The British Country Music Festival 2021

Or, as Tim Prottey-Jones called it, To Be Confirmed Music Festival (the hashtag is #tbcmf).

Tim is quickly becoming the popular face of UK country. He gave a fashion statement at the Blackpool-based weekend for country music-loving hordes: Chav Country, or Working Man’s Country as I’d call it. Three-quarter-length trousers, short socks, new trainers and a baseball cap complete the look, and we shall see if the fashion spreads to the crowd. They mostly sported the usual parade of boots, cowboy hats, checked shirts, trucker caps and tassels in Blackpool at the Winter Gardens, where you could buy a little stick of TBCMF Blackpool rock for a quid.

There were a couple of American visitors – who have their own essay here – but the focus here is on the UK scene. What is terrific about holding an event in the North-West of England is that people like me can come up from London, people like the Scottish Country Mafia can clamber down from Glasgow and the folk in Manchester can shuffle along to the coast. Blackpool was bathed in sunshine all weekend, and full of fireworks on Friday evening at the Blackpool Tower Illuminations. Thanks to Matt Spracklen’s late-night DJ sets, festival-goers mostly kept away from the seedier aspects of Blackpool, which is back in business, especially for the Sunday afternoon tourists. (I saw an ambulance attending to an unconscious man outside Ma Kelly’s.)

Friday

The party began on Friday night with Kezia Gill, whose star will rise further this autumn as The Shires take her out on the road. She has also recorded songs for a Radio 2 Country show appearance which cements the support Bob Harris and his team have given her. In thigh-high boots and with the Friday Night Crew waving a banner in her honour, Our Kez encouraged clapalongs and singalongs while being utterly in charge of her material. The a cappella opening to her career song, Whiskey Drinkin’ Women, sounds even better in person than through the screen or on record; her 2022 will be very fun indeed and it wouldn’t surprise me if she headlines at least one festival next year.

Holloway Road took up the baton for their first live show in 18 months. Blackpool virgins, Jack and Rob were delighted to be there, cracking up their guitarist Luke Thomas and interpolating both It Wasn’t Me and Because I Got High into one of their laid-back jams. New song Between Us got its world premiere and sat alongside recent hits like About Town, Lightning and Hang Over Here. Jack’s stagecraft was superb and that’s something I was watching out for across the weekend: in Nashville, performers are taught how to connect with the crowd. Holloway Road, as performers, needed no tuition, and are close to unmatched in the UK. The Empress Ballroom was a fine venue for their talents and it’s good to have them back playing live. I am sure they picked up some more tips from the experienced Nathan Carter, who headlined with typical aplomb.

Saturday

On the festival’s busiest day, there were four stages to enjoy. With the bar venue from 2019 taken over by a ‘comedy vocalist’ (I didn’t want to know), this time out the acoustic venue was the Pavilion, next to the piles of leather boots. Among the performers were Bethany Nelson, who led a singalong of ‘it gets me down’ on her tune I Don’t Wanna Listen to the News, a harmonica-assisted Eleri Angharad who showed promise with her own singalong (‘I love you, I delete it) and Ben Holland, who blew his own mouth organ while playing a guitar very high up on his torso. He reminded me of Richard Thompson, straddling folk, blues and country on the song Annaliese.

Over in the Arena, the 2019 trick of having an acoustic stage and an amplified main stage kept the music coming consistently. Compere Sally mistakenly referred to ‘Bob Roberts’ when she meant Bob Harris, who had given Demi Marriner and Robbie Cavanagh his Trailblazer Award early in the year. Robbie went for a bluesy set full of guitar licks while commenting that he’d seen many of his heroes at the Winter Gardens.

Demi is so assured, so in charge of her songs, that it felt odd that she had chosen to display her legs prominently (as is her choice!). She barely interacted with the crowd, supplying them with a fine set of songs which reminded me of Keira Knightly’s turn as a musician in the movie Begin Again. The melodies and arrangements were terrific. She was more chatty when showcasing some new songs from her forthcoming album (‘I’m scared to put it out!’) in the Pavilion. She introduced Some People by saying how ‘some people aren’t worth it – harsh!’ Her song Little Boy, about her young cousin born with health difficulties, included some delicious tonality and unexpected beauty. She’s a star.

Across the weekend, clashes meant I only caught a small portion of some acts’ sets. I liked Blue Rose Code’s song This Is Not a Folk Song, which actually reminded me of Lyle Lovett in its swinging, defiant melody, and I was impressed by Hayley McKay and her kinetic violinist.

