Nashville Meets London is one of the loveliest nights on the UK country scene but the rubric has been disrupted by the pandemic. Thus we get two British acts instead of an American and a Brit, even though Twinnie spends many weeks a year in Nashville.
Before York’s self-proclaimed Hollywood Gypsy gave a star turn, Robbie Cavanagh offered 30 minutes of his understated songs, previewing his Tough Love album with songs that included the funky Helpless. There was also an extraordinary heartbreak ballad in the James Taylor mould and one called Thinking of Leaving (‘if you’re thinking of leaving, get up and go’). A Mancunian who won the Bob Harris Emerging Artist Award at the 2021 AMA-UK Awards, Robbie will be back down in London at the end of May. Beg or steal a ticket.
‘People are using their cutlery so quietly,’ Robbie marvelled at the diners who were still polishing off their pizzas in the basement venue of Holborn’s Pizza Express. There was a nice bit of banter about a vegan dish which, it transpires, can be ordered off menu, which surprised our humble singer/songwriter.
Twinnie released her long-awaited debut album Hollywood Gypsy in April 2020 but couldn’t tour it until the middle of 2021. The full Twinnie show delivers fireworks, high kicks and showstoppers with an amplified band but she proved she can impress with an acoustic set which felt like a soirée. She was dressed in denim bell bottoms which gave a Nashville twist.
Opening with her new single One Heart, Twinnie ran through old favourites like Type of Girl, Chasing and Cupid, which she wrote while ‘bitter and single, I still am’ and on which she hit a showstopping note. The setlist was as much a surprise for the band as for the audience, as our hostess played it by ear. ‘It’s just gonna be a jam tonight!’
Her songs ‘make people dance or break their heart’, which sounds like a chorus in itself: the former included Welcome to the Club and set closer Better When I’m Drunk, with the latter represented by the beautiful I Know A Woman. This single, which promoted Twinnie’s vital project which spotlights mental health in the music industry, was even more emotional for Twinnie as her darling mum was watching on.
As she displayed on the acoustic version of her album, Twinnie’s songs stand up without jazzy production, and guitarist Tommy and pianist Barnabus(!) were impressive foils throughout the soirée. Tommy’s leg got a workout on the toetapper Daddy Issues, banging a percussion block to provide the backbeat.
Something We Used To Say was the evening’s highlight. It was perfect for the basement dive: written with Barnabus and Laura Oakes, it was inspired by Carole King and its melancholy shone through. I hope it makes it onto Twinnie’s second album, which she was more or less auditioning in front of a lady from her record label.
Ditto Write You Out, a song about songwriting with a great lyrical hook, and future single Something or Somebody, during which Twinnie toured the room and was twirled around by a beaming fan. He wasn’t the only one entertained by a superstar who had complete command of the room. She doesn’t need high kicks when she has the high notes.
Nashville Meets London hosts a cruise on the River Thames on August 19. The next Pizza Express night is headlined by Jess Thristan on April 27.
Maren Morris moved to Nashville from Texas and, after a few years in writers’ rooms working on other people’s music, she teamed up with producer busbee and wrote ‘the one about a church’ which broke her in 2015. Her second album Girl was part love-letter to husband Ryan Hurd and part female empowerment tract. The pandemic scuppered her world tour, although she became a mother too and I am sure she will say in interviews that this was a blessing in disguise.
Along with Kelsea Ballerini and Carly Pearce, Maren is one of punishingly few ‘girl singers’ (as they laughably used to be called) to move up to the A List in the last ten years, thanks to support from country radio. As if to prove this, she promoted the release of the album on The Bobby Bones Show, which is like the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show out of Nashville, at 5am. That’s what you have to do to sell your record in Nashville.
After debut album Hero, which Bobby supported, came The Middle, from a Target ad, which had been turned down by more or less every popstar in town. Maren took her chance and her voice was all over pop radio (it reached number 5 on the Hot 100) and Adult Contemporary radio (a number one). So where does that leave Maren Morris the Country Star?
Sensibly, looking to what her fellow Texan Kacey Musgraves has done, Maren has opened up her audience beyond country radio even as she keeps her deal with Columbia Nashville. She pulls off the coup of securing one of the world’s best producers: Greg Kurstin is best known for his work with Adele (he co-wrote Hello and Easy On Me) and Foo Fighters.
