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.