vintage snakeskin boots.

“I think it’s just harnessing traditional songwriting structures, it’s tapping into a proven way to create songs that elicit a sense of nostalgia and familiarity,” Grist says. “There’s something about the simplicity of hearing real instruments and vocals sung by real people in an earnest way that has always stood the test of time.”

Babitha plays Mary’s Underground in Sydney on Friday 17th March. Tickets available from Moshtix.

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