Buckle and Boots: An On-The-Whistle Report

May 23, 2020

Gary Quinn usually strides onto the Whitebottom Farm stage and introduces a weekend of merriment every May or June. For obvious reasons that merriment is on hold this year but never fear: Buckle and Boots Live Stream Virtual Festival is here.

A quick video package of the 2019 festival prompted memories shared by Gary and the Hancock family (Karl, Jan and Laura) who open up their land to country fans from around the world. The fifth festival may be in two dimensions but that just means we need to provide the third dimension: fun.

Opening Acts

Mancunian newbie Chloe Jones opened the day’s set, with some impressive vocal work on In A While Crocodile and her wish to drink whiskey in Nashville. She has the sort of voice that can silence a room full of doubters and I will make a date to see her live, either down here in London or up there in the North.

Chloe was followed by a slew of ladies. Katee Kross is well-known for her appearances at Country on the Clyde but this would have been her first time coming down from Glasgow to play at Buckle & Boots. Wild Rose put Scottish country on the map and Katee is the real-life version of it. We’d’ve sung along heartily to a feelgood song and applauded her guitarist Ross.

Two covers of Make You Feel My Love (Bob Dylan, Garth Brooks, Adele – no pressure) and Buddy Holly’s That’ll Be The Day were ‘Going to Boot Camp’ worthy but the great thing about UK country is that acts do not want to chase Simon Cowell and success. The scene celebrates tremendous voices and performers, with the fame coming from being part of the community which is so well supported by festivals like Buckle and Boots. A born entertainer, Katee will gain more fans with every gig.

Megan Lee was a child in her family band Blue Jeans when I saw her and them in 2016. Four years on she still looks frighteningly young – like how Maisy Stella’s Daphne never aged in the whole of Nashville’s run – but her voice sounds assured and confident, especially on the Jeannie C Riley cover of Harper Valley PTA.

The key aspect of performance in UK country is command of the material and the crowd. This can be taught or learned over many years, but the best bands and artists find it instinctive to entertain a crowd, real or virtual. Several acts across the day proved their entertainment value.

We got a chance to see Meg McPartlin play her new song Beautiful, with some funky chords and yet another fine voice. Given only three songs and links, she was unable to ‘talk for England’ and her cover of a chirpy Dixie Chicks tune was great. The stream could barely contain her strums and Meg will surely be invited back for 2021. Many (ie me) who were unaware of her work had a good introduction.

After Meg was someone I do know about. There aren’t very many solo British blokes in UK country and so Joe Martin is one of the best, by default. I agree with Gary Quinn that he’s a James Taylor in the making. Letters of Regret is a sublime tearjerker which Joe was requested to play. A good friend of Two Ways Home, he plays guitar and sings expertly (well, he’s a pro) and aired his future single which has had to be pushed back due to the Covid outbreak. Joe was selling CDs at a good rate of £7 + free postage, as well as free merchandise. Joe was the first to download a Clap App to fill in the silences between the songs. Would he be the last?

Lisa Redford came fluttering in from Norwich, with her song Wildfire a particular highlight. Jess Kemp sang some very good covers of Jolene and Girl Crush, while Taynee Lord followed, full of sadness because she was unable to wear her sparkly pink cowboy boots. She had the best hair of the day, curled down to her waist.

Vic Allen was next. A big supporter of UK country music, she was due to host Candi Carpenter and Kalie Shorr as part of the Song Suffragettes’ collaboration with Vic’s Write Like a Girl night. Alas, Lockdown postponed the night. Technical gremlins are unavoidable during her set, which included Enough and Talk, but Vic Allen isn’t. Go search out the studio versions.

The first ‘band’ made their appearance at 4pm. The Outlaw Orchestra, or rather one Outlaw named Dave, brought, according to Gary in his intro, ‘hard Southern country and Bluegrass’ from the very first bar. Dave said the band play ‘Heavy Grass’, where hard rock and bluegrass meet. There’s a new album out that I imagine will drive many listeners to streaming services. Dave’s guitar playing is skilful and I don’t know many acts working in country who are a mix of Bela Fleck and Metallica. With Kip Moore due to release a new album next week, I would suggest Dave and co. open for Kip the next time he is able to tour the UK.

Next up were two more fine girl singers. Kaitlyn Baker was the first of the American lot who was up early to play three songs, showing off her pooch before she played. Kaitlyn was the singer who put on an impromptu gig for C2C fans before the lockdown bit, so she is an honorary Brit who will certainly be back soon.

Gremlins were a go-go, alas. She was on mute for the first song and was unable to hear hundreds of people yelling at her to restart! Crisis averted, we heard the second half of the first song. The daughter of George and Tammy picked up a song Kaitlyn had more or less discarded, The Trouble Is You. Fortunately Kaitlyn and her guitar player could be in the same room for her set, though it was still sad that they could not fly over for Buckle and Boots. This is authentic, rootsy country music about love and life that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

True to the experiment, Kaitlyn returned to tell stories of farm life via the miracle of a Youtube stream. Her third song was a cover of Brandy Clark’s Broke, to which ‘everybody can relate’. I love the song and I will dip into her catalogue.

In the UK, Emma Moore is slowly building an impressive career. A writer and performer from Blackpool, like Jane MacDonald, she is a student of songcraft who reckons the discipline is like marathon training. She’s currently working her single Waiting For You and has posted a cover of the Brandi Carlile song Party Of One. ‘Shout out to my band!’ Emma said of her missing mates before launching into 2019 single Dutch Courage, with a particularly brilliant last note. After some barks from her dog, Emma dipped into her back catalogue to play Good Girl and Trouble, both songs in the country vein with hints of Alanis Morrissette. Emma would have sounded fab in the Acoustic Tent at Buckle and Boots 2020.

Alan Finlan and Emma Jade are friends and collaborators so it made sense for one to follow the other in the teatime slot. Alan plugged his debut EP Big Man Small Town which is out next week. I loved his first song No Money By Monday, which had a poppy twang to it. The Cowboy Truth, his latest single, seems overwhelmingly apposite on today of all days, politically speaking. Buckle and Boots was perfect – no Cummings aloud – though it was only a partial replacement for being among the biggest country fans in the UK. Alan’s final song was Making Your Mark (‘is what living is for’) is by his own admission very Irish. If Luke Combs needs an opener, I can think of nobody better than Alan; as I am sure many people have told him, the cap and beard marks him out as a Luke Combs impersonator should he want to make money very quickly.

Emma Jade, meanwhile, sang elegantly in a huge voice and a hat. It’s not news that Emma Jade is an excellent vocalist. New song Ghost asks whether a guy lost her number. Fans of Jade Helliwell will love Emma Jade (and vice versa) and should head to her latest EP pronto. What a shame that there is no physical merch table, usually manned by Pete Woodhouse and Chris & Fran Farlie from w21Music, or photo spot.

Then came Recovering Satellites, who made the live band set-up work for the first time today. Thank God for Zoom! I’m a sucker for Counting Crows and, with the band named after the best CC album, I’m a sucker for RS too. They make countryfied rock sung and played expertly. I am impatient for physical material. (Gremlins meant a shorter set for the band but the promise of footage being uploaded to the band’s Youtube page.)

The Impressive Undercard

To Whitebottom Farm next to see the new-fangled bar and hear a plea from Karl to buy music and merch in the absence of coming to the show. Karl was full of praise for Gary, which was not incorrect; having the soothing Ulster tones of Gary Quinn made the day lovely. ‘It’s weird. We can see where you’re supposed to be!’ Karl lamented.

Two singers in bands have shaken off the boys and launched solo projects. Deeanne Dexeter and Sam Coe are less Yoko Onos and more going it alone-os. Dexeter, beloved by Bob Harris, split in 2019 leaving Deeanne to work on new music. Her new single, Woman Like You, is a sultrier and bluesier sound than we’re used to; it’s out next Friday. Blind Guy, a Laura Oakes co-write which begins with a bluesy hum, is just as good. One of the best pop-country voices has material befitting her instrument, and this is a great, great song. Fine with Elles Bailey as bluesy country.

I can’t wait to see or at least hear Deeanne, helped by her guitarist and partner Matt. She is one of the most respected artists in UK country. Sam Coe, meanwhile, with strawberry blonde hair, opened with Burned Out. She played it on a keyboard almost in a cabaret style, recalling the likes of Fiona Apple or Paloma Faith, but with enough truth and grit of a Lily Hiatt. Next came a version of Sam’s favourite song ever, Wicked Game, recorded for the frontline heroes (and she should know, she had the virus). She needn’t have been scared to follow Deeanne, as Sam is terrific too.

Ditto Simon James, who plays guitar in Sam’s band (and vice versa – Sam plays keys in Simon’s band). The elder statesman of the UK Country scene has written some beautiful songs that in a fair and just world would be hits. As it is, everyone knows how terrific Simon is and he was allowed to showcase it here, just after 5.30pm (bang on time again!). Oh Honey sounded lovely and gentle, while he finished with a newish song, Ghosts, about a friend of his which has had almost 20,000 views on Youtube. There’s a lot of Crowded House in Simon’s voice, making him more than just a country act or a singer-songwriter. He is very good at his job, and I must revisit Simon’s excellent last album, selections from which I saw him perform last year up in Millport.

Next up was Laura Evans, whose stunning song Heartstrings is up for Song of the Year in the Fans’ Choice Awards. She is another act sad to be without her band but, opening with Running Back To You, she sounded tremendous over her own guitar accompaniment. I briefly felt a sadness because the entire Tent would have been packed for Laura. She would not, had she been there, have written Big Small Town: it’s a country song about driving around LA – ‘a lap of Laurel Canyon, just to see the magic’ – that Laura debuted for the first time anywhere in the world. It’s a hit.

I fell asleep as Gasoline & Matches were hitting the main stage in 2019, though I saw them in 2017, I think. In 2020 Sally and Steve, who fortunately live together, are able to perform as a duo in harmony in cowboy hats in front of a set of lights. Steve is one of the finest guitarists on the scene and proves it during the set, where he also howls at the moon! Like Joe Martin, the duo have a clapper which brought a smile to my face! Like Joe, they offered free postage when sending out a ‘Tequila’s A Healer’ t-shirt; I love the waltz of that name. Then everyone drank copiously to the sounds of Never Have I Ever (‘so let’s get wasted!!!’), with plenty of crowd participation and gratuitous claps from Steve which turned into a quick verse of a beloved rap by Will Smith. It points to a fun new direction for Gasoline and Matches, one which amused Gary Quinn, who knows the pair of them very well.

‘The whole way through has been quite mellow, quite lovely…Now you can feel it getting uplifted a wee bit,’ Gary said in his role as MC.

Then came the first of the evening’s foreign visitors, who at least saved on air fares and can still introduce themselves virtually to UK crowds. Roan Ash dropped in from South Africa, with the livestream working just fine. What a weird thing to hear a South African accent and some country music!! Whiskey to my Soul, the title track to his album from 2018, was the first song of the set, another song about confronting demons set to a wicked guitar part not unlike John Mayer or Kenny Chesney. Next came The Little Things, which rattles off handshakes, ‘how ya been’ and whiskey on the front porch. Even in the comments to the livestream you could see people falling for Roan Ash. I had thought Tebey would be the day’s big discovery, but early evening watchers were thrilled by him.

2019 gave us an introduction to Sophie Hanson. I loved her poise, voice and songs and was all set to see her return for B&B 2020. Alas… But she sounded ace in two dimensions, all the way from Sweden. John Gurney won new UK fans after his too-short set. He’s another guy with a smooth voice and face, making country songwriting effortless (he has won awards for his songwriting, including the NSAI award in 2018). Home With Her has that contemporary groove that marks out the best country radio singles.

The equally contemporary Jeremy McComb dialled in from Nashville. He’s a mix between Aaron Watson and Morgan Evans, but with a background touring with Larry The Cable Guy, who is a sort of Roy Chubby Brown figure over there. Jeremy would ‘love to get back on a bus’ and go out and play live but this will do. Clear audio (after some gremlins which couldn’t fix the video strength) is evidence of a great writer and singer; maybe 2021 will give Britain the chance to hear Jeremy McComb. His social media tag is mccombover, so he seems funny.

Amid the foreign drop-ins came Megan Louise, another rising star who may well break through in a Catherine McGrath manner. A Scouser with a fine voice and personality, whose stage patter was complimented in the comments, Megan Louise sang one song a cappella and gave an airing to Train Song, her hit from Chris Country. She encouraged viewers to send her a picture of them watching her set. Big things beckon for the girl with pink hair and a white guitar. (There’s a song in that…)

Starting the Party

After a quick message from the Chitticks, Gavin and Christine, who come down for B&B on a break from setting up that year’s Millport Festival, Gary introduced my discovery of the 2017 festival. Morganway were a seven-piece at the time and had an impressive set of songs. In 2018 they revamped and the now six-piece band have a huge fanbase and a fine setlist.

Set to play a prized slot at 2020 B&B, instead married couple Kieran and SJ sang the ace Let Me Go, a favourite of mine since I first heard it as a live bootleg from Country on the Clyde, which they played at Gary’s invitation. Because of the absence of a soundcheck, and so as not to deafen the neighbours or the dozing dog, it was a wee bit quiet. Having interrupted the surprise coda to turn up the volume, Kieran played Lindsay Buckingham’s solo from The Chain while SJ sang harmonies. I remember punching the air when I heard the bassline at Buckle and Boots in 2018 and couldn’t stop myself from bellowing along in the flat. Kezia Gill, watching on digitally, was one of many positive audience members. The support between acts is one of the best aspects of the UK scene.

If everyone falls out with the group’s married couple – the John and Christine McVie – they can go it alone as a duo, as the livestreams have shown. New song Burn Every Page had been premiered at one of the Lockdown Sessions and was dedicated to the rest of the band. ‘I’ve said that already’ said long-suffering SJ to her husband who was about to repeat her intro. The song takes the band closer into folk-rock of the Fairport Convention kind, with a modal feel that brought out the best in Kieran, who cranked the guitars up as he tends to do. Imagine what it’ll sound like with a fiddle and rhythm section.

Surely they woke up the dog… If not, then Hurricane certainly hit it like an avalanche. Two-sixths of Morganway was a simulacrum of the real thing, but new fans will head straight to their debut album pronto. Remember the name Morganway: 2021 will be their year.

Just over 200 people were now tuning in, awaiting the headliners after 9pm. The festival site itself can hold a few hundred, packed into the stable bar or the acoustic tent. It really is a tremendous advert for live music: there’s barely any security (and anyhow the site is a 10-minute walk from the main road up the drive) and everyone takes care of one another. In the four years I have been to B&B I haven’t seen a drop of blood…Just sore heads.

