Country Music Week Digital 2020 – Part One

As always in October, it’s Country Music Week in the UK, a showcase for plenty of US acts where they usually grip and grin and talk to the radio people. In 2020, it has gone digital!

On Thursday came the events with the widest reach, thanks to BBC Radio 2. Lady A and Morgan Wallen performed at opposite ends of the day and you can catch the sets via BBC Sounds and watch it on Youtube via the BBC Music channel. Ken Bruce told us they filmed ‘under the correct restrictions’ by sitting next to one another, and Lady A were a mid-morning treat at 11am on a station which has supported them since Need You Now crash-landed into the world a decade ago. Their acoustic version would have made many people in the 55+ demographic (ie Radio 2’s daytime audience) happy.

They also played one of my songs of the year, Champagne Night. They told the story of their Songland appearance and namechecking Madeline Merlo, whose song I’ll Drink To That was the foundation for a song about being broke but still getting ‘rhinestoned’. ‘The fans want new content’ and, despite it not being on their album they were promoting in 2020, it became a summer smash on country radio, where it’s at 15 and climbing.

Dave, who with his wife recorded the fun parody song Another Day In Quarantine, revealed that he has a home studio where he can work on the next Lady A record, which reminds him of the days before Need You Now. Hilary and Charles appreciate the UK fans, who love the album cuts as well as the singles. Now on Big Machine alongside Tim McGraw, Lady A will be the cash cows of the label.

Morgan Wallen has spent 2020 becoming a dad and having his dreams of performing on Saturday Night Live destroyed by his own petard (he was pictured without a mask at a social event). He is nonetheless readying his second album which features the woozy new single 7 Summers, which is finding its way to pop fans via canny playlist placements.

Initially, said Morgan, he had posted a demo of 7 Summers on Instagram then the song made the rounds on TikTok. Morgan will always be a country kid, especially with his mullet-and-drawl combo, and Bob Harris has been playing Chasing You and 7 Summers in recent months. Those songs and More Than My Hometown sounded super performed without studio trickery. He really does have a great voice and it looks like he’ll play the game on his terms – he famously walked out of The Voice after he saw through the format as a TV show. However, he could do with wearing a mask when he’s promoting a single that has got to number 6 on the Hot 100.

The final event of the week involved Bob himself. It was a Zoom event on Sunday with Destination Country to officially launch Stand By Me, the single with proceeds to charity which features a cast of important musicians. You can stream the song or, better still, buy it. After a great deal of illness in the past decade, including cancer treatment and heart trouble which forced him off air in 2019 – Bob sounds fitter than ever. That’s him on the triangle!

Aside from Radio 2, the three indigenous radio stations – Smooth Country, Country Hits Radio and Chris Country – have all welcomed the US acts, with Chris Young, Matt Stell and Dustin Lynch among those popping up for interviews.

On Monday, early afternoon Nashville time, the fabled Song Suffragettes team put on a show with plenty of panache and style. Lainey Wilson, Tenille Townes and Caylee Hammack played their well-known tunes, including Somebody’s Daughter (Tenille) and Family Tree (Caylee). Kalie Shorr MCed in a Nirvana t-shirt. She’s super cool and was in control of her material and the small crowd. I like her song Pity Party in particular.

Throughout the gig, Kalie threw over to the UK, where Twinnie sang her excellent Lie To Me, while Vic Allen and Emma & Jolie sang songs that matched the high standards of these major-label US acts. We also heard young Mia Morris try out her loop pedal, to varying degrees of success, but the magic of writers’ rounds is that nobody quite knows what’ll happen. The closing number was a phenomenal group cover of Wide Open Spaces so everyone left with a song in their hearts. A 90-minute argument for the Girl Singer.

Every Monday Niko Moon pops up on Facebook to hang out with his fans. This week he made an effort to connect with his UK and European fans, posting a 30-minute show on his Facebook page as his contribution to the Week. ‘Peter’s coming in from Belgium. I LOVE IT!’ he purred at one point. Niko and his wife got married in Pitlochry in Scotland, so there is an affinity with over here. He recently made his debut at the Opry, where he played Homegrown, a hit for his friends Zac Brown Band, and his single Good Time, which I have loved from the first time I heard it even though I can do without the digital drum pattern.

