Pip Ellwood-Hughes has penned an interesting essay on his site Entertainment Focus. In the form of their country editor James Daykin, the site was represented at the third iteration of this festival, back after two years of pandemic-enforced fallowness and incredibly fortunate to get blue skies and light breezes (though spare a thought for hayfever sufferers, the sniffling minority).
In his essay, Pip asked whether the country bubble in the UK was bursting. There are, he says correctly, several acts who are making money in the USA without crossing the Atlantic, even though UK fans are screaming for Blake Shelton, Jon Pardi and Jake Owen. It seems incredible that Pardi won’t tour his new album in the UK next year. The fanbase knows what it likes and it likes what it knows, to paraphrase both Pip and Genesis, although it has taken Midland, Ashley McBryde and Drake White to heart. Has the genre ‘gone as far as it can here for the moment’?
Not if you ask the promoters of The Long Road, where a nattily dressed Baylen Leonard was holding fort at the festival he programmed. Without headliner Chris Young, whom Pip said had been having trouble shifting tickets for his gigs before illness denied him the chance to tour the UK, Baylen simply moved Brandy Clark over to the Rhinestone Arena and asked Marty Stuart, in what would have been a very short conversation, to play for two hours instead of one. More on him later. It was fun to hear Baylen’s voice boom from the main stage to tell people to pack away their chairs to allow as many people to listen to Marty as possible.
You could tell the type of person at the festival by the caravan park vexillary, aka the flags. It was a mix of British caravanning and US culture, with more than one flag proclaiming “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”. Amid smatterings of Texan and American flags, there were flags in honour of the armed services. I spotted a ‘Kiss My Country Ass’ car sticker and a van printed with the words ‘Bad Ass Cowboy’.
The festival was amenable for both kids and dogs. For the former, a play area offered paddleball and swingball and advertised dodgeball and tug-of-war. Pugs, terriers, German Shepherds and Bassett Hounds were all spotted on blankets enjoying the tunes. There was also a chance for grown-ups to play a little: I failed with all three of my horseshoe throws and both of my beanbag throws as I tried cornhole for the first time since kids camps.
Vendors hawked jewellery, boots and t-shirts. The choice of food was between halloumi wraps (courtesy of Say Cheese), burgers, Thai, Greek and pizza, with a 20-metre bar to wash it down with. In a matter of hours, the beer would end up in one of the portaloos, which had their own village, or in a nicer outhouse for VIPs, who had their own area to the right of the main stage.
Among the women in summer dresses and men in checked shirts, there was a chap with a small birthday rosette and a girl with a big badge proclaiming her 30th birthday who had met her now fiancé at this very field three years ago. A Long Road romance had come to fruition, and I hope Guy enjoyed The Cadillac Three on Sunday evening as much as his fiancée Nathalie loved seeing Sunny Sweeney.
The best tattoo award went to a man with a shin-covering bear with everything showing. I also did a double take when I spotted ‘man, myth, legend’ and documentarian DC Brown without his trusty bandana. On the main stage, every time the strobe lights flashed, how many people wondered, as I did, how much the energy cost was.
A host of UK musicians were milling around the site: Ben Earle, Tim Prottey-Jones (who would play drums for Kyle Daniel on Sunday on the main stage), Poppy Fardell, Kezia Gill, Gasoline & Matches, Two Ways Home and, with both a dog and Eric & Jensen in tow, Twinnie.
There will be tons of media coverage of the festival, judging by the activity in the media bit behind the VIP Area. Marty Stuart looked effortlessly cool although Brandy’s glittery stage get-up put him in the shade. Everette, Seaforth, Jess Moskaluke and Shy Carter did the rounds for sites as varied as Brits In Boots, Country In The UK and Entertainment Focus. Holler Country journalists wore branded tees, and Absolute Radio Country had a little alcove for interviews. Tim Prottey-Jones and Sophia Franklin recorded some bits for CountryLine Radio’s Country Line Up show.
There was a Choose Your Own Adventure feel to the festival. In Buddy’s Juke Joint, you could catch folkier acts like Margo Cilker and Joana Serrat. Morganway had asked the crowd to clap, dance and sing at lunchtime to get them warmed up for the day ahead; in mid-afternoon, Jonathan Terrell rescued a broken string by bringing on a steel guitar player to accompany him on some cowboy poetry, then launched into a funky blues version of Eddie Rabbitt’s Driving My Life Away.
On the Interstate stage, Sarah Shook’s set measured at 105 decibels as she turned the amps up to 11. Irish band Hudson Taylor inspired a shirtless guy to prance around to their delightful and amiable folk singalongs. Their drummer was drenched in dry ice for most of the set. Allison Russell praised Brandi Carlile for her role in her career, which led to time in the quartet Our Native Daughters and a well-received solo album on which Allison played soprano saxophone. After a difficult childhood, she had found a ‘chosen family’ of musicians who backed her impressively on songs like Persephone, a ballad full of hope which put the singer’s life in a song.