Morganway and Backwoods Creek are two of the best live acts at the festival. Rather than follow one another, they were placed either side of Payton Taylor. She’s a young Nashville-based singer who was born in Philadelphia and is friend of William Michael Morgan. Sitting on her sofa, she was full of praise for the festival, which would have seen her first visit to the UK: ‘I don’t know how you’re doing this!’

From the opening moments of American Born, a star was born. It’s fun to see the stream kick into action with praise, in the absence of cheers and smiles and whoops at Whitebottom Farm. Whiskey on my Wings was a song I had first heard the day before the festival. It’s a smashing groove that matches that of Lauren Alaina or Candi Carpenter – herself a victim of the virus, botching her plans of coming to the UK – and indeed one commentator compared her to Kezia Gill. Payton encouraged her audience to sing along to Amazing Grace as a coda to the song. Her cover of John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, which she played for us, is awesome and available to stream now.

My own comment was quoted by Payton herself: I said it was ‘beyond optimal’. There are so many talented singers and writers coming over from Nashville – not just major-label starlets but independent musicians – and the livestream is another way to lay the bones for a big international fanbase who may well buy merch and concert tickets. So long as there are concerts to attend. Now I’m sad again.

Backwoods Creek will cheer me up. Experts in the livestream, they had sent a video through which Gary fiddled with, amping up the excitement levels. ‘Incredible’ is how Gary introduces them. Backwoods Creek are the official house band of the festival who in 2019 played with several visiting acts. One of the finest live sets I have ever seen happened in 2017 after the main stage act had finished: the band agreed to close out the festival having seen their set initially begin later. Thus the entire festival had no choice but to see Jamie, Yannick, Dean and Kamil (as well as former bassist Jack) entertain the troops.

In 2020, with a new bassist called George, the boys are about to release new song On The Line, more teasers for new music, and it appears that the world premiere of the song’s video was their contribution to the virtual festival. Featuring an ace solo from Yannick or Dean – you can’t tell, the band have two hotshot lead guitarists – and some great vocals from Jamie, this is a big leap forward for the band in production and performance. I will give it 5/5 this Friday in Country Jukebox Jury, for avoidance of doubt. Top, top blokes.

There was then a neat photo montage set to I Met A Girl by our headliner, who was only two hours away. By now it was 8.30pm and was still more or less running to time. In recent years both Sarah Darling and Jenn Bostic, long-time friends of Gary Quinn, have stunned crowds with their musicianship and voices. Independent and proud, both are loved in the UK and deservingly so.

Sarah is working a new single from her Campfire Sessions, a batch of covers. Shania Twain’s tune You’re Still The One is such a big song for Shania that in her recent tour she sang the chorus a cappella twice before obliging with her big hit. Sarah’s voice is right in the sweet spot and even better than Shania’s. I got sad again: this would have been A Moment in the live setting, with strangers wrapped in strangers in a way that isn’t possible in the current era.

Dan Wharton from Destination Country and Your Life in a Song popped up to offer a kind word, with Karl Hancock (in a Megan Louise t-shirt) brought in by Gary to swap anecdotes. I usually chat at the festival with Dan and his mum and dad about West Brom. Dan, who was the festival videographer in 2019, also went out to Australia to film the Buckle & Boots tour. This took Kezia Gill, Jade Helliwell and Gary Quinn down to the Tamworth festival.

‘Nobody’s trying to be like anybody else any more,’ Gary said, commenting on how UK acts used to copy the Americans. Karl added that SJ of Morganway, ‘one of the best bands in the country’, isn’t bound to one genre. He and Gary share the goal of getting acts like Morganway and Backwoods Creek onto bigger stages.

Buckle and Boots is part of the ecosystem – this would have been its fifth year – while Millport was 25 last year. The British Country Music and Dixie Fields were both first held in 2019, The Long Road in 2018 and Country2Country in 2013. 2020 saw it debut in Berlin. Both C2C and The Long Road have both big-bucks funding and the ability to mix huge US and UK acts. Carrie Underwood was booked to headline in 2018 but pregnancy sickness hit her at the worst moment. I like Buckle and Boots because it’s not too big. It physically cannot be bigger than it already is.

Jan Hancock says of the great Jenn Bostic: ‘We have no words! She’s part of the family.’ The US acts often stay at the farm, rather than in the tent, as guests of the Hancocks, which gives the festival a personal touch. 2020 feels like a testimonial or fallow year: with no festival taking place on the site (at least not yet), the Hancock Family can watch the acts including Jenn and Gary.

Jenn’s contribution to the entertainment, with piano and voice, were two peppy tracks either side of the sombre Jealous of the Angels. Written about her late father, it was A Moment when she played it at the festival a few years ago. Like Payton, she sang a verse of Amazing Grace, a pertinent song in the midst of a deadly virus which has taken hundreds of thousands of lives across the world and means live music is forbidden, like in some awful Ben Elton musical. A Berklee graduate, Jenn is brilliant and I can’t recommend her music enough. Her 2018 album Revival is worth a listen.

The Headline Sets

After praise from Georgie from Dixie Fields and with the team of the British Country Music Festival watching, Gary Quinn did his usual competent schtick, as he does every year in the earlyish slot so he can enjoy the headline acts. With the eight-hour limit having been hit, Gary reset the stream for the rest of the entertainment. After eight hours as compere, he still had enough energy left to play some fan selections. He Don’t Show Her Anymore initially caught the ear of Jan Hancock, who pushed Karl to book Gary at another festival (Blackthorn). Thus was Buckle and Boots born in 2015, with the first festival in 2016. New song Doing Life, written with Brett James, sounded great, as did old favourite On Your Way Out, which is the sort of country song that used to be on the radio in 1998, before Shania, Taylor and Sam Hunt. Gary is a throwback to an era that has barely passed. He’s a national treasure and the first recipient of the Country Way of Life Ambassador Award.

I’ve seen both Jade Helliwell and Kezia Gill before. They are now veterans both of the UK scene and of the livestream, popping up weekly with covers and originals on Thursdays (Jade) and Fridays (Kezia). Along with Laura Oakes, the pair are the most likely to break through to Shires-sized levels of success. Jaegers were poured and drunk, as is tradition, by Jade and Luke, but for Kezia, who woke up with ‘Jaeger regret’ (there’s a song there…), she was on lighter fare.

Kezia Gill is what happens when Ashley McBryde sings an Adele song. She opened with the title track of her Dead Ends and Detours EP, having called Buckle and Boots 2020 ‘the weirdest festival you’ve ever been to!’ In sparkling sequins and in front of wall-mounted guitars, Kezia showed why Bob Harris booked her for the Radio 2 Country Festival back in March. Back then she plugged her single Another You, which she reprised for Buckle and Boots.

This lockdown began on C2C weekend; while some berks were driving to Durham (the story that bubbled throughout the day was never mentioned during the festival), Kezia was about to drive through the night to play in Glasgow after meeting Bob for the first time.

I hope Bob catches some or all of Buckle and Boots 2020. Matt Spracklen of Country Hits Radio was dipping into the stream; he is a big supporter of Kezia, who lost her dad earlier this year but could at least say a tender goodbye to him before the pandemic struck Britain. Instead of bringing down the mood, she launched into Whiskey Drinkin’ Woman, her signature song.

Jade, meanwhile, is best known for covering Hallelujah in a viral video which allowed her to give up the day job. Her material has mostly been written with Luke Thomas, son of BCMA chairman BJ Thomas. It sounds like contemporary pop-country and Jade always sings it so well. Her three contributions to the evening were the great Storm Chaser, new single The Moment and a terrific version of live favourite Put It On You. She’s on the cusp of greatness, and Luke is a very fortunate man.

Then came the great Phil Vassar, one of the first guys who caught wind of what was going on in the UK and wanted in. It’s 20 years since Phil became rich and famous but he maintains an aw-shucks approach to performing, often opening his sets with: ‘Hey, whatcha wanna hear?’ His was one of the first live sessions I saw in this Lockdown Era, believing it to only be lasting a few weeks and surely to be lifted by the time late May came. Alas it wasn’t to be.

Phil stormed the 2016 festival, having been over to Country2Country early in 2016. I didn’t realise he had so many hits and was such a nice fellow. Tonight he airs his smash Just Another Day In Paradise, recently parodied by Dave from Lady Antebellum; wedding song That’s Why I Love You; and I’m Alright, a song of triumph in a time of sadness. Phil instantly makes you feel on top of the world, a stand-up guy who plays the piano standing up. Come back soon, Phil!!

At just after 10pm, running almost to time, the three headliners dialled in from Nashville.

Trent Tomlinson got a dog to cope with the lockdown. His three songs include one which namechecks the best George Strait songs (Baby Blue, Nobody In His Right Mind) and adds a chorus: ‘Damn Strait, you’re killing me man!’ He then played a song imagining an ex would have her radio on and hear a song that reminded her of Trent; again, it’s the sort of song that wouldn’t be written today in the era of infinite playlists.

He then delights us with the BMI Song of the Year 2018, a song about ‘a man’s inability to say “I love you”’, written in Mexico at 3am which changed Trent’s life and gave Brett Young an evergreen standard. In Case You Didn’t Know is weighed down by production on record but live and raw, sung by Trent from Nashville to a few hundred country fans unable to gather on a farm near Manchester, it is perfect. It is A Moment. Now I’m sad again.

I love the atmosphere at Buckle and Boots, with everyone there to drink and have a good time, making new friends and musical discoveries and being able to chat to the artists and mingle, should you so wish. Trent will get over to the UK eventually, as will Tebey.

Chris Country popped up to say hello. ‘Here’s to the next time we can get together!’ says the chap who lives and works in the North-West and often pops over for one of the days of Buckle and Boots. His station has played Denim on Denim, Tebey’s smash hit, in recent months. Gary met Tebey in Berlin in March, and sealed the deal before he headed back to Nashville. ‘I’ve been basically in my house ever since,’ he said.

The Canadian is now based in Nashville but is formerly a London resident whose grandparents are from Norwich (land of Sam Coe). He gave us three songs alongside his good friend Danick Dupelle from Emerson Drive. The first song is a winner, asking ‘who’s gonna love you if I don’t? Nobody will!’ It’s a poppy love song delivered with charm.

Some Of It, the Eric Church hit, is to him what country music is all about: ‘An incredibly well-written song: great lyrics and great stories.’ It’s smart by Tebey to play a cover, as many acts have done during the day, careful to give people what they know as well as what they don’t. His version is terrific, naturally. It made me sad because Eric Church would have been heard throughout the weekend as DJ Pete Woodhouse would have played him between bands’ live sets on the main stage. I miss Pete Woodhouse. The message we got from w21Music at least showed his impressive Luke Combs beard.

No time to be glum as Tebey finishes his too-brief set with Denim On Denim and, thanks to Gary, a surprise encore which shocked Tebey, who had a wee think before bursting into an old song, Somewhere In The Country from way back in 2012, which was a number 11 hit on the Canadian country charts. Eventually finding the correct key, he sings a Keith Urban-type tune about love and stuff that made me feel good, and not sad. Well, to a point.

Canada and Australia are the sort of markets for UK Country to aim for: Anglophone countries with a rich history of rock and pop. Buckle and Boots has done well to bring over acts from Australia (Adam and Brooke, Blake O’Connor) and Canada (Brett Kissel, Tebey) as well as Sweden and the Netherlands, and of course the US. Canada’s proximity to the States makes it the second market for American acts to break into, but increasingly Canadian acts are succeeding in the US. Terri Clark, Shania Twain, Emerson Drive, Tebey himself, High Valley, Tenille Townes, Lindsay Ell, Anne Murray and kd lang have all come across the Parallel into the States and beyond.

After a quick farewell from the Hancocks at 10.45pm, William Michael Morgan headlined the festival. Instead of Willie we got Texas Tom holding a red solo cup and acting as a kind of hype man for Willie. ‘I know that this sucks but we’re gonna have a damn good time anyway!’ Something to Drink About was his first song, which I remember from last year and is one of only two songs on his album Vinyl that William had any part in writing. Trent Tomlinson had a hand in heartbreak tune Lonesomeville, which Willie also played. No wonder he was eager to go independent and have more control over his material.

After ten hours in the saddle, Gary wrote that he could finally relax. I imagine Willie would have played all night long and he said much the same thing. So many American acts fall in love with UK crowds: we might be bad at politics but we’re the world leader at putting on music festivals. To attract a number one recording artist within five years is testament to the reputation of Buckle and Boots, which in 2020 overcame the obstacles presented by Coronavirus to entertain hundreds of people on May 23 2020.

History will decree it as the day the UK government lost control of the narrative. I’ll remember it as the day I felt sad at missing out on one of the best days of the musical calendar, yet happy at the sheer talent in country music, a genre I have grown to love over the last few years.

Words and music, people and smiles, t-shirts and Jaegers. Welcome to the UK country congregation.

Hmm…there’s a song in that…

 


Ka-Ching…With Twang – Big Releases by UK Acts of 2020 so far

April 23, 2020

In this four-part series, I’ve looked back over big albums released in the early part of 2020, as well as those by bands touring albums which came out at the end of 2019. For the final part, I will look at some impressive albums by acts based in the UK: Ags Connolly, Twinnie, Two Ways Home and the Top 3 album by The Shires

It is very rare indeed for UK country acts to release albums. They must be on a major label, bankrolled by the likes of Sony, Warner or Universal; they need to be playing venues like the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the Sage in Gateshead; and they need to be part of a marketing plan.

Album acts bring people into the genre and prompt a closer examination of what’s going on in the scene, which is populated by fantastic live acts who cannot afford to produce and market a full album. The first months of 2020 have seen three major-label releases, while I also love a 2019 release which has gained traction. Those four albums are indicative of the breadth of music – poppy, traditional and a mix of the two – that make up the UK country movement.

The 2019 release to mention is Oxford-based singer-songwriter Ags Connolly. If you’re on the hunt for something more traditional, with acoustic instruments and a voice than can come from a hollow in the South of America, Ags is your chap and his album Wrong Again is your tonic. Interviewed in 2014 by the magazine Country Music People, there was a pull quote: ‘If you’re expecting to hear something like what is called country now, that’s not what it’s going to be.’

Ags was in his lane, while acts like The Shires (to be discussed below), Laura Oakes and Ward Thomas were in theirs. As with Ashley McBryde and Brandy Clark, John Prine exerts a big influence on Ags, who wrote on Twitter: ‘One of the great American writers of our time, or any time.’

Of course there were more traditional bands across the country, and line-dancing clubs; the UK wing of the Americana Music Association was just getting going in the mid-2010s, though Ags remains adamant that he is country, not Americana. (Defining the latter term is impossible but acts like John Prine and Lucinda Williams are in it.)