As Kacey did on her albums, Maren works with a small group of collaborators. Jimmy Robbins and Laura Veltz co-wrote The Bones and help Maren write album highlight Background Music, a waltz with a melodic chorus and a smart lyric about eternal love and stuff. Sarah Aarons, who wrote the top line melodies of both The Middle and Girl, joined the trio to write Detour, and it’s another winner: ‘I threw my map away and that’s the way I stumbled into you’ is a terrific lyric which is allowed to shine thanks to Greg’s production. This will be a live highlight in the next world tour and will fit snugly next to I Could Use A Love Song and To Hell and Back.
Robbins and Natalie Hemby were in the room for sex jam Nervous. You can tell it’s a Hemby composition because of the cascading melody, heavy drum loop and jittery narrator who is ‘out of control, out of our clothes’. Hurd, who is about 6 foot 6, was ironically not in the room for Tall Guys, a song I cannot believe hasn’t been written before. It’s very Nashville and very fun. ‘We fly first class cos it’s the only way his knees fit’, while Maren, who is about 5 foot 2, can justify wearing high heels.
Jon Green, the Brit who has had a country number one with Lady A’s What If I Never Get Over You, joins Maren and Ryan to write the album’s final track What Would This World Do? It’s as if they’re writing their wedding vows; indeed, Maren sings of wine from their wedding day. Note how the road Maren namechecks is the I-405 in Los Angeles, not one in Nashville, and the song sounds like a classic ballad written in LA in the 1970s. It’s the best song Maren has put out and may overtake My Church and The Bones as her career song. Like Rainbow or Someone Like You, it’s the Piano Ballad from a Major-Label Release, a genre in itself nowadays.
Ryan’s uncredited harmonies can also be heard on The Furthest Thing and I Can’t Love You Anymore (‘than I do now’). The former is a song about being away from one another and making things work, while the latter namechecks ‘a poor boy from Michigan’. For her part, Maren acts like ‘a bitch’ and ‘to some I might be an acquired taste’. Check out the gorgeous diminished fifth chord and a gentle production from Greg Kurstin on The Furthest Thing, on which Maren’s vocals self-consciously recall those of Inara George, who was half of the duo The Bird and The Bee along with Greg himself.
First single Circles Around This Town is a self-referential tune which comprises three chords and Maren’s truth. If any genre if ripe for ‘speaking my truth’, it is country music; ever since Taylor Swift swept into town, plenty of girls with guitars have shown up to town but have ploughed their own furrow. Indeed, Maren was an early performer in Kalie Shorr’s Song Suffragette nights.
Hummingbird is an outlier, as it’s written with the famous Love Junkies (Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey) who wrote Girl Crush for Little Big Town. It’s a lullaby dedicated to her son, who burbles over the intro: ‘On my skin rest your wings…I’ll let you fly free’ is the kind of lyric that can only come from four mums trading war stories in the same writers’ room.
I can see a baby photo montage on the screen behind Maren as she sings that song, and then a fan montage as she sings the pretty Good Friends (‘We got history, no conditions’). There should be more songs about friendship as well as love, and I reckon Columbia will stick another artist on it when it’s sent to radio. My guess is Elle King or Tenille Townes, or perhaps Natalie Hemby herself, given that she co-wrote the song.
The title track sees Maren pivot to the new craze for self-analysis. Grounded by a similar three-note riff to 80s Mercedes, Maren’s voice flutters with a lyric about how she ‘kept hitting my head on the glass…polite till I spoke up’. Whereas Bono was spiritual and gospel in trying to find what he was looking for, Maren tries hard to be humble: ‘How do I not cast a shadow?’ she wonders, which is like threading a camel through the eye of a needle.
So is she still a country star? No, she’s a popstar who lives in Nashville and can play shows in LA. Just like Thomas Rhett, who puts out his sixth album early in the year to give us his latest life update. They both make modern country music, which looks outwards from Music City even as its stars look inwards to go on humble quests.
It has taken three years for Sam Outlaw to come back to the UK. The Omeara gig to kick off the Popular Mechanics tour was the first time he played some of the tracks from the new album live anywhere in the world. Running on fumes having landed in London that morning, Sam powered through a 90-minute set which included old favourites and plenty of new stuff.