Tennessee Twin showed their warm personalities in songs that bigged up the venue’s hospitality staff (Table Waiters) and the musician who plays for ‘tips in a jar’. I also appreciated their cover of A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega, the Ashley McBryde song, which brought Nashville country to Blackpool, where the UK is forming its own identity.

I could have done without a crying baby in the middle of their poppy acoustic tunes, which is worthy of mention because TBCMF is a family festival and there were plenty of kids whose cartwheels drew my eye across the Saturday. The wrinklies dominated, as befits a country crowd, but this was not a festival of line-dancing; country music appeals to folk who love stories, tunes and good-time fun. Nor was it akin to the Country Cosplay costumery of Country2Country. This was just British country fans, not British fans of country music. There’s a distinction.

Plenty of support for British country was on show on the main Arena stage from Morganway, although it was funny to hear singer SJ ask if there were any kids in before dropping some rude words in their fine cover of You Oughta Know! Live favourites London Life, My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You and Hurricane were present and correct, and we’ll get more of the same at Country in the Afternoon in Putney, South-West London, this coming Sunday at around 4pm.

As well as several performers – Emma Moore, Gasoline & Matches, the new starlet Terri Leavey – the Chitticks, who put on Country in the Afternoon, were spotted in the crowd along with both the Hancock family and Gary Quinn, who host and put together the programme respectively for Buckle & Boots.

Gary told me that only one act, Tim Prottey-Jones, had played both the 2019 and 2021 iterations of TBCMF, which shows the depth of talent in the UK and will make compiling my Festive Fifty in December very tough indeed. Tim was busy across the weekend, hosting the Songwriters Carousel in the Pavilion on Saturday and reprising his Buckle & Boots set in the Ballroom on Sunday morning.

In the latter performance, the microphone swallowed a lot of his vocals – which is not good in a lyric-driven genre like country – but his stagework was excellent, particularly on the air-pumper Exit Wounds which will be a mainstay of his live set. You can tell he was constrained in his old band The Wandering Hearts, and I expect this Sunday hangover slot where ‘my job is to wake you up’ will be the Tim Prottey-Jones slot for years to come. Or, as he’d call it, the Chav Country slot.

As for the Carousel, it started late due to technical gremlins but silenced a packed Pavilion when it began. We had three songs each from Elles Bailey, Pete Riley and Wildwood Kin. Elles, who may have the finest voice in Britain and exhibited textbook microphone control, played some of her sadder songs including One Day at a Time and Walk on Water while promising to up the tempo in her Ballroom set later that evening.

Wildwood Kin brought out two old favourites, Time Has Come (about their place as women in life and in music) and Beauty In Your Brokenness, and gave a world premiere to Sunrise. It’s the best thing they’ve done and a good sign for album number three. I wonder how wise it was to put them, and not Lisa or Nathan, as Saturday night headliners, given that there are only 52 Saturday nights per year and acoustic folk works better on Sunday afternoons.

Pete Riley was my discovery of the weekend. He’s an acclaimed singer/songwriter who often plays with Ed Sheeran’s pal Amy Wadge and the alt-rocker Edwin McCain. Tim was full of praise for Pete, a man whose songs he even sung at his degree recital. I loved Pete’s first song, the poppy Shooting Stars, as well as a song about fatherhood with some incredible suspended chords, Elles looking on impressed. It makes me want to investigate his catalogue and again made me marvel that Ed Sheeran has effectively taken singer/songwriter to stadium level in a way not seen since Elton John or Billy Joel (or, indeed, Barry Manilow). I look forward to investigating Pete’s back catalogue. I also sang along boisterously with the HEYs in the Arena when Pete led the crowd in a singalong of the Beatles’ You Got To Hide Your Love Away.

It was delightful to see Halifax-born Jess Thristan play songs with a full band for, incredibly, the first time ever. I watched her play with a guitarist in 2019 and was amazed both by her voice and her songwriting, which wowed the Saturday afternoon crowd. New song Woman Up already sounds like a classic, sitting in nicely with a smart cover of Blue Ain’t Your Color and originals including Time of Our Lives and The Old Me. She also looked smart in a blazer. Big things beckon for the Yorkshire lass.

Specials mention for three other discoveries on Saturday in the Pavilion. Jack & Tim are a one-off: a father (Tim) and a son (Jack, who was a Britain’s Got Talent finalist) who play country-inflected music. I was sad to miss much of their set, which contained superlative vocals and harmonies, but I did hear The Lucky Ones, which sounded beautiful. I’m sure they will be back on the bill in 2022, along with Katy Hurt, whose Ballroom slot began Saturday evening’s entertainment.