His album Wrong Again has a champion in Bob Harris, who admires Ags’ ‘modern day traditionalism’. Great, truthful lyrics on the album abound over ten songs with three or four chords, whose titles alone evoke country music: What Were You Gonna Do About It, Indian Sign (‘I played this whole country in a 20-year-old car’) and Early Morning Rain (‘I’m a long way from home’) are four of them. Sad Songs Forever, naturally, is a major-key romp led by fiddle and pedal steel.

The arrangements and instrumentation are sublime: there’s pedal steel all over The Meaning of the Word, which is set to a oom-cha beat; accordion brings melancholy to Lonely Nights in Austin; there’s a neat fiddle solo in the middle of Wrong Again (You Lose a Life), and a punchy bit of electric guitar punctuates Say It Out Loud.

Ags has a little bit of a whistle in his voice, as if he’s chewing on some corn, which adds to the authenticity of his sound. It’s an ambient country album that will fit alongside any great singer of the last 70 years. Catch him on tour when you get the chance to do so.

After a crowdfunding campaign, Two Ways Home were able to release their first album, Break The Silence, in February 2020. It showcases the sweet harmonies of Lewis and Isi, who can do uptempo and slowies inspired by country songwriting, though the arrangements are sometimes more pop/rock. The groovier tunes on the album including the opening pair of Broken Hearts Club (which has some great woahs) and Speed Of Anything, as well as the toe-tapper Out on the Road. All there were singles released with promo videos which you can view on Youtube.

The bluesy pair Standing Still (‘are you lost in the crossfire of hope and broken dreams?’) and Prove Me Wrong show that Two Ways Home can do Southern rock-inflected tunes; the former cranking up into a muscular chorus, the latter starting with the chorus and containing the hardest guitars on the album. Nostalgia – ‘for something that ain’t mine…I must be colorblind’ – is a majestic ballad with understated production written with Katy Hurt and her guitarist Gab. Katy is yet to release a full-length album but her EP Unfinished Business is terrific.

Tattoo is the best song here, lyrically and musically: it’s a country lyric because the band bring to life all sorts of tattoos (‘on your shoulders hope and glory/ The wings on your back are taking flight’) while adding a melancholic middle eight. The big song is the closing track, The Ocean, on which Isi takes lead vocals while singing about devotion. It’s their ‘wedding song’ and demands that the listener waves a lighter aloft.

The title track, written with underrated UK artist Joe Martin, sees the duo trading lines over a country shuffle as they dance around the silence that their love will break. Again the middle eight (actually a middle six!) is gorgeous, proving that the pair know how a song is structured, and there’s room for a few bars of guitar solo. It’s a promising debut from two very lovely musicians. Look out for my feature on the band from 2019, which I’ll pop onto this site soon.

I’ve spent time in this series talking about a band’s place in the market and The Shires are market leaders. They were the first to break through, thanks to huge support from BBC Radio 2 and Bob Harris, and have played illustrious venues at home and abroad, including popping up at CMA Fest in Nashville. Their music must appeal to a broad fanbase, putting them in the pop-country bracket that holds the likes of Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town, which is not just a lazy mixed-groups comparison.

The Shires put out their fourth album Good Years on what has turned into a very bad year. Their UK tour to promote the album has been postponed, and when Country2Country was cancelled the duo were unable to fill in as main stage replacements for Old Dominion. A Greatest Hits set had been put out to gather the best of their first three albums to prepare new fans for Good Years.

The song New Year was premiered on Bob’s show and impressed me with its emotional depth. It’s a slushy song that hones in on the moment one year ticks into the next and, brilliantly, is a major-label credit for Kaity Rae, who will barring catastrophe become one of the great songwriters in the UK country movement. She also wrote Tattoo with Two Ways Home. Meanwhile, Cam gives them Lightning Strikes, the album’s poppy opening track.

Fingersnap percussion runs throughout People Like Us (‘cos I like us just the way we are’) while Better Place starts with a hookup and ends with a desire to ‘stay with you all of my days’. The ballads, so often saccharine and lachrymose on the first two Shires albums, have been improved thanks to the production of Lindsay Rimes who, as well as producing the band’s third album, has worked wonders with Thomas Rhett and Kane Brown. This makes Good Years the most complete Shires album by far.

Country music listeners like their alcohol and, as if seeing a gap in the market, The Shires sing Thank You Whiskey (‘Pour it on the rocks, we’ll be alright’), which should be a single and will certainly impress live venues whose punters will see the association and head to the bar to ‘raise a toast to the highs and lows’.

One complaint is that the ‘woahs’ are somewhat overused; Independence Day’s entire middle eight is guilty here. Another cavil is that the production is right in the middle of the road but, as discussed, this is an album that had a shot at being the UK’s number one. It peaked at three, which is pretty good going. It wouldn’t be awful if The Shires represented the UK at Eurovision – country act The Common Linnets did very well for the Netherlands – and their music sounds like all things to all people.

The Shires sound great. Both singers can sing – not such an essential part of being a singer in 2020 – and are especially good on About Last Night, a song about the first spark of romance which would appeal to Lady Antebellum fans; in fact, it sounds like ten Lady A songs in one. Ben has, I think, been instructed to sing more like Charles Kelley, of whom he is a long-time fan, which gives his voice more depth and heft than on earlier Shires albums.

The album’s other ballads include On The Day I Die (‘You better dance, don’t cry’) and the nostalgic Only Always. ‘Do I ever think about you still that way?’ goes the chorus, with a gentle mandolin high up in the mix. Closing track Crazy Days has real strings on it, something beyond the reach of many UK country acts. With more investment from major labels, the likes of The Southern Companion and Jake Morrell will follow Laura Oakes, Kezia Gill, Ward Thomas, The Wandering Hearts and The Shires onto the Radio 2 playlist and into the hearts of millions. Laura’s new five-track EP is on streaming services now, while Kezia’s single Another You is her best yet.

Kezia performed that track as part of the Radio 2 Country Festival, headlined by The Shires, which aired in lieu of the Country2Country coverage. Twinnie and The Adelaides were the other UK performers; the latter have also played a session for Michael Ball’s Sunday brunch show, while Twinnie is on the current Radio 2 Playlist with her single I Love You Now Change. It’s country in the way that Ingrid Andress and Kelsea Ballerini are: a little bit smart with the lyrics, elegant in the delivery but pop music in all but name.

The York-born singer, who I am obliged to say has performed on stage and screen as an actress (The Wife alongside Glenn Close, a brief run in Hollyoaks), turned down the offer to be the female voice in The Shires, and indeed co-wrote a track that made it onto Brave. Her chat with Matt Spracklen for No Chords But The Truth is a great introduction to Twinnie: she is magnetic, opinionated and very good at her job.

Being ‘half Hollywood, half gypsy’, she has called her debut album Hollywood Gypsy. It is Radio 2’s Album of the Week, which means approximately 8.5m listeners have heard tracks from it across the week during Ken Bruce’s mid-morning show and on the Midnight Shift.

Fans of Twinnie have waited five years for Hollywood Gypsy, throughout which time she has released several tracks which have ended up on it. The sombre Social Babies, all about how disastrous social media is (until the Corona era, at least) followed the chirpy Better When I’m Drunk (‘you taste better with a lime and salt!’).

Album and live show opener Type Of Girl, formerly T.O.G., has been given a makeover. The song’s 2020 release came with a brilliant video in which Twinnie plays ‘a fifties stereotype’, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe. The tracks are country in as much as the lyrics are intelligent – ‘Vincent painted a masterpiece, Newton discovered gravity/You’ve got the impossible job of just loving me’ – but this is pop music with drum loops and pop cadences. If it means fans of Twinnie head to gigs by Two Ways Home, so much the better.

Lie To Me, a showcase for Twinnie’s terrific voice, was co-written with Jon Green, who has just had a number one on country radio with Lady Antebellum’s track What If I Never Get Over You. Superhero, another ballad, was written with Lucie Silvas: ‘I guess I’m human after all…I thought I was invincible’ is a raw, very country line. I remember being impressed when I heard it live in London and Blackpool last year, when I saw Twinnie at Nashville Meets London and The British Country Music Festival respectively.

Chasing, with a light dusting of banjo, comes off a lot like a Ward Thomas song in the verse – there’s a gap in the market while the girls are working on their fourth album – but is definitely ‘Twinnie’ in the chorus. The words trip over one another: ‘I should be finding me a nice guy…Rollercoaster taking me high then it’s over’ is her conclusion, and it sums up her love life. The album’s title track defines who she is, ‘smoking at the age of 10’ and able to ‘roll with the crowd’ in whichever company she is in. Telling your life in a song is pretty country.

The new tracks on the album mainly occupy its second half. More is almost a dating profile in song: Twinnie is ‘your puzzle’ who wants something physical with her new beau. ‘Show me that you’re worth it, show me you deserve it,’ she cries. It’s a great pop production. Live favourite Daddy Issues, with its gentle opening section, becomes a hoedown, which is definitely country. ‘Why do good, good women stay with bad, bad men?’ picks up on a theme introduced in Chasing, giving the album a coherence.

Feeling of Falling has a Mumford stomp and is another aspect of Twinnie’s personality in song – ‘it’s a rollercoaster’ is a motif she has already used on the album, but here it describes the uncertainty of ‘the unknown’. It’s relatable and Twinnie wears her scars visibly, in spite of her brilliant stage presence. Album closer Whiplash sees Twinnie ask her beau to ‘hurt me’ like a car crash. It’s an odd metaphor: why not get rocked like a wagon wheel instead? She continues, comparing him to a lethal poison. ‘The pieces fall apart’ picks up the jigsaw metaphor from More.

As befits a stage performer, the ballads are stunning on Hollywood Gypsy, and she hits every note spot on. Given the chance, Twinnie will become a major pop star and we’ve certainly been waiting long enough for a UK-based one of those.

I will not hesitate to compare her to Lizzo, with the same vulnerabilities and vocal excellence. There’s only one Twinnie, though. It’s up to us, the listener, to listen to her.


Ka-Ching…With Twang – Big Releases by ‘Girl Singers’ of 2020 so far

April 23, 2020

The third part of this piece will cover albums by Ashley McBryde and Brandy Clark.

I have likened the country music marketplace to a stall full of apples where there’s an apple for everyone but some will leave a taste that lingers long after the bite. When it comes to female acts, there are four notable acts (three solo singers and a duo) who have launched new releases (or apples) into the marketplace (or stall) in early 2020.

In the early stages of what will hopefully be a career to last as long as Lady A or Little Big Town, Ingrid Andress unveiled an eight-track LP called Lady Like which contained the top ten radio hit More Hearts Than Mine: ‘If we break up I’ll be fine’, she sings of how the split will really bite for her family members. Happily, the song has spent much of the last six months rocketing up the radio chart and is being positioned to hit the top spot some time in April or May, just after I Hope by Gabby Barrett. Things are looking better for the ‘girl singer’ in country radio.

What is Ingrid bringing to the marketplace? Solid songs like More Hearts Than Mine and Lady Like, a poppy song which namechecks the Mona Lisa and has a melodic bridge: ‘Controversial, so outspoken/ I’ve been told that I’m not lady like…but I’m a lady like woah!’

The album as a whole has the feel of Meghan Trainor, especially on opener Bad Advice, Life of the Party (‘I’m killin’ it, it’s 3am still going strong!’) and We’re Not Friends, which documents the transition from friends to lovers. I found the production a little too overwhelming (I would prefer an acoustic album) but the strings are excellent throughout. If you’re a young woman looking for a guide to life, Ingrid Andress can be it.

Also finding an audience of smart young women are Maddie & Tae, who finally put their second album The Way It Feels into the world on Good Friday 2020. It took four years to be released as a whole and, like Sam Hunt’s album, is almost a greatest hits collection of that period.

First single Friends Don’t, a poppy love song, came out as far back as May 2018, with the gorgeous Die from a Broken Heart going to radio at the end of the year. Both songs featured on the One Heart to Another EP, which entered the market in April 2019 around the same time as the debut album by trio Runaway June. Finally, women not called Miranda or Carrie were being given a chance on country radio, which acts still had to cosy up to in order to secure an audience. In any case, young people were streaming Maddie & Tae’s music.

Also on that EP were One Heart to Another (‘from one ex to the next lover’), the funky New Dog Old Tricks – on which the girls rap the line ‘trust fund beard like Moses’ and which was written by the super trio of Emily Weisband, Jesse Frasure and Laura Veltz – and Tourist in this Town. On that last tender song, the narrator avoids familiar places where they would bump into people and be asked about why she was single. It’s a country song.

The title track of the EP Everywhere I’m Goin opens the album. It’s a song about their husbands, much like Trying On Rings, with gorgeous harmonies, a singalong melody and smart lyrics that take the listener on a tour of the USA: ‘He’s as cool as California/ Homegrown like they do it in Georgia…Strong like a Tennessee hickory’ and so on, movingly. This sounds like a huge radio smash, but not these days. There are other audiences to serve, who are younger than radio’s key demographic of 35-54.

The younger person will love Bathroom Floor, an encouragement to ‘get up girl!’ over two chords, as well as Ain’t There Yet. Dierks Bentley is drafted in on the ballad Lay Here with Me but let’s overlook the fact that he’s duetting with a duo.

Of the ‘brand new’ songs, two are chirpy and three are slow. The former are: My Man, which asks listeners to ‘put your hands up if you’re crazy in love’; and Write a Book (‘I’m shook!’), which compares love to a ‘New York Times bestseller’. Both songs are perfect for Youtube montages of ‘relationship goals’.

The three new slowies show the same variety in tone that the pair displayed on their debut album: Drunk Or Lonely takes it down a notch as the girls complain of 2am phone calls from a guy who can’t move on; Water In His Wine Glass is a hymn to God (the girls are very religious) sung over plinking acoustic guitar, wishing sobriety on a loved one; and I Don’t Need to Know is an MOR ballad which would fit on a Radio 2 playlist alongside Kelsea Ballerini and Ward Thomas.

The album The Way It Feels has had a very modern rollout strategy, coupled with lost record deals and life changes. Maddie & Tae’s young audience will know all the songs through streaming them repeatedly and will appreciate the five new tracks. Spotify figures are impressive for an act with little country radio play: as of Good Friday, Die From A Broken Heart has been streamed more times than their smash number one hit Girl in a Country Song. Friends Don’t isn’t far behind. Teen county-pop, as heard on the likes of Radio Disney Country, is a viable genre.

If you know a girl under the age of 20, they would love this album but it’s likely they know who they are. Since 2015 the girls have opened for Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who took them and Runaway June on tour with her in 2019. When life resumes, they will open up for Lady Antebellum on their Ocean tour.

For girls over the age of 20, Brandy Clark and Ashley McBryde are your best bets.