‘I never thought I’d miss touring!’ Sam told the crowd, asking him to join in with a celebratory shout of YEAH! Without the support of Bob Harris, he said, Sam might not even have anyone to see him, and it must be said that the crowd were mostly of Bob’s vintage.
This was grown-up country music, with a pedal steel guitar player dovetailing with three acoustic guitars, one wielded by support act Ruthie Collins, whose version of It Must Have Been Love by Roxette threatened to steal the show from Sam.
In a smart shirt and hat, Sam played the old tunes he has sung a thousand times before, including the gorgeous Tenderheart, the sombre Ghost Town and the mellifluous Bougainvillea, I Think. There were also rich cheers for the title track of his debut album Angeleno, and warm applause for several new tunes.
Rest of Our Lives was a shrewd choice of first single from the new album, and it was the highlight of the set thanks to some three-part harmonies and a driving rhythm that didn’t need any percussion. We also heard Polyamorous and the marvellous Language of Love (which has a key change!). This last song reminded me of tunes by Fountains of Wayne; the late Adam Schlesinger, who was the band’s frontman, has to be an influence on Sam’s work.
Molly Parden showed off a fashionable shoulder bag as she hopped onstage for a duet. A family friend, Molly had played Omeara (‘not O-me-ah-ra!’ as Sam chastised himself) a few days before Sam and she had stayed in town just to see him before heading back to the USA. How amazing must it be to have a job where you can meet friends onstage thousands of miles away from home.
In reality, we in Britain have adopted Sam as one of ours and he’ll be welcome back any time his family schedule allows.
If country music were a utensil it would be a fork, with different prongs coming together to form one excellent tool. These two albums each demonstrate their own type of prong.
Ernest K Smith has written plenty of hit songs as a recording artist at Big Loud, home to Morgan Wallen. He’s got his name in the brackets on Big Big Plans by Chris Lane, Breaking Up was Easy in the 90s by Sam Hunt and several tracks on Dangerous, which is about to break a record at the top of the Country Album chart despite the artist being in the doghouse throughout its run.
Like his mate Hardy, Ernest knows where the hooks are and can write a country song that gets on the radio. He was in the room for no fewer than 11 songs on Dangerous, including first single More Than My Hometown, new smash Wasted On You and one of my favourite tracks Me On Whiskey. Ernest is basically the same product with a different haircut, and he has made a lot of money from his songwriting in the last year.
The rehabilitation of Morgan Wallen, who is too big to fail, continued with one of the songs of the decade so far, written by Ernest and so good that it appears twice on the album that shares its title. Morgan takes the second verse and Big Loud Records are hoping that a year has been enough and now poor (rich) Morgan, their cash cow with a mullet and cut-offs, can resume his career in peace. In the tradition of a classic country song with a wounded narrator, a tearful lady and a triple-time feel, ‘it’s a bad day for love but a good day for flower shops’. The guys emote like they’re Dan + Shay but stay true to the type of country that was on the radio in 1983, which is hot right now.
As for Ernest, we were due to have a duets record with him and Hailey Whitters called Countrypolitan but all we’ve had so far is a great version of Islands in the Stream. With both Ernest and Hailey doing their own thing, the project has been put back on the shelf while Flower Shops surges to the top. After two standalone singles, Cheers and American Rust, we’ve got a whole album of Ernest originals, engineered to fit into a gap in the market and thus make money.
Sucker For Small Towns has that peaceful easy feeling common from the work of Eagles and the rural charm of (yep) all those Morgan Wallen songs. It’s a world away from the sound of a guy who used to rap under the moniker Ernest K: on Bad Boy he ‘loved it when you dropped me them digits, I’m all about you like a freaking fanatic…I’ll be the Hova and you’ll be my Bey’.
It is incredible that Bad Boy and Tennessee Queen come from the same man: Ernest is now looking to be the lady’s Elvis in blue suede shoes as they settle in their Graceland and get all shook up. It’s a songwriting exercise but it’s good to see Elvis back in country music, 45 years after his death and close to 70 years(!) after his breakthrough.
