A boutique music festival with scones, a pool tournament and big-name acts? Get out of town!

“I’m probably going to spend a lot of time lying on some grass and looking at the sky, to be honest,” says singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin. She’s talking about her trip to Charlton this weekend, where she will be the headline act of OK Motels.

Julia Jacklin performing at Laneway Festival last week.Credit:Rick Clifford

OK Motels is a music festival that doesn’t so much take over as collaborate intuitively with the town halfway between Melbourne and Mildura.

“It just makes the town come alive. There’s people in the hotel and camping everywhere,” says Bernice Kenny, the Vice President of the Country Women’s Association Cabbaritta Charlton. “They’re not scared to spend money, either. We don’t put our prices up. It is a great place to visit and we’re right on the Calder Highway.”

OK Motels co-organisers Kate Berry and Shaun Adams make sure any ideas deemed “too Melbourne” get the chop.

“What would be the point of driving three hours for a food truck that you see every day in Brunswick?” asks Berry. People stay in the hotel, eat good honest pub fare and inject cash into communities needing a win.

OK Motels co-organisers Shaun Adams and Kate Berry.Credit:Nathan Kaso

The idea of OK Motels was hatched by Berry. As a child she travelled to a variety of towns with her father, who photographed display homes for a living. She would stay with him in regional motels, and an obsession began. Now 45, Berry and her team have put on 10 OK Motels events.

OK Motels has been a boon for Charlton since they made a racket in 2018 with headliners Tropical F— Storm. “People were dubious; all these bands coming to town, the locals were thinking it was gonna be loud doof-doof music,” chuckles Kenny. “But everyone loved it and realised it was what Charlton needed. It brings so many different types of people, different backgrounds.”

“There’s a bunch of cute towns dotted along the highway on the way up who are all excited to meet you. Once you arrive in Charlton the locals have put on a stack of events to check out, including a whole-town garage sale on Sunday,” says Berry. “As well as the show, we’ve got a Devonshire tea and barefoot bowls, a pool party, mini golf, karaoke in Room 26 of the Charlton Motel, and a Locals v Blow-Ins pool comp. Everyone plays as doubles – a local and a blow-in have to team up.”

Music is also well covered. Jacklin is joined by bands including Frente, Civic, Party Dozen and DJ Queef Urban.

Kenny and the other members of the CWA are on scone detail. “We’ll be making 200 scones at the Lions Club. There’s also home-made ice cream. I think the youth group are going to run it,” Kenny says. This all sounds rather rosy, but it’s been a difficult road the last few years.

Bernice Kenny from Cabbaritta Charlton CWA will be running a Devonshire tea.Credit:Eddie Jim

“Charlton is called the friendly river town. Sometimes the river is not all that friendly,” Kenny explains. Charlton narrowly avoided the October floods after some heroic teamwork.

“When the waters were rising a whole group of locals excavated, bulldozed and shovelled to build a levy so the town didn’t get flooded. Those people were all recognised on Australia Day with a certificate. I live on higher ground and 10 people moved in to stay with me.”

The floods meant the cancellation of a planned OK Motels event just a week out, and the town missed out on the economic benefits.

When the floods scuttled October’s show the organisers put on two gigs titled NOT OK in Castlemaine and Ballarat. “We sold all our merch for the event, and held two fundraising concerts then donated all funds to the Charlton Neighbourhood House, who play such an important role in town,” says Berry.

“The president of the Charlton Neighbourhood House is also our chief can-slinger in the bar … The floods created another barrier for people who are considering visiting the area. It’s just another blow after the impact COVID had on visitation.”

Sunshine at last after years of disruptions by floods and lockdowns: Charlton will host to OK Motels this weekend. Credit:Nathan Kaso

“We were lucky due to our size to squeeze a couple of OK Motels in between lockdowns,” says Adams. “Each event definitely brought its own sense of hope and connection with friends and music again.”

“Not-so-touristy places are great because you always find something unexpected and you can feel superior to your peers for going off the beaten track,” says Jacklin.

“This will be my first time in Charlton so I’m looking forward to getting out of the city and breathing some different air.”

Berry has the last word: “Julia Jacklin is the queen of our emotions and this is a holiday that fills everyone’s cup. Charlton is the real star of the weekend.”

OK Motels, Charlton. Julia Jacklin, CIVIC, Frente and more. Feb 17-19. Tickets from $151. okmotels.com.au/events

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