Brandy is revered in Nashville for writing the smashes Better Dig Two, Mama’s Broken Heart and Follow Your Arrow, as well as two solo albums full of gritty realism and gorgeous melodies. Soap Opera, Love Can Go To Hell, Stripes (‘I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes!’) and Take a Little Pill are four of them. Shane McAnally, a fellow gay songwriter whose sexuality is only remarkable when remarked upon, said of his good friend: ‘I don’t know anybody better at telling a story with just a few words. She’s serving the song and the story and then she gets out of the way.’

On Brandy’s third album Your Life is a Record, her focus is on the break-up of her long-term relationship, placing the album in the long line of such albums in the rock and pop canon. There’s a mix of the jaunty and the melancholic, much like Brandy’s hero John Prine, who passed away a few weeks after Brandy put her new album into the world.

Because I prefer the jaunty to the ballad, the kiss-offs Long Walk and Who Broke Whose Heart grabbed me on first listen: the former imagines the addressee walking ‘off a real short pier’, while the latter places a swear word in the chorus following the words ‘all I know’s I loved you’. The funniest track is a duet with Randy Newman, which quotes the famous line from Jaws: ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ The final verse is the best: ‘We’re springing a leak, we’re coming apart/ We’re on the Titanic but we think it’s an ark’ must be the result of a brainstorming session coming up with ideas for famous boats.

The sad songs include album opener I’ll Be the Sad Song – country music is nothing if not literal! – on which Brandy sets out the album’s subject. ‘That last verse, you wanna change it’ is a wonderfully sad line, while Pawn Shop opens with the arresting line, ‘She pushed her wedding ring across the counter’, as Brandy trades jewels for a bus ticket. The elegant waltz Love is a Fire (written with the aforementioned Shane McAnally) runs with the motif of the title. ‘Kiss me like kerosene’ is another bumper sticker of a line.

Who You Thought I Was, released as a teaser for the album, seems autobiographical: Brandy wanted to be Elvis Presley, a circus performer and a cowboy ‘til I met you…now I wanna be the me I should have been when we were together.’ This is John Prine level stuff, or John Prine writing with Adele. On Bad Car, over a gentle guitar shuffle, Brandy mourns an old car which has ‘broke down’. No pop music (or indeed music that gets sent to country radio) does this sort of thing.

Can We Be Strangers, which sounds like a Muscle Shoals cut from the 1970s, contains real horns, strings, drums and lyrics as Brandy wants a complete break: ‘I don’t wanna hate you or even care enough to’ is the key lyric of the chorus. The album drifts off into the distance on The Past is the Past, with a gorgeous instrumental outro. This is a masterful album that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

Jay Joyce produced both Your Life is a Record and Never Will, the second album by Arkansas-born Ashley McBryde. The pair make a decent couplet, best enjoyed one after the other with a single malt whiskey in your hand. Once again, fans of Eric Church will find much to enjoy in Ashley’s catalogue, which is no coincidence as Jay also helps sculpt the sound of Eric’s records.

At 36, Ashley is one of the older acts to have won CMA New Artist of the Year, which she did in 2019 after a decade playing dive bars and biker hangouts. Her album Girl Going Nowhere was GRAMMY nominated despite the title track not doing much on radio. Not even her song Radioland gained traction, which proves something is awry on radio.

Nonetheless Ashley has taken the lead from Kacey Musgraves: throwing crumbs to radio but gaining fans one at a time, especially playing live. UK crowds have filled bigger and bigger venues to see Ashley from London’s Borderline on her first visit in 2018 to medium-sized venues like the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and, in Country2Country 2019, the likes of SSE Hydro in Glasgow and London’s O2 Arena. As things stand she is due to come to Britain in the autumn, including dates at the Camden Roundhouse and Glasgow’s mighty Barrowlands Ballroom.

Ashley trailed the album Never Will with a trilogy of music videos. The melancholic One Night Standards, a song about meaningless pickup sex in a motel room written with Shane McAnally, sounds like a cigarette burning gently in an ashtray. ‘Lonely makes a heart ruthless’ distils the whole enterprise in one line.

Album opener Hang In There Girl comes off as an older sister talking to a teenage girl: ‘I’ve been right there at the end of that drive…Tangled up in the small town weeds, dreaming of the day you leave’. It’s of the Born To Run school of rock.

The drums on Martha Divine set up the opposite of a murder ballad, as Ashley gets her shovel and sets about righting a wrong by bringing hard to ‘Jezebel’. This will be the highlight of her live set when the world becomes normal again.

Brandy Clark herself co-writes two tracks on the album. Voodoo Doll is driven by a stomping beat and bluegrass feel, over which Ashley sings of putting a curse on an ex-lover, it seems. It breaks into a guitar wigout halfway through which may push Ashley into the rock market. Sparrow comes directly after it and is a proper country ballad about being out on the road: ‘Jack and Coke, a sleeping pill/ Living a dream’ yet thinking of home.

Never Will picks up the theme but sets its lyric to heartland rock in the vein of Petty, Springsteen and Seger, music that nobody makes any more. It’s another song with fire in the lyric, a theme which unites the album and will be a decent thesis for someone working on the paper ‘Ashley McBryde: Standing Inside The Fire’. (Garth Brooks is a huge fan.)

Velvet Red begins with a few bars of a cappella, giving the song a classic feel which is sustained in the effect given to Ashley’s voice. I don’t know the technical name but it sounds muffled. The plot of the song is: Boy meets girl, girl goes ‘sneakin’ out’ to see boy, something happens in the third verse that I’ll spoil by telling you about. Stone, written about her brother, is another proper country song which lists how ‘there’s throwin’ ones and rollin’ ones….The steppin’ kind, the steady kind’ before concluding that she and her late brother are ‘cut from the same stone’. The song was written with Nicolette Hayford, whose brother died in combat.

Like Brandy, and indeed like the late John Prine, Ashley can be funny or wry. The toe-tapper First Thing I Reach For (‘is the last thing I need’) is in the tradition of morning-after songs, as Ashley wakes up after a heavy night with a stranger which served to ‘keep away the lonely’. On Shut Up Sheila, she sighs at a friend who is trying to console her with religious piety: ‘This here is a family thing’ will resonate with every Southerner who doesn’t follow the Good Book to the letter.

In honour of her late friend Randall Clay, Ashley performs his song Styrofoam as the album’s closing track. It opens with a spoken-word explanation of who invented it and why it’s useful, especially to keep beer cold in ’44-ounce cups’. It sounds like an idea on a Brad Paisley album and rounds off Never Will as a sort of bonus track; credit the record label for letting it sneak onto the tracklisting.

Thank goodness for Brandy Clark and Ashley McBryde, who have both made two great albums which will still be heard in ten years’ time.


Ka-Ching…With Twang – More of the Big Releases of 2020 so far

April 23, 2020

The second part of this piece on new releases in 2020 looks at other big hitters, ranging from The Cadillac Three to Little Big Town

Kelsea Ballerini and Sam Hunt have both played the O2 Arena, Kelsea in 2018 just under Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Sam as part of the 2016 iteration when many Carrie Underwood fans either headed to the bar or stayed to hear the hits sung by a swarthy chap.

In 2019, Country2Country welcomed two Big Machine acts who were working on new albums which have recently hit the marketplace. One of them came out at the end of 2019 but will be toured in 2020, while the other act released her second album on Valentine’s Day 2020.

That day was apt. Carly Pearce is now most famous for marrying Michael Ray, a hunky singer who named his album Amos after his grandpa but wrote not one word of any song. Carly, whose song Every Little Thing was number one on radio, worked on four of the 13 tracks on her second self-titled album, one of which is I Hope You’re Happy Now. That song, co-written with Luke Combs, is sung with Lee Brice, who croons the second verse of a song which sounds perfect in between car commercials on country radio. Thomas Rhett and Kelsea Ballerini had a hand in writing Finish Your Sentences, a People magazine article attached to a plodding melody; indeed, Heart’s Going Out Of Its Mind sounds like a Kelsea tune, with a great bounce and a lyric about falling in love.

Because it’s a country album one of the tracks is called Dashboard Jesus, which uses the familiar Don’t Stop Believin chord progression and overlays a lyric about a girl going out to see the world with 50 bucks in your wallet. There’s a lovely dobro solo in the middle of it. On the other hand, there are poppy tracks like opener Closer To You and the ballads Love Has No Heart (a country songtitle) and It Won’t Always Be Like This, which are both immaculately sung; Carly’s CV includes a stint singing Dolly Parton songs at Dollywood so she’s no slouch as a singer. If you like the mellifluous tones of Hillary Scott, you’ll love Carly Pearce.

Handily Lady Antebellum, newly signed to Big Machine, will spend 2020 promoting their album Ocean. It’s a return to their ballad-saturated sound. The trio played a few new tracks on their C2C visit in 2019: Be Patient With My Love (‘I could use some Jesus’) was prefaced by an emotional speech from Charles Kelley, who seems to have overcome some personal issues in advance of the album’s release. The song is placed after What I’m Leaving For. If the band sing this with a screen behind them, expect a montage of family videos documenting each member’s ‘little paradise’ back home; indeed, on the ACM telecast during the quarantine period, Charles cuddled his son as he sung his part.

Song about faith, song about family; we’re in country music. Because it’s a country album one of the tracks is called Boots, an air-puncher of a track about devotion with a sweet breakdown section. Pictures is a sweet song about being ‘happy in pictures’ to hide the hurt in the relationship. Crazy Love, written by Charles, has a pretty fiddle solo in the middle of it, while You Can Do You is another widescreen Lady A tune about ‘searching for a good time’ and will fit well into their live set. I love the rhyme of ‘wallflower/ whiskey sour’.

The ballads, however, are what fans buy the record for. Album opener and radio smash What If I Never Get Over You goes big on Lady A’s MO and USP: harmonies and emotions. ‘The moving on is the hardest part’ is the second line of the song. Fun fact: one of the writers, Jon Green, is a Brit. Let It Be Love could have been on any of their other seven albums, with Dann Huff’s production foregrounding the vocals, which float on top of some twang. On A Night Like This, meanwhile, is stunning, especially the song’s bridge with its classic chord progressions and real string section.

The title track concludes the album. Ocean is a showstopper of a vocal performance by Hillary, extremely close mic’d and backed up by more real strings. Lyrics like ‘all I wanna do is swim, but the waves keep crashing in…I’m so tired of the shore’ made it a difficult song to record. If you like the band, you’ll love the album, the best since their debut which exists as a set of new songs to play in a set which will contain old favourites like Downtown, I Run To You, Hello World and of course Need You Now.

Like Lady A, Little Big Town are frequent visitors to the UK. The quartet have moved into the tier of ‘heritage acts’ who can always play Pontoon, Boondocks and of course Girl Crush while dotting their set with mature pop songs such as Sugar Coat and The Daughters. The former stems from another brilliant metaphor from the mind of Lori McKenna, while the latter is sung by two ladies who are both 50 years old and concerned for the next generation. Fun fact: heartbreak ballad Questions (‘with no intention of ever saying them out loud’) was written by Jon Green.

Both are songs on their ninth album Nightfall, which came out in January 2020. Aside from the party songs Over Drinking and Wine, Beer, Whiskey – the band can add these to their catalogue of songs about drink like Pain Killer and Day Drinking – the album sticks to its middle-of-the-road, grown-up feel. The quartet teamed up with the wizards behind Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves (who have also worked on Brett Eldredge’s forthcoming fourth album) and it sounds suitably lush, especially when the voices of all four singers reverberate during a chorus.

Lady A’s album brings together the two groups on The Thing That Wrecks You, a piece of adult contemporary fluff in which the supergroup sing about love and stuff. There’s something powerful about the second chorus, where all seven voices must have sounded phenomenal in the studio. Perhaps that’s how to get LBT on country radio; Thomas Rhett had a collaboration on his 2019 album, lest we forget.

For that reason, given that we know the processed beats that fill country radio in 2020, nothing on Nightfall would gain heavy rotation. It’s a SiriumXM album, not a Moondog in the Morning one. This may be intentional, as the band have said they have a much more uptempo album already recorded full of songs like the one-off single Summer Fever.

Philip’s tenor is rich on Forever and a Night and Kimberley’s alto sounds super on Throw Your Love Away (‘and I can’t give it back to you’), which is another song written with The Love Junkies, the folks that brought them Girl Crush. On album closer The Trouble with Forever, you can hear the air in the room vibrate as the guitars are being recorded, making it a very earthy major-label release.

Finally, I will mention two rockier albums released in the opening months of 2020. Dustin Lynch’s Tullahoma (named after his home town in Tennessee) is his fourth, and features the two radio airplay number ones Good Girl and Ridin Roads. Momma’s House is sure to become number three, even if it’s very plodding. Those three titles tell you everything you need to know about the album: it’s 11 songs about girls, small towns and rural life that appeal to boys and girls in small towns.

Pick any track and write down the list of rural stuff in the lyrics. Sometimes it’s novel: Country Star does at least place ‘steel guitar’ and ‘steal your heart’ in the same couplet. Track two is even called Dirt Road, which is a funky song of nostalgia that namechecks ‘fried chicken’ and ‘city limits’. It is suspiciously close to Kelsea’s A Country Song and is written by Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins, who gave Dustin his career song Small Town Boy. It’s the album’s best track.

Tullahoma is an album made by committee and, although Dustin is a fun live performer as witnessed in his 2019 C2C set, none of these songs is in any way durable. At least it sounds like contemporary country music and not ‘country star does trap’.

Jaren Johnson has written plenty of great songs for other acts in the last decade, including Beachin for Jake Owen, Livin the Dream for Drake White, Raise Em Up for Keith Urban and Eric Church and Tim McGraw’s pair of Meanwhile Back at Mama’s and Southern Girl. Jake also recorded a version of Days of Gold, which was a track on the debut album by Jaren’s band, The Cadillac Three (TC3). They themselves haven’t really had a smash hit of their own; their reputation has come as a live act.

TC3 were unable to travel to the UK for Country2Country, which is a shame as they would have been an ideal warmup act for Eric Church. Fans of the Chief will have much to enjoy in Country Fuzz, the band’s fourth album, again released on Big Machine.

Many songs on Country Fuzz are focus-grouped party jams or beer advert soundtracks: Bar Round Here, The Jam, All The Makins of a Saturday Night, Crackin’ Cold Ones with the Boys, Raise Hell and Jack Daniels’ Heart, which ends with a hoedown! In a live setting, this is exactly what the crowds want; on record, a little more variety (or fewer tracks) would be nice.

Labels is driven by a superb riff, contemporary production and a clever lyric; I imagine many current acts would place this song on hold. Ditto Dirt Road Nights, with its smooth groove and nostalgic lyric about wanting to ‘hit the gas on the time machine’. Travis Tritt and Chris Janson are drafted in for Hard Out Here for a Country Boy, which pummels you over the head with blue-collar sentiments and Janson’s harmonica solo. Long After Last Call is a rocking love song which rounds the album off prettily but may get lost in the stream if people give up halfway through the second side. Back Home, not written by the band, uses several phrases with the word ‘back’ in it and is a proper ‘Nashville Writers Room’ song.