Next door at the Front Porch, which inevitably suffered from the sound bleeding from the two heavily amplified stages, Everette boasted of jetlag from being bumped up to first class, forgetting which part of their Kings of the Dairy Queen Parking Lot their songs came from. They did remember where they got their name, singing Man of Constant Sorrow from the movie where George Clooney starred as a wayfaring stranger. Sam Williams followed the pair, covering his grandpa’s song about the lonesome whippoorwill and showcasing his own fine voice with a posse of photographers snapping away.
Over on the Rhinestone stage, Shy Carter, wearing a warm jumper and a gold chain, dispensing with Stuck Like Glue and It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To early in the set. He then made up a fun song about hats, having been thrown one of them to sign, while preparing to pour whiskey into fans’ cups at 2pm. Priscilla Block continued the party she had brought to Glasgow and London already that week, and Seaforth plugged their just released EP, which would get plenty of listeners in the coming days, and slipped in a cover of Seventeen Going Under to prove they had done their homework.
Brandy Clark ended her set with Stripes and Hold My Hand, having signed various items in the tent where the line was kept moving by the request ‘do not take photos please’. Drake White, Cassadee Pope and Priscilla Block also hobnobbed throughout the weekend, and Cassadee was smart enough to enlist her partner Sam Palladio to take Chris Young’s part on her number one smash Think of You.
Marty Stuart brought up Kezia Gill, Andrew Combs and the aforementioned Sunny Sweeney during his hootenanny headline set. He dropped Tempted in early before declaring the Long Road the ‘capital of surf music’. He paced his set brilliantly, allowed the Fabulous Superlatives to be just that. Any early leavers with a train from Rugby to catch were sad to miss out on the rest of the show, but the impromptu version of Ring of Fire was compensation enough.
Color Me Country
Before she finished MCing an afternoon of music by country stars who don’t look or sound like traditional country stars, Rissi Palmer became emotional. She told the familiar story of teenage Rissi moving to Nashville and being the only black face in town. Nobody looked like her and, after eight years plugging away, released an album in 2007 which featured three singles. One of them was a cover of the pop song No Air by Jordin Sparks. She lost her record deal and started a family.
On August 27 2022, Rissi stood at the side of the stage, a proud auntie watching the next generation of talent. Stood next to her friend Miko Marks, Rissi fanned herself in time with the backbeat from the house band who pulled a hell of a shift accompanying all six acts. Color Me Country, which takes its name first from a Linda Martell song and thus Rissi’s Apple Music radio show, is a community within a community. Country music will be obsolete if it doesn’t reflect the full spectrum of American voices, one which put the brakes on the country career of both Rissi and Miko.
Those fans who saw Seaforth, Priscilla Block and Cassadee Pope were totally unaware what they were missing, following Pip Ellwood-Hughes’ conclusion that they just don’t want to seek things out for themselves. Their loss!
Camille Parker, with an impossibly small waist and a megawatt smile, offered her single The Flame, which foreshadowed her debut EP which is out soon. She has already filled in for Rissi on her show, with Charly Lowery following suit. Charly beat a drum in tribute to her persecuted ancestors and her mother. While talking to ‘queens, divas and boss babes’ who ‘each have a light to shine’, she sang: ‘I’ve had enough…Some things never change’. She also delivered a brilliant version of Jason Isbell’s modern standard Cover Me Up, wringing emotion out of the lyric.
Valeria Ponzio offered a tribute to Selena, the Latina Madonna, with a tender version of I Could Fall In Love. Her own material included a hooky tune called Hologram and a song about her guitarist, who was also her husband. I loved her hooky tune called Hologram too, which was on a 2018 EP which she is following up with another one which is out at the end of September. It will include the lush song Just a Bordertown.
‘I went through a lot of hardship to get a good year,’ revealed Madeline Edwards during her superlative set. If we don’t make Madeline a star, it’s on us, not her. Wearing cool shades in what might have been her first ever gig in the UK, Madeline promoted her self-titled EP and forward-sold her November album release with panache and vim, in absolute control of her material and her voice, which has an admirer in Chris Stapleton.
She proved herself an omnivore, with versions of Redbone by Childish Gambino and Holding Back The Years by Simply Red. During Hearts Don’t Break, a funky little number, Rissi Palmer and Miko Marks led a dance, with Rissi grabbing Shy Carter like an auntie and pulling him into the party. Even the Musical Director on the keyboard was filming proceedings. Later, Miko would call herself ‘the OG of the bunch’ and would perform a set of songs calling out to the angels. Peace of Mind, from her forthcoming album, is a career song which she almost got through without breaking down in tears. We’ll see Miko over in the UK again soon, perhaps in a double-bill with Rissi herself.
Credit goes to Baylen for giving over the Front Porch to Rissi. The ladies are already making noises about returning to the UK in 2023, perhaps with a regular takeover of a Long Road stage. I’m all for it.