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Gold Guitars Raising Next Generation Of Country Music Talent

Jogai Bhatt

Contestants adorned in sparkled boots, cowboy hats and sequined dresses met a roaring crowd at Saturday night's Gold Guitar Junior and Intermediate Finals.

The competition, held at the Gore Town and Country Club Stadium, honoured the next generation of Aotearoa's country music talent, with performers as young as 11 taking the stage.

Months of practice and an intense auditioning period made for a pitch-perfect evening - and paid off for two contestants on the night.

Canterbury's Briar Sharp was awarded a haul of Gold Guitars for the Junior category, including awards for best Gospel, Vocal Solo, and Junior overall, while Wanganui's Sophie Toyne was crowned Intermediate overall winner.

Both contestants were elated to receive the coveted Gold Guitar trophies and a cash prize, but it went even further for Toyne - the recipient of a comprehensive prize package of any young artist's dreams. It included an acoustic guitar, a fully produced single and video clip, a photoshoot, a publicity package and return airfare to Australia's Tamworth Country Music Festival.

Maia Pereiha-Fletcher knows just how far the Gold Guitars can take you - her group, The Dollys, were named Intermediate overall winner in 2023.

"Winning the Gold Guitars last year got us a trip over to Tamworth, and from there we got gigs, asked to sing on stages, and we've also won some recordings over in Australia, so we'll be back for them."

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The trip to Tamworth allowed Pereiha-Fletcher to perform solo too, and she ended up winning the prestigious 2024 Golden Gig senior award. This year, she was back in Gore to do the same at the Gold Guitars.

"We're competing in Senior so it's a pretty big step up, but this is our family down here. The Gold Guitars really just bring us all together, and it's a privilege to do it with my two best friends who I love.

"Even with the tiny tots, people can have a go from just when they're walking and go right up to the Classics, so it's pretty amazing. We're very excited."

Cousins Georgia and Meila, better known as The Sparkles, were named Junior runners-up. The 11 year olds have been performing at the Gold Guitars since they were four or five.

"We weren't named The Sparkles when we were little, we were just called Meila and Georgia, but when we were seven, we changed our name to The Sparkles," Georgia said. "We just loved wearing sparkles and it sounded good."

The cousins performed in several categories in the Junior section, which included a song they had written about their grandfather called 'Hardworking Man'.

"I was pretty nervous at the start, my tummy was swirling around, but then we got on stage and it was amazing," Meila said.

The pair come from a musical family; Georgia's mum is Southland musician and Tussock Country festival committee member Kayla Mahon. Her grandfather started a musical life and she has been participating in the Gold Guitars event since she was seven.

"I competed in it for a very, very long time and I would not be where I am as an artist if the Gold Guitars did not exist.

"It gave me a place to grow my music and craft my skills at a level that could win out the Gold Guitar, and I feel like it's the same for these kids. They have a goal and they work all year towards the most prestigious award in New Zealand, and when they get up on that stage they feel like superstars.

"It's a foundation for the kids to feel proud of themselves and work harder and become an artist."

Mahon hoped her daughter and niece continued to enjoy music and pursue their passions in the future.

"It just provides a grounding to give yourself confidence and to meet other people and enjoy music as a passion. My daughter, and my niece and my other nieces who sing are recording an EP at the moment.

"We have eight of them in my family, and it's just to get them in the studio to write and enjoy music. I can't wait to see what their future holds."

Mahon said it was refreshing to see country music making a comeback.

"I feel like over the last 30 years I've been trying to say country's cool. Finally, country's on mainstream radio, you've got your Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen. Kaylee Bell has significantly paved the way for country music in New Zealand.

"I'm a good friend of Kaylee's and she inspired me to get back into country. People are actually wanting to listen to country now and I'm so excited, I feel like I've been waiting forever. I'm so excited I can finally get my music out."

Georgia said in 10 years' time she would love to be like her mum, Kaylee Bell, or Laney Wilson.

"Kaylee Bell just moves and she's got really good sparkles and good songs and lyrics. Kaylee Bell and Kayla Mahon, my mum, really inspire me.

"I love all of Kaylee's songs, especially 'Boots 'N All'," Meila added. "But if I had to choose a boy artist, it would probably be Luke Combs or Cody Johnson.

"In 10 years' time, I would love for me and Georgia to be a duet still, even if we don't go by ourselves, it would be amazing to still do it together and we will definitely still be wearing our sparkles."

"Country's back in the world and everyone's starting to love country music and it's so cool."

Gore Mayor Ben Bell said the next generation of country artists was in good hands at the Gold Guitars.

"Being able to take something out of your bedroom or living room and be able to perform it on a stage and have people clap and cheer for you, as a young person, it gives you that encouragement to go and do more and build a career in country music.

"The Gold Guitars are a great way to bring the community together, to be able to sit down and listen to some fantastic talent, fantastic music, really bring some good spirit into the world which we love, it's great.

"People travel from all over New Zealand to be here and we have international guests quite often too, so it's a real landmark event for country music."

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