One thing that irked me while listening is that the whole album seems to be in the key of ‘drop D’, creating a numbing sonic uniformity that I didn’t get on Port Saint Joe, a similarly minded blues-rock album by Brothers Osborne. Listeners to albums by Dustin Lynch, Ingrid Andress, Little Big Town and Sam Hunt may also complain that ‘it all sounds the same’ but if an act wants a USP then they need ‘their sound’. Not for nothing are the best bands recognisable within the opening bars of any song.

Country Fuzz is more a rock album than a country album, just as Sam Hunt and Kelsea are pop acts. For authentic country, it’s best to head to Texas’ Red Dirt Scene or East Nashville’s hipster acts. Mainstream country music targets fans of rock and pop, bringing them into the genre gently and encouraging them to go to acts like Ashley McBryde and Brandy Clark who may be ‘too country’ for listeners of country radio.

Every act has a place in the market, and every shopper has an apple for them. Some apples are tastier than others, though.


Ka-Ching…With Twang – Big Releases of 2020 so far

April 23, 2020

In a four-part roundup I focus on releases from the first quarter of 2020. Future parts will focus on UK releases, female acts Ashley McBryde and Brandy Clark and major-label acts who borrow heavily from rock and middle-of-the-road pop.

This first part deals with new albums by two other pop acts in the country sphere: Kelsea Ballerini and Sam Hunt…

As I never tire of remembering, to quote Marty Stuart: country music has a briefcase in one hand and a guitar case in the other. Thus do record labels need to turn a profit by marketing country artists to an audience who may not have grown up in Tennessee or Georgia.

Some acts are busy with family commitments this year, which impact their ability to promote their album and thus accrue money for their record label. Maren Morris (on Sony) gave birth to her first child while Thomas Rhett (on Valory Music, an imprint of Big Machine) fathered his third: their albums GIRL and Center Point Road were both released in Spring 2019, meaning they would be touring songs on those albums over summer 2019 and through the end of 2020, before the Coronavirus scuppered their plans.

Regardless, Maren’s singles Girl and The Bones both had success on radio, while TR’s single Beer Can’t Fix looped four chords underneath a lyric about drinking through loneliness and heartbreak. Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic co-wrote the song, which went to country radio and will race up the charts: TR is known as an ‘automatic’.

Following other automatics like Keith Urban and Blake Shelton onto primetime TV, Luke Bryan was preparing his latest and seventh album Born Here Live Here Die Here. The chirpy Knockin Boots was followed by the crunching guitars of What She Wants Tonight (‘she gets what she wants and I get to be what she wants tonight’). One Margarita, a party song entirely sung over an A major chord, trailed the album weeks before the virus outbreak hit America. Luke and Kenny Chesney were to release the summer’s ‘too big to flop’ albums; Chesney prepared his audience for his album with the Ed Sheeran co-write Tip Of My Tongue and the power-chord riffage of Here and Now, tailor-made for stadium shows on his postponed Chillaxification tour. The song Knowing You is Classic Chesney, a gorgeous waltz that is one of the songs of the year so far.

Florida Georgia Line also previewed their fifth album with a forgettable track called I Love My Country which ticked off rural elements like a pastiche of a Country Song by Numbers. The Lord, fishing, hunting, drinking, wide open country, George Strait, Lynyrd Skynyrd, pretty girls, blue tick hounds and on and on, with a Joey Moi-produced guitar solo thrown in. FGL are the Nickelback of country music: there must be demand for their music or they wouldn’t keep bringing it to market.

As well as summer festivals and big tours, the pandemic meant that the UK leg of Country2Country 2020 was cancelled, the week after the Berlin edition took place. Thus the O2 Arena was deprived of the likes of Brett Young, Tanya Tucker, Charles Esten, Runaway June and three returning performers: Darius Rucker, Eric Church and Luke Combs.

Luke’s album What You See Is What You Get had knocked his debut This One’s For You off the top spot of the Country Albums chart in the US. Once again it was full of rocking blue-collar anthems about beer and hard work – he even convinced Eric Church to sing the third verse on Does To Me, Luke’s next big hit – as well as tearjerkers like Even Though I’m Leaving, Luke’s seventh number one. For the best take on Luke’s superstardom, Grady Smith made a video essay about him which you can find HERE.

Luke’s album was a marquee release from the end of 2019, and 2020 saw a couple of tentpole albums released close to one another. One came from a lady who launched the album with a CMT Crossroads show with Halsey, one of the world’s biggest popstars; the other was sung by a man who at the end of 2019 was arrested for driving under the influence.

Kelsea Ballerini is a terrific songwriter and performer. Her third album, the self-titled kelsea (all tracks are expressed in lower case), sees her adopt the Taylor Swift strategy of going pop but keeping at least two toes in country music. She is, after all, a Tennessee native who would never abandon her beloved folk down in the South. half of my hometown puts ten Taylor Swift songs into a blender and comes out with an acoustic-led pop song with a chorus on which Kenny Chesney provides harmonies.

The album as a whole is packed with elements of pop production, and will be marketed as such, much like Carrie Underwood’s before her. The melodic a country song consists of the vocalist recalling times when country music helped her through key moments of her life, but the loop that underpins it is like a Little Mix loop with a bit of twang. Incidentally, two tracks – the hoedown stomper Hole in the Bottle and Love Me Like a Girl – have the sonic prints of Hillary Lindsey, Carrie’s long-time songwriting partner. bragger, about her husband Morgan Evans, has a sweet shuffle and some syncopated, hiphop-type delivery.

A-List popstars are drafted in to push Kelsea to a mainstream audience. Julia Michaels brings her magic touch to needy, Ed Sheeran to love and hate, and Halsey’s voice to the other girl. That last track was co-written with Sam Hunt’s regular collaborator Shane McAnally: the chorus – ‘is it me? Is it you?…Who’s the diamond, who’s the pearl?’ – would fit on pop radio, even though it is being marketed to country radio as an update on The Boy Is Mine by Brandy and Monica. Halsey will be yet another pop star taking the sort of space on the airwaves that a dues-paying gal like Kelsea, or the likes of Mickey Guyton and Kassi Ashton, should be given. But radio stations are businesses too.

overshare opens the album, a song written with Tayla Parx, who has High Hopes, Thank U Next and Love Lies on her CV. The words trip off Kelsea’s tongue, the melody is bouncy and it’s as fluffy as Kelsea’s early singles like Dibs and Yeah Boy. Equally sweet is club, which rhymes ‘tequila’ and ‘feelings’ in its first couplet before breaking into a pop chorus that sounds a lot like a Taylor Swift chorus. Also recalling Swift is la, a solo write by Kelsea about Los Angeles which closes the album: ‘I park my heart at the valet’ is a great line, and she doubts she is ‘cool enough’ to hang out ‘with bigger names’ at parties out in California. Can the girl from Knoxville commit to Hollywood, as I am sure her record label are dying for her to?

Sam Hunt’s debut Montevallo saw Drake make his influence known on country music. The Atlanta-born songwriter who gave Come Over to Kenny Chesney, Cop Car to Keith Urban and I Met A Girl to William Michael Morgan hit big with singles from Montevallo. I preferred Make You Miss Me, written with Old Dominion, and House Party to the massive number one Take Your Time, and I wasn’t initially sold on Drinking Too Much or Sinning With You, two of the more melancholic tracks that were released in advance of Southside, an album five years in the making.

I did, however, love the four ‘tempo’ tracks. Downtown’s Dead was bouncy, Kinfolks was infectious, Body Like A Back Road was smart and worthy of its high placing on the all-genre Hot 100. Hard To Forget was innovative in its sample of There Stands The Glass. It also boasts a great title and chorus: ‘You’re playing hard to forget’ is such a great line, as is the ‘outta sight outta mind/ Girl you’re looking so good it’s driving me out of mine’. Luke Laird’s loop is the key factor here.

My favourite new track from the album was Breaking Up Was Easy In The Nineties, a smart lyric set to a chirpy acoustic guitar about how in 2020 it’s tough to fully escape someone popping up in one’s timeline with a new guy. Once the listener negotiates the spoken-sung verse, the chorus is singable, much as Take Your Time had been, back in the early months of 2015. The album opens with the sombre 2016, where Sam wants to ‘put the smoke back in the joint’ and ‘take 2016 and give it back to you’ over acoustic guitar and no percussion.

Saving Country Music’s Trigger will never be a Sam Hunt fan, but even he concedes that album opener 2016 is the right sort of song for Sam to be singing. Trigger gave Southside ‘two guns down’, lambasting Sam for the homogenous nature of country music in the last five years. The market was going to turn towards bringing in contemporary sounds to country music anyway – while also appealing to those who like fiddle and pedal steel – and it’s unfortunate that Sam is in the firing line as the most handsome, melodically gifted songwriter of the decade.

Sam’s audience is young and would have no problems putting any of the tracks on Southside alongside Post Malone, Kane Brown and Cardi B in a personal Spotify playlist. Young Once, for example, with its dense production and trademark lyrical delivery; Sam bangs on about getting drunk, ‘stupid’ and ‘lost tonight’ through ‘wheat fields’. He smuggles the line ‘some day we’re gonna know too much to know it all’, which seems profound but is claptrap!!

On That Ain’t Beautiful Sam addresses the sort of girl who is mistreated by a guy and cakes her face in makeup, telling her ‘you can do better’ than attending destination weddings in a bad mood. It’s filler. Let It Down is far better, with interesting chords, steel guitar parts and an addictive rhythm. The album is not a masterpiece and suffers from having half of its tracks already in the public domain. Crowds will go nuts for the tempo tracks, while Sam includes enough new versions of Take Your Time to strengthen his USP.

Whether he wants to keep performing, and to take the hits from fans of traditional music while being ‘too country’ for pop, is something to monitor during this album cycle, which has been disrupted by Coronavirus.


The UK Country Top 40 Chart – April 2020

April 6, 2020

Hear the radio version of this chart, with clips from several songs, here:

The playlist with all songs in full can be found here:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6HVF5xDxWo8vsXb2Yr2Y7n?si=pacmF3uVR_eascWt9kX2gA

Bubbling Under Chris Mossop – Sister Mary & Sister Josephine

40 Izzie Walsh – Clouded Mind

39 Shannon Hynes – Comfort

38 Kelsey Bovey – Define Me

37 Laura Evans – Heartstrings

36 Joe Martin – Letters Of Regret

35 Lucy Blu – Tequila Made Me Do It

34 Backwoods Creek – Coulda Been You

33 Kevin McGuire – T.N.I.Y. (The Night Is Young)

32 Stuart Landon – Beautiful Mess

31 Ags Connolly – Wrong Again (You Lose A Life)

30 Morganway – Let Me Go

29 Megan Louise – Train Song

28 Elles Bailey – Woman Like Me

27 Jess Thristan – Time Of Our Lives

26 Katy Hurt – Unfinished Business

25 Essex County – So Good

24 Danny McMahon – Lonely

23 The Luck – Lionheart

22 Megan O’Neill – Devil You Know

21 Jade Helliwell – Stay

20 Vic Allen – Enough

19 Katee Kross – Diamonds In The Dust

18 Gasoline & Matches – Tequila’s a Healer

17 Holloway Road – Even If

16 Gary Quinn – Tip Of My Tongue

15 The Blue Highways – He Worked

14 Laura Oakes – Welcome to the Family

13 Two Ways Home – Broken Hearts Club

12 The Adelaides – I’d Do It Again

11 The Wandering Hearts – Wish I Could

10 Ward Thomas – Painted Legacy

9 Catherine McGrath – Wild

8 Wildwood Kin – Time Has Come

7 Ferris & Sylvester – I Dare You

6 Robert Vincent – Conundrum

5 Yola – I Don’t Wanna Lie

4 Jake Morrell – Freewheelin

3 Kezia Gill – Whiskey Drinkin Woman

2 Twinnie – Type Of Girl

1 The Shires – Independence Day


Morganway’s debut self-titled LP

October 15, 2019

This piece appears in the Autumn 2019 edition of the Country Way of Life magazine. Ask for a copy here. The magazine includes album reviews, features on country festivals and a debate on the TV show Nashville.

In March 2018, a man named Gary Lafferty filmed the Country on the Clyde performance of Let Me Go by Morganway from the balcony of the venue. The song sounded a bit like Fleetwood Mac trying to be an indie band and was sung by SJ Mortimer, who is married to the band’s guitarist Kieran and sister-in-law to the main songwriter Callum, whose surname is Morgan. Nicole Terry, a maker and player of violins, was borrowed from SJ and the Flying Pigs, where Kieran also played guitar.

In the video Morganway’s third original member, Matt Brocklehurst, plays keyboards in his fingerless gloves while SJ sings effortlessly and in harmony with Callum. Kieran is allowed eight bars to play guitar over the top of, with a bottleneck slide which was quietly received by a crowd who probably didn’t know what they were seeing and were politely appreciating some great country-rock.

There is something about that performance, which has a total of 548 views as I write, that enraptured me 18 months ago. Possibly it was the cohesion of all the parts or the fact that they looked like a band with a vision. Other people had called them country; the band themselves preferred Norfolkana, a mix of UK rock and US country music.

1 Morganway.png

I had a long chat with Callum Morgan in person in 2017 and then by phone in 2018, and saw his band in various showcases in London across 2018, enjoying talking Watford FC with their former bassist Rory Hill. The Morgan twins know their heritage, talking effusively about Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac. I also spoke to SJ backstage after a London gig in 2019 and learned she was a big fan of Queen and classic rock, which may explain her tendency to break into a rocker’s wail.

At Buckle & Boots 2018 I picked up a copy of a live album called Driving to the City, which included many songs which would end up on Morganway’s debut full-length album. Released after much anticipation on August 2 2019, it followed two EPs which built on the folk-country-rock soup I had fallen in love with. The 11 tracks showcase every side of the band and the album can be divided into two halves: Side A with five tracks and Side B with six.

Side A begins with the moody My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You, an old favourite written by Callum Morgan with Yve Mary B, their former singer, which has had 106,000 listeners on Spotify in its original form. The ‘my love, my love’ chant runs through the song, whose opening line is fab: ‘I was alone when I left my home/ Staring ahead at the great unknown’. It’s a philosophical love song: ‘Do you believe in love when it’s unkind?’ and ‘Love’s not real till it tears you’ are the mark of a good lyricist. The protagonist consoles himself (‘I told myself play it cool…’) and sets up a lush final 40 seconds. Across the album, the production by George Nicholson (who is credited as a co-writer on many tracks) is brilliant, with Ed Bullinger’s drums governing the tempo and Kieran’s guitar meshing well with the new addition of Nicole’s fiddle.