Classic, with John Mayerish guitars and a smooth delivery, sounds a lot like what Devin Dawson did on his debut album, which is apt as the song was written with Devin Dawson’s brother Jacob who also wrote much of Devin’s stuff. The Warren Brothers help Ernest write the slow song Feet Wanna Run, which includes some mellow chords, pedal steel guitar and lyrics about forks in the road and spreading one’s wings.
Rodney Clawson assisted Ernest on both the introspective ‘writer’s round’-type tune Comfortable When I’m Crazy, on which he complains ‘girl look what you made me do to me’, and Did It With You, which is a more uptempo tune about love and stuff which must have come from listening to Boys of Summer by Don Henley.
Newcomer Lily Rose was in the room for a catchy midtempo heartache ballad What It’s Come To, while Ben Hayslip and Michael Carter, best known respectively for writing and playing guitar for Luke Bryan, offer their services on the proper country song If You Were Whiskey (‘I’d still be holding you’). Full of regret and melancholy, Luke could have sold this but he’s locked in an American Idol contract making money. Big gun Ashley Gorley comes out for album closer Some Other Bar, a melodic meet-cute which sounds like those hits he has written for Luke, like Crash My Party and Play It Again.
All this is to say that Music Row’s A-listers have assembled to craft ten very good pieces of contemporary commercial country music about love, loss and alcohol. One of them will be Song of the Year. The first rule of country music, after all, is the same as All The President’s Men: follow the money.
Jeremy Ivey – Invisible Pictures
The second rule is to be true to the person you really are. Luke Combs is currently making millions of dollars doing just that, as is Thomas Rhett who literally puts his life in a song. Across town in East Nashville, the hipsters take shelter from higher commercial rates in an expanding city which is becoming too big for itself.
Jeremy Ivey is a resident. He will always be introduced as Mr Margo Price but, between raising children and supporting Margo’s career as an outlaw of repute, Jeremy has put out three albums of his own on the Anti label, the latest of which is called Invisible Pictures.
The title track includes a chant of ‘nothing can bring me down today’ which will chime with thousands of listeners. Ditto Black Mood, where Jeremy tries to hide his depression and regret, ‘the Great Pretender…save me from me, Angel of Mercy’. Given the melody and arrangement of that song, it doesn’t surprise me that Jeremy is a fan of Elliot Smith.
Musically the album is terrific, with a double-stopped fiddle and lap steel guitar on Grey Machine, harmonica on album closer Silence and Sorrow, piano on Trial By Fire and a string section on Downhill (Upside Down Optimist). Ivey/Price co-write Keep Me High, a country-rocker where the mafia and witness protection appear in the second verse. I also like the chugging opening track Orphan Child and the spiky Phantom Limb.
If Nashville is a town of songwriters, a scan of the lyric sheet shows that Jeremy fits in perfectly. He has studied the great songwriters of the classic era, like Leon Russell, Elton John and Harry Nilsson, and keeps their spirit alive in a timeless fashion. Listen out too for various suspended or diminished chords dotted throughout the album, over which he sings in a fragile croon.
Nashville and country music, to reiterate the fork analogy, is an implement of many prongs. Some are more independently minded than others, which seek to make money for a conglomerate. The song comes first, and long may it continue to be so.
Dixie Musgraves. That’s the short version, but this is a blog, not a Twitter account, so here are 800 more words on why you should listen to this excellent album.
Hailey Whitters once sang of living in a Ten-Year Town. She broke through in Nashville a decade after moving to Music City whereupon a global pandemic didn’t allow her to tour that breakthrough album The Dream. Collaborations with Trisha Yearwood and Little Big Town boosted her following and now, as she prepares to unleash this masterful album about Small Town America onto the world, she is promoting her music in Europe at long last.
The title track is the first time we hear her voice. It’s Dixie Chicks meets Kacey Musgraves, hymning the rural life that has served her well. The album is a concept album with different spins on the theme of living in the country: tracks like Big Family, Our Grass Is Legal – a Hailey Whitters 100%-er that recalls some of the work Brothers Osborne have done – and Boys Back Home could mix down into a single song but, when the arrangements are so good, why not elaborate on the theme? The melodies are hummable and the rhythms are toe-tappers. As for the voice, it’s purer than Kacey’s.