Rosso have been in the studio with Tim to record their songs, which were performed here with a conga player who sometimes dominated over the pair of vocals. New single Found was actually about the guitar one of the girls was playing, which had been stolen and recovered, and I liked the way they involved the crowd on their closing number Pray. Their poppy tunes will find an audience, especially on radio, and they would make an earthy opening act for their friends Wildwood Kin.

Bryony Sier is a Welsh singer who talked in her set about struggling with self-worth and anxiety. Her rhythmic guitar playing brought lyrics like Who Am I, Personal Monster and Out with the Old to life. ‘It’s a miracle I’m up here,’ she said, and we are lucky she has found a place to put her story across in an acceptable environment. Shannon Hynes and Bryony have similar voices so if I were a producer (and I’m available!!), I would match their voices and maybe think about pairing them up as The Welsh Dragons.

Kudos to the bookers for getting a good Welsh representation among the English acts. There weren’t that many Scots, actually, but Scotland will be independent within a decade and will do their own thing for sure. Bailey Tomkinson represented Cornwell on Saturday, and they’re quite independently minded, come to think of it…

Sunday

The festival’s third day was concentrated in the Ballroom and brought Candie Carpenter (more on whom here), Fine Lines, Martin Harley and Lisa McHugh.

Fine Lines, by virtue of making Celtic-tinged country-rock with a man and a woman upfront, reminded me of Deacon Blue. From just down the way in Cheshire, the band previewed tracks from Deadbeat Lullabies which comes out next month with lots of vim and vigour.

Martin, meanwhile, began his lunchtime set sitting down with a lap steel guitar and gave a long solo to his bassist. Among many Stapletonesque, country/blues tunes, Feet Don’t Fail Me was the best, on record a collaboration with the celebrated Jerry Douglas. I wish the guitar had been turned up in time to catch most of the solo. I am sure these sound problems will be overcome in 2022, but it was one of too many occasions where I wanted to throttle the sound engineer. ‘Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, SOLO! Make sure we can hear the solo!’

Lisa McHugh, who was born in Scotland, grew up in Ireland and now lives (like Nathan Carter) in Northern Ireland, is a superstar across the Irish Sea. In her first gig back since the pandemic, she gave the best performance of the weekend as befits a seasoned performer. She played a few originals such as the well-received Hillbilly Girl, on which she flicked her hair on the line ‘I don’t care if I lose my hair’, and new single Bad Idea. I also loved The Scandal, which played on the rumours that surrounded her move to the North, and Country Mile, which sounds Radio 2 ready and will appear on her next album out soon.

The bulk of her set came from well-chosen covers. Her voice matches the pitch and timbre of Dolly Parton’s, so it was shrewd to play both 9 to 5 and Why D’Ya Come In Here Lookin Like That, as well as Travellin Soldier by The Chicks, Diane by Cam and Mean by Taylor Swift. After Candi Carpenter’s heart-on-sleeve set, these singalongs were catnip for the Sunday afternoon Blackpool crowd.

One thing I noticed about Lisa’s set was that she played with a live band rather than playing with a band AND over a track. Holloway Road and Tim Prottey-Jones both chose to deliver their sets in the latter manner, which is very much the modern style and adds some heft to the arrangement. Both are equally good for an audience, so long as the songs are good and the lyrics can be heard.

At one stage on Sunday, MC and DJ Matt Spracklen praised the critics of the UK country scene, such as Country Lowdown, Maverick Magazine and Countryline/Chris Country, all of who were present and correct. Their reviews will likely centre on the mainstage headliners like Nathan Carter and Wildwood Kin, and possibly the swampy sound across the weekend, but I am more concerned in how well TBCMF serves the country fanbase.

It’s an emphatic yes from A Country Way of Life. Chafing dishes contained burgers and chips for hungry fans, while plenty of chairs were set out for the Pavilion on Saturday and the relaxed Ballroom on the Sunday, a relief as the main dancefloor was sticky with hops by Sunday lunchtime. I also liked the closeness between the three spaces and the friendliness of the atmosphere, lubricated by drink and soundtracked by every sort of country music. Blues, folk, pop, rock and classic country were all represented.

It was confirmation that TBCMF is a fine addition to the UK country landscape, a complement rather than a rival to Country2Country and Buckle & Boots.

The next festival will take place in September 2022. Earlybird £70 tickets are available here.

PS Here’s what Nathan Carter’s live show looks like.

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