Let Me Go is track two and sounds just as good as it did in Glasgow in March 2018. ‘I will love you so if you let me go’ is one hell of a lyric, and SJ goes on to sing about wanting to ‘learn to fly’. The guitar and fiddle get a showcase and it’s a proper band track, much like Hurricane, which is track seven on the album and second on Side B. The line ‘Hit me like an avalanche’ is sung solo by SJ in a spine-chilling moment where you believe that she wants to be hit pretty hard. Equally avalanche-sounding is Kieran’s squealing lead solo in the track’s final minute, which gives way to a coda sung solo by SJ over the fading instruments. Live, this track is astonishing; on record, no less so.

Hurricane is a reliable set closer and also benefits from being a tight 4:00 banger, cut down from the five- or six-minute version that they can play live, a version of which is available on Youtube. I remember catching them in Canary Wharf in a posh ballroom in early 2018 when they played You Can Only Die Once, a chugging rock track in the brooding key of F minor which comes in at track three of Side A and may be the surprise breakout smash. It’s such a melodic track, again produced immaculately, and Callum’s acoustic works well with Kieran’s electric guitar washes. The third verse is almost whispered then crescendos with a quicker vocal delivery and intensity. It’s a confident song that is sensibly placed after the equally terrific Let Me Go. You can’t only listen once…

Side B kicks off with live favourite London Life (‘Some are trapped, some are free, some spend their life wanting to believe/ They’re the man they wanna be’), then Hurricane and Frozen In Our Time, which was a teaser track for the album that showcases SJ’s vocals, among the best in the UK country scene. The final vocalisations are gorgeous and tie in with the abstract nature of the lyric.

I think I first heard In A Dream (Coming Home) – Side A, track four – in their set at Camden’s Monarch at the end of July 2019. It’s driven by a shuffle from Ed’s drums and has a folk-pop feel. The lyrics include the line: ‘So many people but you’re still alone/ The more you understand, the less you really know’. Callum is barely 30 years old and he’s already cracked the meaning of life, or he’s familiar with Greek philosophy.

Side B has a tough task in finding three tracks to follow Hurricane. On the heartland rocker New Way (track eight), Callum sings over a rotating four-chord jam about how his ‘defences are down’. Track nine is Daylight Rising: Matt’s piano sets the mood for the first few moments before SJ softly sings over a gentle groove about ‘the coldest winter’ and breaking tides. It’s another song co-written by Yve Mary B, whose folk stylings are still present in the band; she is now a solo artist but deserves mention for her lyrical contributions to tracks like Let Me Go, Frozen In Our Time and Hurricane.

Matt gets a writing credit on track ten (Side B, track five). I See People starts with a Springsteen-style chord progression, then Callum sings expertly over Nicole’s fiddle of ‘a girl from years ago/ Pain was all she’d ever known’. The chorus includes an unexpected ‘hey!’ which contrasts with the lyric in the third verse. ‘Love was the sweetest kind of suffering’ again shows emotional depth (perhaps Matt, the band’s Quiet One, contributed this line) and the song will be a staple of the band’s live set as they go into 2020 to promote the album around the country.

Morganway support CC Smugglers on several dates in the autumn, while their friendship with Kenny Foster may lead to a joint-tour somewhere along the way. If I speak it into existence, maybe it’ll happen; anyhow, the album was mastered by the same chap who mastered Kenny’s latest album and both acts will be at Millport Festival.

When I heard the band play I Want No Other Love, the closing track on the album, I felt it could double as a set opener. SJ and Nicole sing before the rest of the band come in chanting ‘tonight, night night night’ before the middle of the song sees them break into the line ‘there is no other love’. The fact that the last third of the song doesn’t explode in the way Fix You by Coldplay does is testament to the understated nature of the band, who may well become your favourite soon.

The album is sophisticated and varied, a product of its influences without being a copy of Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac or anyone else. Adding a fiddle to the mix has pushed the band on, while Ed’s drumming is flawless throughout, with no flourishes or fills beyond keeping the tempo (I hope this comes across as a compliment!). The Morgan twins are driven to succeed and, with SJ as vocalist, have a collection that both stands out and is outstanding.

Having joined the journey in 2017, I cannot wait to see what album two will be like. In the meantime I will keep rotating both sides of album one, a modern classic.

Morganway can be bought and streamed via listnin.co/morganway and through morganway.co.uk


Kaching…with Twang: Maren In the Middle

August 26, 2019

This piece was originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of the Country Way of Life magazine. The Autumn 2019 edition is out in September

Did you know that women in country music used to be referred to as ‘girl-singers’? It was like they were a novelty act, the odd ones on The X Factor, a turn for five minutes before the men sung about trucks and beer again.

One of my favourite Simpsons episodes, and maybe one of yours too, is Colonel Homer, written by Matt Groening, the showrunner and bringer of joy to billions. Spurned by Marge for being a twit, Homer hears a singing waitress onstage at the Beer ‘n’ Brawl (‘Hey you, let’s fight!’ ‘Them’s fightin’ words’) named Lurleen Lumpkin. She is voiced by Beverly D’Angelo, who was Patsy Cline in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter (more later) singing about how ‘your wife don’t understand you but I do’. Homer affirms every line of the song; you see the plates fall out of his eyes in a brilliant bit of animation that fully gets to the nub of country music. Three chords and truth.

Lurleen records her song onto a CD, which gets sent to the local radio station. When it is played, we see Moe crying, prisoners stop rioting and Krusty the Clown being nice to Sideshow Mel. Jealous of Homer’s relationship with Lurleen – on picking up the phone to her, Homer says: ‘I think I can come over! Let me ask my wife’ – Marge doesn’t realise that initially Homer is helping Lurleen for the love of her music.

‘No man has ever been this nice to me without, you know…wanting something in return’ is an awesome line from Lurleen. More follow in the song Finally Bagged Me a Homer, with Marge looking on as Lurleen records a song about her love for Homer. Then in a trailer she sings a ‘song’ that is a come-on to Homer (‘will you bunk with me tonight?’). The episode finishes with a parody of one of those old-time variety shows with various hillbilly acts, and in the dressing room Lurleen kisses Homer on the lips. Lurleen is head over heels for Homer, but Homer is loyal to Marge and they all live happy ever after.

I like the episode because it may be kids’ first exposure to country music, and it is sung by a ‘girl-singer’. From the third season of the show, it had its premiere in 1991, when Garth Brooks, George Strait and Alabama were the top live draws. That year’s big number hits included She’s In Love with the Boy by Trisha Yearwood and Liza Jane by Vince Gill.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the names rolled off the tongues of the TV announcers: Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn and her sister Crystal Gayle, Barbara Mandrell, Reba McEntire, Anne Murray (whose song You Needed Me was a hit for Boyzone in 1999), Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, The Judds (mother Naomi and daughter Wynonna), Janie Fricke, Roseanne Cash and, the greatest of them all, Dolly Parton.

By the 1990s the Canadian Eileen Edwards, as Shania Twain, raised the hem lines and showed a bit of leg. Her precision-engineered country music appealed to music consumers the world over. 20 years after Come On Over hit big – released in 1997 it took until 1999 to explode – Shania is still the commercial high point in women in country not named Dolly; I Will Always Love You trumps You’re Still The One.

Let’s look at a typical chart which saw Shania omnipresent with one of 11 singles from Come On Over. Love Gets Me Every Time hit the top of the Airplay chart in November 1997. In the same top 20 were Trisha Yearwood duetting with Garth Brooks, Deana Carter, Chely Wright (who came out as lesbian in 2010 and married her wife in 2011), Reba McEntire, Pam Tillis, The Kinleys, Wynonna and Martina McBride. Waiting in the wings are the likes of Mindy McCready, LeAnn Rimes, Lila McCann and Lari White, duetting with Travis Tritt.

Eight different women were awarded the CMA Award for Female Vocalist in the 1990s: Kathy Mattea, Tanya Tucker, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pam Tillis, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride. Shania Twain lost to Martina in 1999 but consoled herself by winning Entertainer of the Year.

This century, only four women have won that prize: three of them make up the Dixie Chicks, who became pariahs in 2003, were thrown out of country music and swept the board, middle fingers in the air, at the 2007 GRAMMY Awards. Only eight records released in 2006 sold more copies than Taking the Long Way, which featured the Song and Record of the Year, Not Ready to Make Nice.

By that time Taylor Swift, a young girl from Pennsylvania, had moved to Nashville and had put out her first single, named after Faith Hill’s husband Tim McGraw. By 2009 she was Entertainer of the Year, an award she regained in 2011, just as she was about to put out her album Red and mark her transition to the pop side of things. Her seventh album is due imminently.

In 2007 Taylor Swift had won the CMA Award for New Artist of the Year. Carrie Underwood won it in 2006, Kacey Musgraves in 2013 and Maren Morris in 2016; interestingly, Kacey’s Golden Hour won at the GRAMMYs and CMAs in 2018 but she was not Female Vocalist of the Year. Carrie Underwood was, winning it for a fifth time.

Miranda Lambert has won it seven times, following in the footsteps of Gretchen Wilson, who came out of nowhere with her redneck woman persona and disappeared just as quickly. No longer were women just there to dangle microphone cords and look pretty; they encouraged crowds to give a big ‘HELL YEAH!’ in what amounts to the same ladette culture that swept Britain in the 1990s.

Then came, among others, Cruise, Body Like a Back Road, Beautiful Crazy and Old Town Road, and one week in 2018 there was not one woman in the Country Airplay top 20.

Which brings us to Maren Morris. GIRL was released in March 2019. I listened to it for an entire afternoon on the day it came out and concluded that it was an album of two halves. The best tracks are feelgood pop songs like The Feels, Shade and Flavor, following the success of The Middle, a song which had been shopped around for a year and found its way to Maren. Hero, released in summer 2016, was a worldwide success; I was in London when she played My Church at the CMA Songwriters night over Country2Country weekend and fell in love with it. She followed it up with 80s Mercedes and Rich, two big songs from Hero, and had her radio number one with I Could Use a Love Song.

Maren married songwriter Ryan Hurd in 2017 and the two have a loyal following on social media. Ditto Kelsea Ballerini and her husband, songwriter Morgan Evans, who married the same year. After big hits from her teen-pop first album The First Time – Dibs, Love Me Like You Mean It and Peter Pan were all number ones on country radio – Kelsea returned with the sort of blah sonic template that doesn’t stand out and doesn’t offend. After Legends and I Hate Love Songs, her big hit Miss Me More clambered into the top three the week that only she and Maren were in the top 20.

When it topped the airplay chart, Runaway June had cracked the top 20 with the peppy Buy My Own Drinks, co-written with the prolific pair of Hillary Lindsay (Girl Crush) and Josh Kear (Need You Now). Carrie Underwood’s summer smash Southbound, performed at both the ACM and CMT Awards, is rising, while the phenomenal sound of Family Tree by Caylee Hammack is gaining traction. Miranda Lambert, recently married to a law enforcement officer, is off the charts but popped up at CMA Fest playing some new tunes from her next project.

Her last album was in 2016, the double-LP The Weight of These Wings, which begat radio hits Vice, We Should Be Friends and the modern standard Tin Man. Kacey Musgraves purposefully ignored radio, sending Butterflies and Space Cowboy to streaming services to preview Golden Hour, a remarkable album which is stamped, like Miranda’s album, with her personality. No other artist could have made either The Weight of these Wings or Golden Hour than Miranda and Kacey respectively. In their slipstream come the likes of Kassi Ashton, Ingrid Andress and Abby Anderson, confident performers with great songs building a career slowly, the old-fashioned way, just like the two Texans.

Interestingly, Kelsea Ballerini was rejected by everyone in town before finding a home with Black River, an independent label. Maren was a songwriter who had performed in her teenage years and the time was right to put out her debut album in 2016, which she toured worldwide in 2018 with Niall Horan from One Direction as a guest vocalist. As of June 2019, My Church has been streamed 74m million times on Spotify. The Middle has 700m. This makes Maren a big kinda deal.

As in pop, there seem to be two camps if you are a female performer: play the game or make your own rules. On Girl, Maren does both at the same time.

Those playing the game in today’s country music business include Carly Pearce, signed to Big Machine and rising on radio with Closer To You. Later in 2019 Carly, who got her start singing as Dolly Parton at Dollywood, will marry singer Michael Ray. Tenille Townes, whose song Somebody’s Daughter is climbing the Airplay chart, sang with Dierks Bentley at CMA Fest and looks set to have a phenomenal few years after patiently building a Canadian fanbase.

Lauren Alaina – who like Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert came through a TV talent show, in her case American Idol – took five years to follow up her debut album with a mature second record, Road Less Traveled. She will spend most of July in the UK on tour. Lauren’s new single, Ladies in the 90s, namechecks Britney Spears, Faith Hill, Alanis Morrissette, TLC and Dixie Chicks, an example of the genre of music which goes back to the past and just quotes old songs. Thus we hear ‘Cowboy take me away’ next to ‘hit me one more time’. It’s a smart song written with Amy Wadge, writer of the monster tune Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran and a couple of songs on TR’s album (see the essay earlier in the magazine).

Then there are those who resolutely stick to their guns, Music City be damned. The Pistol Annies are made up of Miranda Lambert and her good friends Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, both mothers of young children but hugely respected for their songwriting. Margo Price, who has just become a mother to a third child (one passed away a fortnight after being born), performed in concert while nine months pregnant, and her song This Town Gets Around (‘it’s not who you know, it’s who you blow’) is a succinct version of her view of town. Jack White signed her to his Third Man label and she has friends on the Americana and roots scene.

On her second album, as on her first, Maren has writing credits on every track. Carrie and Miranda also contribute to the writing and production of their work, and I hope those who do not know that now do. Co-writers on Girl include Greg Kurstin (who wrote Hello with Adele), the duo Julian Bunetta and John Ryan (who are TR’s regular ‘pop’ guys) and Busbee (who co-wrote My Church and 80s Mercedes). Jon Randall, who helped Miranda Lambert write Tin Man, joins Maren and Natalie Hemby, Miranda Lambert’s go-to co-writer, on RSVP. Ryan Hurd, aka Mr Maren Morris, contributes to All My Favorite People and Great Ones.

There are two main writers on Girl: Laura Veltz, who helped Maren write Rich, and Jimmy Robbins, who is one of the great writers of the era and appears in the documentary It All Begins with a Song. Four songs are credited to Morris/Robbins/Veltz: The Feels, which is infectious; The Bones, which is a smash hit in waiting and a live favourite; A Song For Everything, which is more or less I Could Use Another Love Song redux; and Flavor, on which Maren sings the much-quoted line: ‘Shut up and sing, well hell no I won’t!’ It’s a great pop song and will be in her live set for years to come.