The poppy single Everything She Ain’t contains the best chorus on the album: it’s the one that goes ‘whiskey in your soda, lime in your Corona’ and that is rather ballsy to use the name of that drink after the last two years. If I were Hailey, I would consider running the song next to There’s Your Trouble because it’s basically a rewrite, albeit one which substitutes June and Johnny for ‘Audrey to your Hank’. There is also fiddle.
Plain Jane picks up the theme of self-expression. It was made with Hillary Lindsey, on which Hailey says she won’t change for anybody, ‘love me or hate me…That’s how God made me, how my mama raised me’. This will connect with thousands of young women who are ‘a little more Messed-Up Mary than Plain Jane’. There lies a t-shirt slogan.
Pretty Boy, written with Scooter Carusoe and the legendary Tom Douglas, sounds like a career song: in an era of male vulnerability, being sensitive is cool. Hailey offers a song to guys who find it hard to be themselves and strong, who have ‘always been a bit different’. Thousands of young men will etc etc.
BJ Barham of American Aquarium, a man who has made vulnerability into art, pops up on Middle of America, which is effortlessly poppy and cinematic and has been given an outing Hailey’s recent live sets. ‘A whole lotta nothin’s still something to some folks’ is a great line, as is the hook where folk are ‘left right in the middle of America’. It’s great when a top songwriter gets the spotlight too. That song, by the way, was written with Bobby Pinson, who is best known for Toby Keith tunes like Beers Ago and Made In America.
College Town is a killer tune, one of two tunes written with the mighty Nicolle Galyon (the others are Raised and Big Family. As I was listening to College Town, which is basically the continuation of the story of the girl from Wide Open Spaces coming back to the less wide open spaces, I said out loud: What a great song. College life can change a person but ‘they don’t teach you in school’ what you learn at college. Again, this will impact so many young women, who already have fine role models in Carly Pearce and, to a lesser extent, Kacey.
Since she wrote every song here, Hailey’s personality is all across the album. Whenever Lori McKenna writes her last song, Hailey will pick up the baton. Lori was in the room for both The Neon, a heartbreak song where Hailey heads to the bar to ‘get back on that barstool again’, and Beer Tastes Better, which picks up the themes of College Town because it’s always better to hang out in your hometown reminiscin’ about stuff.
Elsewhere, Everybody Oughta offers advice on how to live a country way of life – heartbreak, alcohol, music, ‘a real good dog’ – set to a warm production which lets the arrangement breathe. In A Field Somewhere ends the album, discounting the instrumental coda: it starts with Hailey learning to drive, then moving to drinking, smoking, swimming and finding love. With a fiddle chugging away, Hailey reminds the listener that ‘life in good’ in the country just as she has done in the preceding 45 minutes.
Hailey Whitters will be back in the UK soon, and I am writing this even before she impresses the big arenas with her take on a country way of life. As country music tries to sell itself (out) to city folk, there is still joy in celebrating the small towns of America.
In 2012, country music was about Need You Now, Cruise and Taylor Swift’s album Red. Country2Country was but a twinkle in the eye of the Country Music Association. Indigenous country music in the UK, to me, was all show bands in the Irish tradition. It was still uncool to love country.
Ten years on, we know what has happened. The Country Music Attendees Facebook group (‘politics are to be avoided’) has over 10,000 members who turn up whenever US visitors come over to promote country music, be they heartthrobs like Chase Rice, guitar wizards like Keith Urban or modern-day outlaws like Ashley McBryde. Next year, Country2Country turns 10. It’s as if the CMA had a plan of their own to turn the UK on to country music, with Radio 2 and especially Bob Harris promoting the genre and the many new acts making waves in the USA.
And so to Ben and Crissie, whose fifth album as The Shires makes them the most durable contemporary UK act. Their back catalogue is full of ballads and toe-tappers which are essentially pop songs with meaningful emotional content and a dash of banjo. Daddy’s Little Girl, Brave and Sleepwalk are songs which show empathy with the listener and are produced immaculately. They are perfect for a mature Radio 2 audience between 35 and 54 who love adult contemporary pop music, and are regularly playlisted alongside Steps, Westlife and Kylie (yes, Radio 2 is basically Smash Hits FM now).