Niko played both of those songs here, as well as the funky Paradise To Me, which points to Niko’s USP: singing about the glory of small town life in a soulful manner. Way Back is impossible to keep quiet to, with its staccato riff and reminiscin’ lyric. Good At Loving You turns Niko’s lack of academic qualifications and inability to save money or learn Spanish into a positive. I hope his soulful voice gets an airing on his forthcoming album – there’s an EP which came out this year – and that he made some new fans in the UK with his special hangout this week.

On Tuesday Matt Stell performed his new EP Better Than That in full with a live band. There is a strong musicality to all eight songs, as my review made clear, and I especially love the mood of Everywhere But On and the stuttering Sadie. The major-label investment in him is justified and UK fans will love him much like they loved Brett Young and Thomas Rhett.

On a bluegrassier plain, Billy Strings picked four songs on a steel-string guitar on a Youtube show. Sitting on a high stool, Billy showcased his tremendous ability as a rootsy singer live from Nashville’s Station Inn. He reminds me of Charlie Worsham with his charming voice and pickin’ abilities and I would love to hear Billy and Charlie duel with guitars or banjos. His latest album, from which he played a couple of tunes, is called Home, released on the great Rounder Records. It came out in 2019 but is still flying in the Bluegrass Album chart, where it was knocked off the top by Nickel Creek the other week.

Billy also popped up on Baylen Leonard’s The Front Porch show at 1pm on Sunday on Country Hits Radio, which you can listen to on demand. It turns out Billy initially set bluegrass aside for Jimi Hendrix. ‘That screaming and stuff…This is terrible!!’ he recalled of his time as a heavy metal guitar player. Billy also namedropped Luke Combs, with whom he wrote two songs (Luke boasted of writing ten songs in 11 days before the two met!), and we heard Billy pick out a ditty before Baylen played the studio recording of Away From The Mire, the best representation of Billy’s cosmic Americana sound.

While we’re dealing in bluegrass-loving artists, Ashley Campbell was the next to be interviewed. I reckon she would be a tremendous radio host herself – she’s a great MC of her own gigs, as she proved in a UK set a few years ago in East London – and her album Something Lovely is just that. After a too brief chat, Baylen played If I Wasn’t, a duet which imagines what happens if Vince Gill adds guitar and harmonies to a Beautiful South lament.

As part of the salute to black country acts, having spoken to Jimmie Allen and Mickey Guyton already in Black History Month, Baylen spoke to Darius Rucker. ‘It was three guys that were Program Directors’ who told Darius that he couldn’t make it as a black artist in country music because the audience wouldn’t be accepting. They were all proved wrong. ‘Being a real player is my protest. Success is the best protest.’ Good black musicians won’t make it; ‘You have to be great.’

The busy afternoon also included artist takeovers from Runaway June (in advance of their new Christmas EP) and Cam, who is plugging her new album The Otherside. We heard Jolene and Diane side by side, and she mentioned the ‘humanity’ of the unnamed woman whom Cam calls Diane asking ‘please’ not to take her man.

The 8pm weeknight slot was also given over to US acts playing DJ. Old Dominion picked some music, including Alan Jackson, Scotty McCreery and their own hit One Man Band, on Tuesday evening. Scotty himself was DJ on Wednesday night, with Caylee Hammack following on Thursday and Jameson Rodgers on Friday. The shows took the form of three or four pre-recorded inserts but were otherwise a normal hour, but it’s still good to hear American voices (other than the mighty Baylen Leonard and the afternoon zoo show) on the network.

Originally scheduled for 7pm on Friday but going live after 10pm, Jameson Rodgers gave us a Facebook show of sorts. A touring buddy of Luke Combs, Jameson included mighty Luke on his song Cold Beer Calling My Name. His first single Some Girls, which he gave UK audiences a rendition of, has successfully been pushed to number one on radio this very week – MAX SPINS NOW screamed the ads in the trade press. The version above is from two years ago, so he must have played this song thousands of times.