Carrie, meanwhile, has duetted with pop acts like Ludacris, while Kelsea gave her vocals to a song by The Chainsmokers. Maren, on a song credited to Zedd, Maren Morris & Gray (a production duo), had one of the smashes of 2018 with The Middle, which is kept back to the encore of her live show. During the main body of the set, she interpolateds Halo by Beyonce into her song Second Wind. She finishes with the four-punch of The Bones, RSVP, Rich and My Church, then encores with another Hemby co-write, Shade.

Touring Girl in 2019 will take her to Radio City Music Hall in New York, Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, several festivals in Canada and Nebraska State Fair. There follow dates across the USA: Arizona, California, Pennsylvania, Las Vegas, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, Florida, Georgia, both Carolinas (North and South), Virginia and Minnesota. The tour will continue into 2020, with a likely stop at Country2Country’s various European legs.

At London’s Royal Albert Hall on the last day of May 2019, Maren was supported by the great RaeLynn who was a contestant on The Voice in 2012 aged 17. Her only album came out in 2017 and included the smash Love Triangle, though her follow-up songs including Tailgate have done well on streaming platforms (6.8m on Spotify as of June 17 2019). Raelynn joined Maren onstage for All My Favorite People, which nicks the melody of the verse of 9 to 5 by Dolly Parton and has Maren’s friends Brothers Osborne on it. ‘We love who we love’ is a reference to Maren’s support of the queer community.

In the 2000s, Shania Twain and Reba both played Las Vegas, as they are able to work a crowd, sing some great songs and employ some backing dancers and pyrotechnics. Carrie and Miranda have done the same, while Kacey wears glowing boots and sparkly dresses. Belles & Gals, a UK-based site which is determined to support the female voice in country music, thought her 2019 set was ‘mesmerising’.

Belles and Gals promotes several UK-based acts like Lucy Grubb and Hannah Paris, who are steeped in country and are following in the footsteps of the likes of Megan O’Neill, Laura Oakes and Liv Austen. All three of these hard-working ladies have toured the UK for more than five years, patiently building a fanbase and waiting for the right moment to burst through. The poppy-country likes of Jade Helliwell, The Adelaides and Twinnie all look set to follow The Shires and Ward Thomas into the sort of ‘Radio 2’ level of country act; Twinnie is opening for Lauren Alaina this July across the UK.

Louise Parker, who is a Belles & Gals artist, told the site that her opinions on women in country would be unprintable. ‘I think it’s quite beautiful to watch other artists as they grow and develop their sound,’ she says. ‘Sometimes this means evolving outside your genre. It’s human to want to be better, to become the best version of yourself. No one should put walls up; segregating artists and genres is just another form of discrimination.’

Indeed, in today’s marketplace, genre is more or less irrelevant. Maren sounds like Maren, a little bit pop and a little bit country – she’s from Texas and lives in Nashville now. Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves? Both from Texas, like the Dixie Chicks and George W Bush. Carrie Underwood is a beauty from Oklahoma while Kassi Ashton’s debut single was named California, Missouri after her home town.

These ladies may be from Lurleen Lumpkin kinda towns but they don’t need a Homer Simpson to push them into consciousness. Why can’t women just meet pop and country in the middle?

Maren Morris’ GIRL is out now. The new single is The Bones.


The Under the Apple Tree Live Show

August 26, 2019

This piece was originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of the Country Way of Life Magazine. The Autumn 2019 edition is out in September

News of Bob Harris’ recent heart problem, which has forced him off air until he’s better, passes the baton to his son Miles, an absolute spit of his dad.

Together with Bob’s wife Trudie, the MD of Whispering Bob Productions as well as director of the UK branch of the Americana Music Association, the 27-year-old Son of Bob is a broadcaster of quality. It’s in the genes.

Along with brother Dylan, who is in A&R and artist management, Miles is in the family business of supporting the best artists and giving them a platform to express themselves. In recent years that has been with the Under The Apple Tree project, using his dad’s home studio to film sessions with bands and artists, many of whom are friends of the family.

The famous studio ‘Under the Apple Tree’

In 2019, after several years putting on stages at Silverstone during Formula 1 week and at Country2Country, Miles and Bob teamed up for a national tour. This was a fine idea executed brilliantly. At each stopping point, a local act opened the show before Ferris & Sylvester brought their fine musical stylings.

Wildwood Kin, with awesome harmonies and emotionally charged songs, headlined the night, playing teasers from their second album and offering covers of the likes of Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground.

I went to the tour’s closing night in Norwich, where Morganway opened. I’ll talk more about the sextet in the next magazine but they were as terrific as ever and a perfect opener. Also popping up around the country were Loud Mountains (Oxford), Eleanor Nelly (Liverpool), Demi Marriner (Birmingham), Foreign Affairs (Bristol), Worry Dolls and The Blue Highways (London), Roseanne Reid (Glasgow), Callum Pitt (Newcastle), Keto (Nottingham) and Robbie Cavanagh (Manchester).

Ten gigs in the space of 17 days is a big undertaking but there were no signs of exhaustion when I chatted to Archie Sylvester after the final gig of the tour. The duo’s plans include festivals – Isle of Wight and Glastonbury – and work on a new album.

They told Maverick Magazine that a full-length release will follow their Made In Streatham EP: ‘We listen to albums. We have a record player at home. We really value the album setup and we feel like our music is going to fit into that.’

Ferris and Sylvester are one of Britain’s best acts, I think. Their set was astonishing in its range and depth. The singles London’s Blues and Flying Visit were terrific, but it was their stagecraft that impressed me and their connection with the audience.

There is a reason why we are in an era when acts who break through the fourth wall are doing well: Ed Sheeran can play stadiums with songs that can be sung on Grafton Street in Dublin; Lewis Capaldi is essentially a Scottish balladeer who is quite good at interacting with people via social media; Adele and Coldplay both bring intimacy to the masses. So do Ferris and Sylvester, and big things await.

Under The Apple Tree’s MO is to bring music to people’s ears, ‘amazing artists who deserve to be heard by everyone’. Bob Harris had a national and international platform to do so, and he helped break Marc Cohn in the UK by championing Walking On Memphis. He has been a cheerleader for acts as varied as Mary Gauthier, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Ashley McBryde, Kacey Musgraves, Sam Outlaw, Walter Trout and Catherine McGrath. The Wandering Hearts had a session on Bob’s Radio 2 country show before they even put out an album.

Music is so easy to find nowadays that you could drown in it. Champions like Bob and Miles offer a filter: if they like it, you might too. It’s easy for a major label to sign a Lewis Capaldi or a Kacey Musgraves, but it pays to let them grow into the artists they want to be. Foreign Affairs, who are managed by Dylan, are Bristolian brothers who make great acoustic roots music; they will join Curse of Lono and Robert Vincent for a gig put on by Under The Apple Tree at Bush Hall in London on October 25 as part of Country Music Week. Previously they have put on afternoons showcasing acts they love. In 2017 they brought a bill including Robert Vincent, Catherine McGrath, Wildwood Kin and Seth Ennis.

In 2016 I had delighted in attending the Under The Apple Tree stage at Country2Country, where I looked on in awe at the likes of Balsamo Deighton, Laura Oakes and Kimmie Rhodes. All three of those acts are among the hundreds who have recorded sessions for Under The Apple Tree. Their Youtube channel Whispering Bob TV houses most of those sessions and I recommend you set aside some time to plunge in. You may find your next favourite act.

Bob Harris has an award named after him at the UK Americana Music Association awards for emerging artists. In 2019 Curse of Lono won it, following The Wandering Hearts (2018) and Wildwood Kin (2017). Curse of Lono have popped into the studios a couple of times. There is a video of their song Pick Up the Pieces on Youtube, part of the 360th session for the channel. Opening with an acoustic guitar, the song is full of lush harmonies and great instrumentation, including a box organ. It is rootsy, authentic, organic and everything great music ought to be. The band are at The 100 Club the week before they play Bush Hall; they term their music ‘Cinematic Southern Gothic Rock’, which is correct.

As of June 15 2019 there have been 419 sessions for Under The Apple Tree. Morganway have been on twice, with their second visit due to be uploaded soon. In fact, when I reviewed the band’s 2017 EP, I mentioned that Bob Harris would love a band like this; they were on their way to play Hurricane and their version of Dancing In The Dark. You can find their Bruce cover on the Unique Covers playlist on the Youtube channel which also features Laura Oakes’ take on Rocket Man, Ellen & The Escapades doing Dreams by Fleetwood Mac, Sam Outlaw doing White Christmas and Foreign Affairs doing a good job with Tennessee Whiskey. The Adelaides, meanwhile, mash up Jolene and Daddy Lessons, combining Dolly and Beyoncé.

Under The Apple Tree have found the perfect mix of the old and new, traditional and contemporary and serious with fun. The live show was fantastic and managed, when I went, to pack out a mid-sized venue in Norwich on a weeknight. I can’t wait for the next one, or indeed the London show in October.

UnderTheAppleTree.com is the place to find more information, while the Youtube channel is WhisperingBobTV. The Country Show is on Radio 2 on Thursdays at 9pm.

Ferris & Sylvester tour the UK this autumn, as do Wildwood Kin whose self-titled second LP is out on October 4.


Aaron Watson – Red Bandana

August 26, 2019

This piece first appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of the Country Way of Life magazine. The Autumn 2019 edition is out in September.

In 2015 Aaron Watson topped the Country Album chart with The Underdog, the first time an independent country musician had done so.

Dan Wharton has interviewed him many times for Your Life in a Song. The most recent interview was on his tour bus at CMA Fest 2019 in Nashville. Dan describes his friend Aaron as an ‘authentic Texas country artist who has forged his way independently staying true to himself and his roots throughout’.

Amen amigo! Red Bandana, Aaron’s 14th release in a career which has spanned two decades, came out on June 21 2019 in an environment where Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris have had the biggest albums of the year. A fun song about taking one’s horses to the old town road had spent 11 weeks as America’s biggest song in any genre.

In 2015, when The Underdog was riding high, Aaron spoke to Rolling Stone Country, who profiled a man who topped the chart with an album that wasn’t made ‘in the system’ of Music Row. ‘What we’re doing right now is pretty much a David versus Goliath kind of situation,’ Aaron explained, ‘because I’ve never been embraced by the music industry.

‘There’s only so many times you can be told you’ll never make it. At some point, you have to say, Hey, we’re gonna need to take a different route to get where we’re wanting to go. And that’s what we did. If someone shuts a door in your face, you don’t let that stop you; you pick the lock, take it off its hinges or find another door that’s open.’

When he started in the early 2000s, Aaron found a friend in David Macias, one of the most important guys in Nashville and co-founder of the label Thirty Tigers. After his gigs he would sleep on David’s floor. The Rolling Stone piece compared him to fellow Tiger Jason Isbell, whose career includes Grammy Awards and songs on Hollywood film soundtracks. ‘Heavy touring, a strong social media presence and a grassroots fanbase to sell albums’ are pivotal for an indie at without the mechanisms of a Big Machine or Warner Music behind them to do the dirty work.

On the different flavours of country music, which in 2015 was all Sam Hunt and Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line, Aaron gave an analogy: ‘Wouldn’t it be a shame if you went to the store and the only kind of jelly on the shelf was grape? Sometimes you want apricot. Sometimes you want strawberry. You need different flavours.’

On staying true to his roots, Aaron told Dan in 2018: ‘It’s what makes me me. Music should be a window into your heart and soul.’ It is important for Aaron to sing songs he believes in, especially in front of a crowd. I wonder if Aaron will perform Red Bandana in its entirety, as if a cinematic experience.

Dan spoke to Aaron, a father of three children, in June 2019. The pair were in Aaron’s van the day after he joined Crystal Gayle and Charley Pride at the Grand Ol Opry, telling a great anecdote about Steven Tyler of Aerosmith being backstage at a previous performance. I recommend you watch his Opry performance, days before the release of Red Bandana, of Country Radio. Done it? Good.

Before I dissect the album properly I must emphasise two tracks that are among the best by anyone released so far in 2019. Country Radio appears on the first disc – oh, the album has 20 tracks and is 70 minutes long, so strap in! The seventh track, Country Radio is a marvellous piece of music. Aaron recalls how his mum and dad used to dance around the living room with the Grand Ol Opry on the radio. Now Aaron has songs of the radio himself, not least Kiss That Girl Goodbye, a hit on Texan radio and even on country radio more generally. ‘Tempo! Tempo! Tempo!’ was how the song was sold in Billboard’s Country Update weekly magazine. As of June 2019, the song was at 27 in the Country Indicator chart for smaller stations and falling from a peak of number two in the Texan Radio chart.

Dan’s website Your Life in a Song is a big supporter of country music. Aaron was plugging The Underdog in the UK in January 2016 and a very green Dan Wharton filmed an interview, which is available on Youtube. Speaking of European fans Aaron admires ‘the people’ and their ‘appreciation for country music’; crowds are ‘less rowdy’ than in the States.

In a 2018 interview Aaron told a more experienced Dan of his love of the UK: ‘Maybe it’s because my last name is Watson! It’s such an honour to have people enjoy my music from so far away. The UK is as important as a touring destination as the East Coast of the USA. These people are passionate about country music. Fans in the UK are maybe better music critics: they dig a little deeper, it’s not about the party song. They’re listening to melodies and lyrics and a lot of times they’re more into who wrote the song, not the “star” that’s singing it.’ And yes, he did air-quotes around star.

Dan asks Aaron about being a chart-topping independent artist in the country charts. ‘I thank God for blessing me with such loyal fans. Getting to do what I love for a living…We had success and we continued to work hard and keep doing what we do. I’m gonna keep giving it my best.

‘I don’t really have a bucket list. I just take every day and try to make the most of it. Every day is such a blessing. If you have these things, you’re gonna miss a lot of wonderful things along the way. I never thought I’d get to sing with Willie, play the Grand Ol Opry…’

In 2017 I wrote weekly Country Radio Updates for Your Life in a Song. At the time it was the era of Body Like a Back Road, the biggest country song in decades. Coming up was another big song, Outta Style, the lead single from Vaquero. ‘Rather than chase after hits, we’re chasing after heart,’ Aaron told Dan in 2018. ‘Vaquero was a bigger success [than The Underdog], but it came it at number 2. It was the number 1 seller.’

Outta Style, however, is Aaron’s biggest smash. The song was the little engine that could, rising and never stalling. In my early updates I was amazed at how it got into the thirties, which is awesome for any act without major-label support; some labels give promotions departments six-figure sums to call radio stations and get them to rotate their latest hit. It’s a game and Aaron was playing it too.

The remarkable thing was that it kept climbing. Here’s what I wrote in April 2017 when Outta Style had moved from 40 to 33: ‘It’s one of the songs of the year, putting you in a good mood, referencing Eric Church in the first line (“if every memory is like a melody…”) and putting the case for indie country, a relatively new genre. As you’ll know from this site, Aaron is both a great guy and a great ambassador for country music.’