As with any act deep into their career, nobody is going to become a fan of the pair who have not already got into them. I thought the first Shires album was too ballad-heavy and preferred third album Accidentally On Purpose which included Echo, Guilty and the Ed Sheeran-penned Stay The Night. In 2020 Good Years came out in a very bad year and the duo are only just getting round to touring it: notable on that album were collaborations with Lauren Alaina and Jimmie Allen, which seemed to be a manoeuvre to get fans of those American acts to become aware of the duo, who remain the UK’s answer to Lady A. It cannot be forgotten that their US deal with Dot Records collapsed at the worst possible time.
While in Nashville, they heard Cut Me Loose, a song by Lizzy McAvoy. Having recorded it, they left the tune off the second album My Universe and it finally finds a home on album five. It sounds like a contemporary country-pop song, with some banjo buried in the production. Lindsey Rimes, a frequent collaborator with the band, puts a commercial sound underneath the harmonies.
The album’s lead single I See Stars is, by design, bland and inoffensive and singalongable. All the same, it is immaculate, as is euphoric second single Wild Hearts. I would declare it to be ‘country tango’, a syncopated meet-cute in a bar which falls into the same musical tenor as Beats To Your Rhythm and A Thousand Hallelujahs.
Sparks Fly shares a title with the Taylor Swift song and the sound of about 10 Lady A tunes: ‘If you wanna keep the fire alive, you gotta let the sparks fly’ is a familiar take on a love song. Forever Tonight is a funky slow jam with some fine diminished chords and a lyric where the pair declare ‘it’d be kinda nice waking up in your arms every day’.
The album’s effortless title track is also about love and stuff, as Ben tries to be a better person for his beloved, who is ‘right at the top’ of his plan. Side by Side and Sky Dive are two more patented Ben Earle wedding songs, with lush melodies, strong imagery and some sustained piano chords leading to Disneyfied choruses. When It Hurts is another declaration of love with an understated arrangement that proves Ben can really write a pop ballad.
The duo’s tourmate Eric Paslay and Jennifer from Runaway June add some Nashville chaser to the mix on A Bar Without You, where you can tell Americans are involved because two Brits are singing about ‘a two-dollar dive’ rather than a Wetherspoons. They also tackle a familiar country theme of having little money but a lot of love on Baby We’re Rich, a likely radio single.
Plot Twist may be a career song; written with Beth McCarthy (a former Voice contestant), it is literally a three-minute movie with Crissie singing of ‘pieces of my heart I won’t get back’. She pulls back for the chorus, where ‘happy ever after ain’t too good to be true’ and she doubts the comfort and cosiness of love.
It reminds me a lot of Cartwheels by Ward Thomas who, unlike The Shires, have had a UK number one album. All three of the last three Shires albums have gotten stuck at number three, with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Craig David and Niall Horan standing in their way.
Given that there are a lot of 100%-ers (music and lyrics by the same person), there are parts of this album that make it seem like a Ben Earle solo project conceived while off the road. Contractual obligations mean Crissie has to sing too. Peggy I’m Sorry – which is unvarnished by big production or Crissie’s voice and is marked as ‘demo’ on the album itself – is dedicated to Ben’s grandma who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. I am positive we’ll see a band version on a deluxe edition of the album, but the sparse arrangement of just a loop and some block harmonies fits the song. Ben sings from the heart about not seeing his grandma as much as he ought to, but ‘can’t bear to see you this way’.
As long as Ben and Crissie want to be playing venues like The Palladium, their label will continue to support their music, as will Bob Harris, who will play tracks from the album on The Country Show which will stand up with the best of what is coming out of Nashville. It’s to the duo’s credit that the singing and writing are of that standard, and the acts trailing in their wake (such as Kezia Gill and Morganway) will learn a great deal from the pair.
Here’s what I saw around the O2 complex over Country2Country weekend, both on the stages and in the crowd. It is by no means comprehensive but other media outlets are available if you want to learn about the many visiting US acts.
There was the usual parade of check shirts, tassels, jeans, leather trousers, trucker caps and five- or ten-gallon hats. Sometimes it’s as if the music is an excuse for people to cosplay: why wear boots when they are so uncomfortable?! We’re in Greenwich, not Greensboro. Hello!
