Tenille Arts, Omeara London, February 2 2023

We need to learn more from Canada than we do from Music City. As I mentioned when writing about Sykamore last week, it’s all well and good trying to compete with Nashville and ‘level up’ British country music, but some acts just want to play their songs for a willing audience. One audience member at the Sykamore show, who is also playing Country2Country this year, was critical of the UK movement trying (and I’m paraphrasing) to craft the Shires’ Nashville Grey Skies to the letter.

I think one way to improve is to tap into music schools like LIPA in Liverpool and the ICMP in London, whose students could shape their sound for any audience be it pop or rock, rough or smooth. Alyssa Bonagura, who graduated from LIPA and is now a professional musician, should give advice to young performers about how to do it properly. Having headlined a London show in September 2022, Alyssa is playing C2C for the first time where she ought to attract more fans of her mature, very contemporary country-inflected pop songwriting.

Her long-awaited third album is due soon and her support slot included a song called On It, an incredibly catchy number. Heartbreak song Paper Airplanes was terrific, as was Other Side of the World where Alyssa brought out her loop pedal. For the first time I realised her voice was a dead ringer for that of Sheryl Crow and I’d love to hear Alyssa tackle some of Sheryl’s rootsy tunes that were described as rock back in 1996 but would now be considered country.

Tenille Arts hit headlines for having a number one hit on country radio, Somebody Like That, which was created (ie produced and sung) solely by woman. This is like seeing a unicorn and a pig bouncing over a blue moon, but it also proves there is an audience for what she’s doing. After popping over for C2C in March, Tenille was due to play a big festival in Essex last summer, which sadly had to be pulled, but she did play a gig in Glasgow.

After a return to Scotland, Tenille came down to play a solo gig put on by Country2Country at the sleek Omeara. There was a famous face in town: Grady Smith, the American critic, tried not to spill three drinks in two hands to his place near the front of the crowd. Since we only ever see him sitting down, it’s odd to see how small he is in real life but he’s a massive screen presence. One fan of his rocked a t-shirt. Why is there no British country critic on Youtube? Just a thought.

To Tenille Arts, whose show was packed with songs from her 2021 release Girl To Girl: the title track, That’s My Friend You’re Talkin’ About, Heartbreak Regulars, Give It To Me Straight, Over You Is You plus the effervescent Back Then Right Now. The test of a good song is whether it sounds good as a solo acoustic number, and they all did. I’m sure she’ll bring the band over next time.

Without them she couldn’t do a 90s medley but she did introduce a Dixie Chicks cover with the line: ‘My dream was more important than Wide Open Spaces.’ She also debuted a piano-led cover of Easy On Me by Adele, which was received well by the London crowd.

Even if you’ve sung these songs hundreds of times, a performer is always boosted by a new set of fans roaring it back at you. Tenille seemed to grow in stature during some numbers in a 90-minute show. It was a shame that some of the crowd had to head home before the chart-topper closed the set. Before it, she switched from acoustic guitar to electric then to piano. Some songs had the same familiar I-V-VI-IV chord progression, which only served to put the focus on the lyrics and the voice.

‘All I ever wanted to be was on the radio,’ she said knowingly, and plenty of songs had poppy hooks and relatable lyrics which pulled in a varied audience which went beyond the same 36 fans who go to every country show. This may be because of her appearance on both The Bachelor and poppy playlists: Tenille hit and sustained an amazing high note on I Hate This, preceded Growing Old Young with a request to focus on men’s mental health and put a new spin on Girl Crush with the Emily Weisband-written Jealous of Myself.

There was, of course, A Woman whooping and chattering and calling out for Tenille’s deep cut Cold Feet. Wildfire and Whiskey, which segued into a singalong of Taylor Swift’s Love Story, pleased The Woman, while I was more impressed with new song Motel On The Moon, about giving an ex space, and the perky Right Guy Wrong Time.

With Lady A and Thomas Rhett headlining the O2 for C2C, there’s a slipstream of acts like Tenille Arts who can also appeal to similar demographics in the UK, one which the CMA is now supplying all year round. I wonder if Grady Smith will make one of his deep-dive videos about the country crowds here.

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