The next week I made a foolish promise: ‘I will keep featuring this song here until it leaves the 40; sitting at 32 is Brett Eldredge, while Drake White is at 34. Both acts are just as talented but have millions of dollars behind them; Aaron is doing it for the little guy, and he’ll never go outta style!’

By May he had edged up to number 30 but then dropped to 36. In June he played CMA Fest and clambered back up the thirties. In his 26th week on the charts Outta Style had equalled its peak position of number 29. Something was definitely going on and as summer became fall he was climbing, hitting number 26. I compared Outta Style to one of Bruce Springsteen’s best, with a ‘nagging riff’. The song went on to peak at 10 on radio…the week before Christmas 2017, a whole year after entering the 40.

Over summer 2018 Dan caught up with Aaron twice: once in Colorado, again on his tour bus, to get a situation report before he visited the UK in September to play second in the bill to Carrie Underwood. With Carrie suffering from the effects of pregnancy Aaron ended up headlining the night: ‘I never consider myself the headliner,’ Aaron told Dan backstage at The Long Road in the second interview: ‘Just the last guy that gets to play. My job is to give the fans their money’s worth.

2018 saw Aaron release two albums: a Christmas album with vocals from him and his family, and a live album which included Run Wild Horses and Outta Style, the two singles from Vaquero. The former song is another song about Aaron’s wife with a cinematic mood; it was the album’s centrepiece.

‘We’ve worked hard,’ Aaron told Dan about the top 10 placing of Outta Style. ‘We have a solid business model and honestly I let radio know: better get used to me cos we’re not gonna go away! I don’t wanna sign a record deal. I take pride in being an independent artist, and it’s important to my fans that I stay independent.

‘Other artists can see me achieve these things and know it is very possible for them. Maybe we can knock down some walls that have been keeping a lot of independent artists back over the years.

‘The joy of being independent is that Aaron gets to ‘choose my path, the songs I wanna sing. I’m writing every song on my next record. I’m not the best singer, the best performer but my strength is my songwriting. I want to grow as a writer.’

On his fans, Aaron says that they are ‘so excited. Seeing their excitement gets me excited!’ One audience member in the UK had connected with Aaron’s music and consoled her in her life: ‘That’s the power of music. Just that lady made the whole trip worthwhile.’

Speaking nine months before the release of Red Bandana, Aaron said he had 20 songs he was ‘confident in. There’s some rockabilly, lots of folk-sounding songs.’ Referencing the Beatles album with the white cover, nicknamed The White Album but properly called The Beatles; ‘The freedom as artists, there’s a lot to learn from that. You don’t want to give people ten songs. You want to give them a journey, to go back to year after year after year to become something more meaningful every time they hear it.’

Elaborating on the Beatle theme, he told Dan in the van that Paul McCartney was just as capable of writing Blackbird as he was Drive My Car (‘Beep beep, beep beep, YEAH!’). ‘I take a sharp turn and throw you,’ Aaron promised a week before the release of Red Bandana as Dan caught up with him in Nashville. ‘I needed to give those fans something and they needed to know that every word was straight out of my heart.

‘I put a lot of work into the flow of this record. Three or four moments connect, so the music never stops. The whole album’s continuous. In a world where everyone is putting out these three-song EPs…’ At this Aaron sighs. ‘I can’t stand EPs! A true music lover wants an album they can live with: it’s like books – do you want a whole book or just a couple of chapters?’

‘I’m catching my stride as a songwriter,’ he adds. ‘I don’t want to be Luke Bryan or Sam Hunt – those guys are great – but I want to be a songwriter.’ Judge for yourself with Red Bandana.

Grady Smith, who is a sort of independent broadcaster with a Youtube channel and a podcast, tweeted to his 11,600 followers that Aaron ‘WENT FOR IT. This album is kinda crazy but I love it. It has a heart.’

Aaron is guilty on both counts: crazy because of how ambitious it is, heartfelt because of the passion and tenderness in the ballads. Reviewing it on his popular Youtube channel, Grady enjoyed the ‘earnestness, passion [and the] honest display of emotion’ on Red Bandana, contrasting it with the punk and bombast of fellow Texan act Koe Wetzel. Grady loves the opening song Ghost of Guy Clark where Aaron is ‘planting his flag’ and outlining his credo.

Like me, Grady (a man of taste) loves Country Radio and the ‘slow and gorgeous’ To Be The Moon. The song Legends, which starts by naming Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the pastor Billy Graham, is an academic lecture in country music with a shuffle.

The first disc is very strong indeed: Dark Horse has a Aaron chanting how he has ‘a chip on my shoulder but it doesn’t weigh me down’; Old Friend will be a live favourite, a song about love and life with a chugging four-chord rhythm that both sounds like and namechecks Tom Petty; Am I Amarillo is a modern standard, a kitchen-sink drama and break-up song. The songwriting, as it is throughout the album, is beautiful.

On Disc 2 we hear the suite Riding With Red/ Red Bandana, which explains why Aaron wears that item in concert. Over accordions and guitars and with a tremendous orchestral outro, Aaron lingers on the words ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. Trying Like The Devil, like Kiss That Girl Goodbye, is fun and fluffy, except here we’ve got some banjo. Country radio seems robotic in comparison with such an organic album, rich in the sort of Nashville Sound that used to come out of country radio back in the day.

I would have trimmed some of the ‘fourth side’ and finished with the excellent Home Sweet Home, which is Track 15, on which Aaron calls himself ‘a tired troubadour, a hopeless romantic, a vagabond that don’t belong’. His scene painting rivals Bruce Springsteen or Guy Clark, which is handy when Guy’s ghost popped up on Track 1.

Also on ‘side four’ are a pair of love songs: You On My Hands and To Be The Moon. The latter is just outstanding, a Hollywood-tinged love song that rivals When You Wish Upon a Star or City of Stars.

Meanwhile Kyle Coroneos aka Trigger, the man who is ‘Saving Country Music’ at the website of the same name, ran the rule over Red Bandana. Unlike Trigger’s favourite acts – Cody Johnson, Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson – Aaron stayed away from major-label overtures, even though he has ‘commercial appeal’, to quote Aaron’s satirical song Fence Post. Trigger loves ‘how involved and lush’ the orchestration is: ‘This isn’t just a country record; it’s a Western record, a cowboy record.’

The week after Tom Petty died, Aaron wrote Old Friend, a song with his influence and ‘being kind to others. It’s a fun song,’ he told Dan. ‘I love playing that one live. My oldest boy Jake listens to it nonstop.’ Jake has his dad’s talent for guitars and drums: ‘He just wants to play.’ Aaron’s middle child loves Heartstrings. ‘She asked me to teach her how to write a song. I showed her how to put chords to it. I wrote that song for her, so she loves it!’ There is ‘no greater compliment’ than having daddy’s music coming from the kids’ rooms.

Awarding the album 1¾ guns up (8/5 out of 10), Trigger says the album is ‘ambitious in its goals, inspiring in its scope and nearly flawless in its execution.’ Its composer is ‘one of a kind’.

Aaron told a revealing anecdote to Rolling Stone in 2015: ‘I let Luke Bryan open up for me in 2009, and the whole deal was that I was supposed to go out to the southeast and open up some shows for him. Six years later, I’m still waiting for that phone call.’ Whatever happened to Luke Bryan?

As a coda to Red Bandana, at Track 20 Aaron adds 58, a song lasting that number of seconds which was written at the request of bereaved fans who lost friends and loved ones at the Route 58 disaster.

58 lost their lives, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives/ 58 every daughter and son left a long trail of tears along 91/ 58 got wings way too soon waltzing across the stars and the moon/ 58 angels singing along forever missed. This is your song.

Red Bandana is out now on BIG Label Records.


The Country Way of Life Magazine – Editor’s Welcome

June 28, 2019

Well howdy! Welcome to this summer 2019 edition of A Country Way of Life, the paper version.

My name is Jonny Brick and I am on a mission to convert more people to the temple of country music. Whatever your denomination, it is a holy congregation, so hop on board.

In early 2015, I found myself in a tat shop in Greenwich which for some reason was playing country music by men like Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban. Because I could not distinguish between a Kenny and a Keith, I decided when I got back home to educate myself about American country music. I had no idea that commercial country was beginning to appeal in a big way to the urban areas of America like Los Angeles and New York, thanks to slick performers like Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge and Kelsea Ballerini. The more I listened to contemporary country music, the more I found myself wanting to learn about the genre as a whole.

In March 2016 I attended my first country music festival at the O2 Arena. Country2Country has grown and grown since it began in 2013, in tandem with the growth of country music as an exportable product. Yes, I call it a product: it’s ‘ka-ching’ with twang. The goal of commercial country music is to make money by being a true story with a good melodic and lyrical hook.

I hope to tempt listeners of pop music to country, as well as discussing what isn’t so great about the developments of the genre. I come at it from a musical and sociological viewpoint, conscious of the genre’s rich history which Ken Burns is exploring in an HBO series in 2019 called Country Music. As a musician and songwriter I appreciate the artform of country music. I hope to speak with writers, broadcasters and performers to help a general fan understand the business of country, one which Marty Stuart has described as a man ‘with a briefcase in one hand and a guitar case in the other’.

I am based in the United Kingdom, which has always been a marketplace for country stars since the initial expansion of the genre began. Going into 2020, many acts based in Nashville are making regular stops to the UK and, arguably, are happier playing to our crowds than those back home. Broadcasters like Baylen Leonard, Bob Harris, Shiona McCallum and Chris ‘Country’ Stevens are all flying the flag for country music over here with their passion and depth of knowledge.

I hope to add to the conversation about country music from a neutral stance, unafraid to offer criticism and tempering any praise with caveats. My own favourite acts range from Chris Stapleton and Eric Church to Abby Anderson and Maren Morris. I appreciate the poppier acts like Dan + Shay while saluting the more traditional voices like Mo Pitney and Josh Turner. I have a passion for country music made by UK acts, which is why I produce a weekly UK Country Top 40 Chart Countdown to shine a light on independent musicians who deserve to be heard. I also attend songwriters rounds, EP launches and festivals such as Buckle & Boots and The Long Road, which are places for country fans to congregate, drink, socialise and discover new music.

Online fans can swap recommendations, post videos of them singing or dancing, and transcribe their chats with new country acts looking to promote themselves amid the hundreds of other acts. Country music consumption is about discovery, reminding me of Steve Lamacq’s tagline to his BBC 6Music show: ‘On a quest to find your new favourite band.’

A Country Way of Life is active on Twitter @CountryWOL and Instagram @CountryWayOLife. The Facebook group is A Country Way of Life. I hope not to preach but to beckon, not to order but to stimulate, not to lay down the law but to examine existing laws. It is an exciting time to be a country music fan outside of the heartland and key market of the US, and I hope you can saddle up on your horse and ride with me into the sunset.


The Country Way of Life Magazine – Summer 2019

June 24, 2019

A 48-page digital magazine full of all things country.

The Summer 2019 edition features:

  • Buckle and Boots 2019
  • On the Majors: Yola and Twinnie represent UK country on the big labels
  • This Bar Believes…: A debate on legacy artists and their place in country music
  • Kaching with Twang: Thomas Rhett, Maren Morris and Songwriters
  • Aaron Watson: Red Bandana
  • Two Ways Home: Breaking the Silence
  • Country Way of Life Playlist: entries from Liv Austen and Megan O’Neill
  • Rounding up EPs from Danny McMahon. Kezia Gill, Katy Hurt and Jake Morrell
  • Under the Apple Tree Live Tour

To get the magazine, follow A Country Way of Life on Facebook or Twitter @countrywol.


Editor’s Letter

March 28, 2019

Well howdy!

Welcome to CountryWOL.com, the online home of A Country Way of Life.

My name is Jonny Brick and I am on a mission to convert more people to the temple of country music. Whatever your denomination, it is a holy congregation, so hop on board.

In early 2015, I found myself in a tat shop in Greenwich which for some reason was playing country music by men like Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban. Because I could not distinguish between a Kenny and a Keith, I decided when I got back home to educate myself about American country music.

I had no idea that commercial country was beginning to appeal in a big way to the urban areas of America like Los Angeles and New York, thanks to slick performers like Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge and Kelsea Ballerini. The more I listened to contemporary country music, the more I found myself wanting to learn about the genre as a whole.

In March 2016 I attended my first country music festival at the O2 Arena. Country2Country has grown and grown since it began in 2013, in tandem with the growth of country music as an exportable product. Yes, I call it a product: it’s ‘ka-ching’ with twang. The goal of commercial country music is to make money by being a true story with a good melodic and lyrical hook.

I hope to tempt listeners of pop music to country, as well as discussing what isn’t so great about the developments of the genre. I come at it from a musical and sociological viewpoint, conscious of the genre’s rich history which Ken Burns is exploring in an HBO series in 2019 called Country Music. As a musician and songwriter I appreciate the artform of country music. I hope to speak with writers, broadcasters and performers to help a general fan understand the business of country, one which Marty Stuart has described as a man ‘with a briefcase in one hand and a guitar case in the other’.

I am based in the United Kingdom, which has always been a marketplace for country stars since the initial expansion of the genre began. Going into 2020, many acts based in Nashville are making regular stops to the UK and, arguably, are happier playing to our crowds than those back home. Broadcasters like Baylen Leonard, Bob Harris, Shiona McCallum and Chris ‘Country’ Stevens are all flying the flag for country music over here with their passion and depth of knowledge.

I hope to add to the conversation about country music from a neutral stance, unafraid to offer criticism and tempering any praise with caveats. My own favourite acts range from Chris Stapleton and Eric Church to Abby Anderson and Maren Morris. I appreciate the poppier acts like Dan + Shay while saluting the more traditional voices like Mo Pitney and Josh Turner.

I have a passion for country music made by UK acts, which is why I produce a weekly UK Country Top 40 Chart Countdown to shine a light on independent musicians who deserve to be heard. I also attend songwriters rounds, EP launches and festivals such as Buckle & Boots and The Long Road, which are places for country fans to congregate, drink, socialise and discover new music.

Online fans can swap recommendations, post videos of them singing or dancing, and transcribe their chats with new country acts looking to promote themselves amid the hundreds of other acts. Country music consumption is about discovery, reminding me of Steve Lamacq’s tagline to his BBC 6Music show: ‘On a quest to find your new favourite band.’

A Country Way of Life is active on Twitter @CountryWOL and Facebook.com/Acountrywayoflife. I hope not to preach but to beckon, not to order but to stimulate, not to lay down the law but to examine existing laws. It is an exciting time to be a country music fan outside of the heartland and key market of the US, and I hope you can saddle up on your horse and ride with me into the sunset.

Jonny Brick,

Editor, CountryWOL.com