All the same, I hope the merch stalls in the Town Square did good business. I felt sorry for people who were out in the rain waiting to get into the tent, while the queue for the Radio 2 Country stage within the Indigo venue was omnipresent all weekend. Staff were on hand to pen people into taped areas at the Garden and Big Entrance stages, to ensure passage of cattle – I mean fans – around the complex.
It was lovely seeing plenty of UK country acts coming down to show support for their mates. I spotted Gasoline & Matches, Two Ways Home, Kaity Rae, Emilia Quinn, Jake Morrell, Poppy Fardell and Obadiah from O&O, a duo whom I once saw play a private lounge at C2C playing for VIPs, who applauded politely as they sipped champagne flutes.
Shannon Hynes was talking to her friend Lucy Blu, who joined Darius Rucker on the O2 Arena stage to sing Wagon Wheel. She will surely boost her streaming numbers in the coming weeks: ‘As seen singing for 20,000 people!!!’
I also saw the full megillah of UK Country media: Dan Wharton from Your Life in a Song had raced around London conducting interviews on the Thursday and got to say hi to Russell Dickerson on the Friday; we both saw Bob Harris glide past us on the way to his backstage lair to broadcast for BBC Radio 2; Tim Prottey-Jones from CountryLine Radio was omnipresent as MC and performer, while I walked past the station’s new head honchos Simon and Nathalie filming outside the Arena complex. Paul Sexton, the fine freelance writer and supporter of UK country music, also wandered over towards where I was standing. Simon and Charlotte from ARC Radio and James Daykin from Lyric Magazine were far too busy to stop and chat!!
Absolute Radio Country’s Matt Spracklen was in his leather-and-quiff get-up but was off duty over the weekend (while also on air!!). At one point he excused himself so he could film the chorus of an Essex County song. I also walked past Baylen Leonard, the station’s daytime presenter, who was enjoying himself before the chaos of The Long Road, the festival for which he is Artistic Director and takes place over August Bank Holiday Weekend in Staffordshire.
For more indie-minded media, Nick Cantwell of Belles & Gals snuck up on me as I was ambling towards the arena on Saturday, then I bumped into him and Lisa T, the artist he manages, as I ambled out in the afternoon. Chris Farlie and Pete Woodhouse of w21Music were there, as were videographers and photographers DC Brown (‘The Man, The Myth, The Legend’) and Colin Jones. Naomi Kane was on assignment with Twinnie, who was looking very glam in her stage gear, and I surprised Naomi by messaging that I’d spotted her, something nobody had ever done before!
I suppose I’d better talk about the music, which showcased the finest UK and international acts. I loved the timbre of Laci Kaye Booth’s voice; she played songs from her eponymous album to an interested audience at the Big Entrance Stage on Friday afternoon. Caitlyn Smith, meanwhile, was bouncing around and promoting her forthcoming album High; she is a singer/songwriter of the highest order, and her two kids are lucky to have such a cool mom!
Laine Hardy, who came to prominence on The Voice, snuck in some covers of What’s Up and The Weight into a set which proved he was as authentic as he boasted about on his album. Ruthie Collins has a smooth vocal tone and has a commanding stage presence; she’s due to come back to the UK in August and this was a good way to softly launch her to a British crowd. A full review will come as part of a piece on Sam Outlaw’s London gig this week, since Ruthie is the support act.
Jaret Ray Reddick brought out some fans of his band Bowling For Soup to Greenwich, saying upfront that he was not going to play his smash 1985. Instead, he sang about his ‘royal family’ and how his ‘truck up and left’ him. He galloped away in front of his poor drummer, so excited was he during one song from an album full of country tropes and fine tunes. I’ve spoken to him for my In The Red Dirt show on ARC Radio, which you can hear on March 27.
The Big Entrance stage was prime real estate upon which the UK’s finest country acts could build their expanding fanbase. Katy Hurt, ably assisted by her crack band, ran through some choice cuts from her forthcoming album including the single Sounds Good In A Bar. I liked her ad-libbed sound check where she followed ‘one, two’ with ‘three, four, five!’ There was no Mambo Number 5 this time out, though.