Although I think Jameson is more Cole Swindell level than Luke Combs, I like what he does and he has that Mississippi Delta charm that country radio programmers will love. Some Girls is in heavy rotation on Chris Country. It’s written by Hardy, who is so hot right now.

Monday’s Country Hits Radio selector was Tenille Townes, whose introduction to the UK market was helped by radio pushes by the BBC, especially. In the same way, Tenille made some headway after she moved from Canada to Nashville. Although her high alto can be an acquired taste, her songwriting is high in quality, as she showed in the Song Suffragettes show.

Tenille popped up on Ricky Ross’s BBC Radio Scotland show Another Country, which goes out live on Tuesday evenings and is available all week on BBC Sounds. She talked about growing up listening to Dolly and Shania, and how the aim of her debut album The Lemonade Stand was to ‘help people feel less alone’. Go check out the album, which I adore. It’s in the running for Album of the Year, which I’ll look at in December as part of three shows recapping these odd 12 months. I wonder if the late runner, Hey World by Lee Brice, will make it onto the list.

On Wednesday Lee Brice appeared on Baylen’s mid-morning show to premiere Do Not Disturb. What a great chap to give a world premiere to fans in the UK. He’s great mates with American Young, who are arguably bigger in the UK than in the US, and I met his brother Lewis who wowed me at Buckle and Boots 2019.

Lee was the star attraction for the Curb Records Showcase on the Curb Records Youtube channel at 6pm on Sunday evening. He performed his chart-topping tune One of Them Girls and Rumor, another song which has been rotated on the UK radio stations. More people need to hear a voice with heft and a man who told us that he’s ‘always having fun’ when he’s holding a guitar.

American Young are guitarist Jon and violinist Kristi, who have already made many pilgrimages to the UK and convinced the Brice brothers to make the trip too. They played their recent single Some Girl, a very contemporary sounding breakup song which would fit neatly onto Magic FM, as well as Whiskey Don’t Work. The pair are happily married so are in character as people trying to drown their sorrow in drink. I really connected with both songs.

Tim Dugger opened with a song laying his country credentials on the table and how any potential lady is ‘gonna love me’, with the lyric ‘the Hag, the Flag, In God We Trust’. I also liked a gentle song about cold beer nights – ‘we kick the dirt and we go to work and we go to church’ – which is satisfyingly traditional. Tim is a country artist in the vein of Rodney Atkins who, helpfully, is also on Curb and was part of the showcase.

Joined by Rose Falcon who helped him fight off midges, Rodney sang the love song Figure Out You (‘you keep me beautifully confused’) which is full of contradictions. Love is a crazy thing. Caught Up in the Country, a song which has been rotated on Chris Country in the last few years, was aired as well, showing off Rodney’s deep voice that could only be country.

Jackson Michaelson wore a bandana around his neck and crooned a couple of songs. One Day was a future-reminiscin song where Jackson projects a future day when babies grow up to ‘want my keys’ or ‘have a diamond ring’, no longer sleeping next to mum and dad. ‘We can’t waste a single day’ is proper Tim McGraw-esque philosophy. I like the line ‘One day they walk…the next they run’. His other song was a peppy track about ‘tossing a 20 in the tipjar’ so the band in the bar can set the mood for a romantic liaison as he gets over a breakup. Bon Jovi and Tom Petty are potential requests which will ‘replace the memories’ they shared. The song was so good I had to play it again. It sounds like a hit.

Mo Pitney was joined by his brother and sister to sing two songs from the Bluebird Café. The title track of his recent album Ain’t Looking Back and Mattress on the Floor, about ‘how you got it all when you got nothin’.

Ruthie Collins showed off a gorgeous vocal tone which has impressed Bob Harris. Joshua Tree is a reminiscin song full of mystery, perhaps about a friend who has died, inspired by the mystical nature of the Californian desert. Also from her album Cold Comfort, closing track Beg Steal Borrow sees her ask a man to hold her hand and ‘be satisfied with the faded disguise of your heart’. Her lonely narrator won’t give up hope of love from a man who might not want the same from her.

I am sure she made some fans in the UK, and not just me, with her short set.

Keep reading for parts 2 and 3.

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