The headline act for Friday night was a superlative trio of ladies who have all done well on country radio. Ashley McBryde, Carly Pearce (another act to take over Country Hits Radio on Saturday) and Lindsay Ell beamed in from the Bluebird Café. All three ladies were beaming, chatting effortlessly and sharing the love they genuinely seem to have for one another.
Ashley opened with One Night Standards, following it with the quirky Styrofoam (‘A drinking song and also an educational song’) and Shut Up Sheila, helped by solos from Lindsay. Martha Divine sounded just as terrific solo as it does on record: ‘It’s just like Jolene, except “You took him and I’m gonna break your face!”’ Ashley is an MC par excellence.
Then came A Moment. I was perturbed when Ashley ‘sprung a leak’(!) during new song Trust Yourself. She wrote it with Connie Harrington and Jessi Alexander, the power duo behind I Drive Your Truck. ‘I can’t think of a time when there was not a light on in the kitchen,’ Ashley said when introducing the song. Perhaps it was the Bluebird Café’s atmosphere that made her think of the family members who passed on pearls of wisdom. The 600-odd people watching the stream would have made streams of their own. It’s a magical song which falls about halfway through the 15-song concert available on the Bluebird Café’s Youtube channel.
Lindsay went with three chirpy love songs during her set: Want Me Back, Ready To Love and Hits Me. On the latter, she played rhythm and lead at the same time in the solo! In between them, she blindsided the audience with Make You, a song about surviving sexual assault, and the sombre I Don’t Love You with its winding verses.
Carly played her song about ‘guys who suck’ called Next Girl and another which turned the death of her friend busbee into the lyric Show Me Around. It’ll help a lot of people and Carly has the backing of Big Machine to hopefully do as she wishes. Busbee helped her write the smash hit Every Little Thing: ‘Butterflies like I’ve seen puppies!’ said Ashley, who compares her voice to that of Lee Ann Womack. She also played a new song, Heart First, whose demo was released this week: ‘When you fall, you fall heart first’ might well refer to her divorce from sleazy Michael Ray, and again it promises good things for her next project which she goes into with a number one at radio, I Hope You’re Happy Now which, in Lee Brice’s absence, was turned into a trio.
Saturday evening was equally packed and gave country fans a night-in to remember. The whole thing felt like a variety show, with chat, trivia, acoustic and amplified numbers from new and old friends.
At 6pm Haley & Michaels promoted their debut album Hail Mary, and the news of the birth of their daughter Keira, with the latest in their Drinking About YoUK series. These online gigs unite them with UK artists via their Facebook channel. Over Country Music Week, it was the turn of the mighty UK artist Kezia Gill, who sang Whiskey Drinkin Woman, I’m Here and House of Cards.
2020 has been a year of ups and downs for Kezia, who shortly after the death of her dad met Bob Harris when she appeared as part of the Radio 2 Country Festival along with Haley & Michaels. Kezia’s new single will come out at the end of November and it was a delight to see her chatting openly about music and life with two interested parties, who themselves performed Drinking About You and their wedding song Giving It All To You.
Until the computer crashed during the Country in the 2010s round, I was doing pretty well in the Destination Country Quiz, which tested a wide array of country music knowledge. Lauren Jenkins was an adept quiz MC and also performed a new song from her upcoming independent release. Dance in the Kitchen was a lot of fun, as was her interaction with over 50 quizzers from around the UK. Destination Country encourages fans to sign up to their Patreon page, giving them access to Happy Hour zoom chats. November will see Sunday night gigs by Darlingside, Steel Blossoms and Ward Thomas.
Following the conclusion of the quiz, I tuned in to watch a big event put on by Broken Bow Records and BMG, co-hosted by Lainey Wilson and her wonderful accent.
Elvie Shane, from Kentucky, sported a bushy beard and a voice which verged on the Kip Moore. I am sure he will find many fans over here, especially with a fun band behind him who pulled faces and played air guitar! My Mississippi was driven by a groove that got my foot tapping, which County Roads was a rocking song about the lessons learned as a kid: swearing on the schoolbus, for instance. He also played his radio smash My Boy, about being a stepdad, which since it was written five years ago has led him to many glorious events, including this showcase.
Granger Smith performed out in the open with a full band, giving a mini-greatest hits set: new single That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads, number one Back Road Song and the excellent pair of love songs Happens Like That and If The Boot Fits. Yee YEE! as the man himself says.
LOCASH sat around a campfire singing some of their big hits, also with a full band. They told a great story about eating Deer Jerky (with extra deer hair!!) as a gift from a fan. The camaraderie between Preston and Chris, who have been playing together for a long time, is evident in their stories, while the harmonies on I Love This Life (‘three minutes of feelgood’), It’s Only Midnight and new single Beers To Catch Up On are all delicious.
Track45 are so named because Highway 45 runs through Meridien, Mississippi, a town that houses a museum to its most famous son, Jimmie Rodgers. An introductory video shows how the Johnson siblings grew up as string players entertaining old folks who also sang around the table. KK was 14 when the three of them moved to Nashville and they finally have music out there.
If we’re calling them the new Hanson, then KK is Taylor, Ben is Zac and Jenna is a banjo-playing Isaac. Their voices came together on a fantastic two-verse version of Heartbreak Hotel, a hit for a fellow Mississippian. There’s star wattage here, especially in KK’s dynamic Swift-adjacent vocals and Ben’s musicality. One Life, which is not found on their three-track EP, is about enjoying the journey and seizing the moment, while they go heavier on the Little Big Townish Little Bit More. I want a lot more of Track45.
The showcase closed with UK duo The Shires, who sat in a living room (Ben has removed his dreadlocks, perhaps because his kids keep yanking them) and plugged their fourth album Good Years. Opening with their effortlessly melodic new single Lightning Strikes, they also played Day That I Die, About Last Night and New Year. There was a brief argument over popcorn choices but there is nothing to argue about in their sound and their place as market leader. In a few years when indigenous country music has grown still further, the pair will be viewed as trailblazers and elder statesmen in much the same way as Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift have the same status in the USA.
Matt Spracklen had The Shires on his Country Hits Brits show on Sunday night talking about the new version of their song Lightning Strikes with Lauren Alaina. They teased another special guest (my guess is James Blunt) who will be popping up on another of their songs soon, as well as the ‘therapeutic’ performance they had recorded. Ben, however, felt ‘detached’ as no applause followed. After all, music is about the listener as well as the performer.
On Sunday, Country Hits Radio had a packed schedule while Chris Country hosted a familiar voice at noon. Charles Esten was due to play Country2Country this spring and, during a Sunday Lunch hour, fans heard his lovely song Sweet Summer Saturday Night, an acoustic version of A Road and a Radio and Eric Paslay’s song Nice Guy, whose video starred Charles going against type by playing a meshuggah. He also found room for music by his sometime tourmates The Adelaides and a duet he had recorded with Jillian Cardarelli called Strong, about the power of faith and overcoming obstacles.
Charles, whom Whose Line Is It Anyway fans will know as Chip, is one of the nicest men in music, the Dave Grohl figure perhaps. He is best known as Deacon from Nashville but he also played Buddy Holly on the West End stage in the early 1990s and lived in Kentish Town. He must be itching to get back to the UK.
Country Music Week Digital 2020 was a huge success. Radio programmers, fan-run sites, record labels and the artists themselves all came together to remind the audience of the variety, excellence and passion of country musicians and fans. Whether or not Country2Country goes ahead as planned – I think this was a pilot for a C2C Digital festival in 2021 – will surely be answered soon. It’s not the same thing as breathing the same air but it’ll do while that air is infected with a killer virus.