Gary Quinn, meanwhile, sang some copper-bottom country tunes on the Garden Stage, some of which are now ten years old. On Your Way Out, for instance, is ageing like a fine whiskey and it was good to hear Gary down in London rather than having to traipse up to a barn near Stockport. He’s put together a fine line-up for Buckle & Boots, which takes place over Platinum Jubilee Weekend in early June.
Eric & Jensen, who will play that barn in June, posted a photo of themselves from a few years ago stood in front of the Big Entrance stage; on Sunday afternoon, they played that very stage. I caught them at 11am on Saturday morning on the Garden Stage, and popped in briefly to see their acoustic set on Friday. They were shockingly amped up for an early performance of originals including new single Party Strong, as well as covers of Brooks & Dunn and Travis Tritt tunes.
There were plenty of other C2C virgins popping their cherry in 2022. Danny McMahon has a nice line in country-pop and made his debut across the weekend, while Jess Thristan was so relaxed she was able to wish someone happy birthday from the stage! The Halifax-born singer and her band played old chestnuts like The Old Me and Time of Our Lives as well as offering a well-chosen cover of Blue Ain’t Your Color by Keith Urban.
The Icon stage was relocated to the small pub next to the Garden Stage, which may have been a compromise given that the usual patch was out of action because the shopping centre was closed. It did not do the acts a favour at all, who suffered from the sound not reaching the back of a room full of a chattering crowd. Normal service must be resumed next year but it seems churlish to complain.
On Sunday, Laura Oakes added a band to some magnificent tunes which she’d performed on Saturday by herself. Laura, like Gary Quinn, can do this sort of thing with her eyes closed and seems so assured now and in control of her material and the crowd. Like Jess Thristan’s set, Laura’s performance was two years in the making; indeed, Laura’s last EP had been primed to come out at Country2Country 2020, which was wretchedly postponed with a day’s notice. Ironically, How Big Is Your World came out in the era where that world was a park or a garden. Incidentally, the CD stall in the Town Square was offering the compilation CD for ‘the festival that never was’ for a fiver, which must be cheaper than most of the street food that was being served 10 metres away.
In the middle of their two-month UK tour, Morganway (above) popped down to Greenwich and blasted through singalongs new (Come Over) and old (London Life). Guitarist Kieran turned up Matt’s keyboard for his solo during Hurricane, which filled the space brilliantly. I took some photos of a fan of the band, who claimed the full house by getting pictures with all six Morganway members.
Essex County were even more impressive. The Bass brothers divide their time between Nashville and the UK, and they’ve got it all, including the tunes. Guitarist Mark was tapping his notes like Eddie van Halen (no wonder he was named England’s best guitarist as a 10-year-old), vocalist Nate crooned in a very commercial manner while rhythm guitarist Kieran overcame a technical hitch with a smile and a wink. Their photogenic status can’t hurt their appeal either. They are going to be huge. Buy stock in Essex County.
Buy stock in Kezia Gill too, who has joined The Shires, Ward Thomas, Twinnie and Yola as one of UK Country’s superstars. With a particularly big crowd for her solo set at the Garden Stage on Sunday, Kez played old favourites like Whiskey Drinkin Woman and Dead Ends & Detours to show off that marvellous voice. She also played I’m Here, which she preceded by a chat about checking one’s mental health. Her late dad would have been so proud of Kez, who will surely be back for C2C 2023.
Finally, I must mention the mullets. At least three people had the old Pat Sharp cut going on. I don’t remember spotting any mullets in 2019 so Morgan Wallen really has brought it back. Would C2C dare book Morgan for the 2023 festival? They’d be foolish not to, but it depends on his own schedule.
Maren Morris looks a certainty, given that she’s on an album cycle, as is Thomas Rhett. Shy Carter, Tiera Kennedy, Brittney Spencer and Breland both proved that country is no longer a Caucasian occasion, or a ‘But we have Darius!’ genre. Jimmie Allen, to that end, may be getting a call this year, but whoever joins the jamboree will entertain the thousands of cowboy-booted folk.
But seriously, we’re in London, not Louisville.
Check out the recent UK Country Top 40 Chart here.C2C returns for 2023 over the weekend of March 10-12.