A Guide to the British Country Music Festival 2023

Here’s the disclosure: I’m in the middle of writing a four-part history of British country for the website of Blackpool’s British Country Music Festival (TBCMF). Having taken readers up to date by describing how country was sold back to Britain having been brought over with Scots-Irish settlers in the Appalachian bit of America, I’m preparing to take the pulse of country music in 2023. Read the first part of the essay right here. The second part is to be published imminently.

For Part Three, I’ve spoken to Deeanne Dexeter and Gary Quinn, who were both regulars on the so-called ‘originals’ circuit of the early 2010s. I praised Ward Thomas for a five-album career (so far) which included a UK all-genre number one LP, and I’ve pointed country fans towards plenty of other festivals across the country, from Portsmouth to Stockport.

As it stands, the 2023 bill includes not one act who has played any of the festival’s previous three iterations, which is testament to the size of Martin’s super spreadsheet which has (he told me) hundreds of names which all fall under his definition of country.

Graham Nash is the Saturday night headliner, which is a superlative booking which will ensure a packed ballroom. Having moved from Lancashire to Laurel Canyon, where he was very close to Joni Mitchell and was the N of CSNY, it’ll be a fine homecoming gig. The first two singles from his forthcoming album Now are Right Now and A Better Life, which are respectively about finding love late in life and passing the benefits of a good life down to one’s children and grandchildren.

It is odd that rock music is now senescent and many of its stars are still working in their eighties. Bearing in mind that Graham is 81, the tour to promote the album is astonishing in its scope: a week in Chicago, three nights in New York to coincide with the album’s release on May 19, a packed month on the West Coast in June and July. All of this is preparation for his first solo gig in Blackpool since he was a Hollie.

Judging by his 2022 setlist, we’ll hear Bus Stop, Simple Man, Our House, Chicago, Marrakesh Express and A Case of You, which Graham performed in honour of Joni Mitchell at her Gershwin Prize ceremony in March. To remind us that Nash is of the same vintage as Buddy Holly and The Beatles, he might well play songs by those contemporaries who first made music when rock’n’roll was a fad for teenagers.

Graham actually put out a live album last year which ran through his first two solo albums: Songs For Beginners (1971) and Wild Tales (1974). The opening track of the former is Military Madness, whose opening line is ‘In an upstairs room in Blackpool by the side of a Northern sea/ The army had my father – my mother was having me’. Perhaps he can persuade PP Arnold to reprise her backing vocals half a century on.

The name which is in the next biggest font size to Graham’s belongs to Donna Taggart, who will headline on Friday night. Donna is an Irish singer and mum of three who took Jenn Bostic’s song Jealous of the Angels to huge success in the middle of the 2010s. John Bramwell, who was the former frontman of I Am Kloot and used to be known as Johnny Dangerously, has a new band called The Full Harmonic Convergence which will also hit the Empress Ballroom. Fun fact: he was good friends with Bryan Glancy, the ‘seldom seen kid’ who gave Elbow the name of their garlanded album.

The Dunwells and Shea Rafferty were already announced last September as 2023 artists. The former are a Leeds duo who have worked with Megan O’Neill and first came on my radar with a fab folk song called Follow The Road. I caught them busking outside Wembley Stadium last year just after they had put out their fifth album Tell Me What You Want in 2022. The big songs on the album are Daydreamer, Summertime and This Is Love, all of which have hooky choruses or participatory ‘na-na’ and ‘doo-doo’ sections. Sometimes they have both of them, which will make for a spectacular show. Either side of the album, the duo put out two live recordings. Perhaps this was what sold Martin and Marina to book them way back in 2022.

Shea, meanwhile, will be headlining The Old Blue Last in London on June 1 with music that Morgan Wallen would call ‘dirt rock’, which is anything with rolling tom-toms and wide-open vowel sounds in the choruses. Making History is his latest release, which shows off his excellent tenor which is more than ready for Blackpool. There’ll be plenty of fists flying through the air if Shea plays When The Feeling’s Right or Everything I Can. On songs like Somewhere In Between and Nights Out he reminds me of Justin Currie from Del Amitri, which is handy as I’m a big Dels fan. Justin would approve of Shea’s showstopper, You’ll Be There, a song for a lost loved one which is made for a ballroom dance.

There are plenty of beloved UK acts heading to the coast in September: Jade Helliwell and Megan McKenna follow their performances at Country2Country with shows in the Ballroom; Mairead played in a fringe event at C2C and has a weepie called Crying on the Dancefloor; Robbie Cavanagh will offer his gentle folkish country; and Simeon Hammond Dallas will make it romantic (as per the title of her EP) and will be at The Long Road the week before TBCMF.

Four relatively new acts who will play TBCMF will be at Buckle & Boots at the end of May: Sarah Yeo, Preston D Barnes (aka David Barnes from Preston), Chloe Jones and Robyn Red, who was up at Country on the Clyde in her native Glasgow during Country2Country weekend. Isabella Coulstock has seals of approval from Ray Jones of Talentbanq, Bob Harris and Jools Holland. She’s previewing her debut album in May at the Green Note and will be in Blackpool. I think Martin and Marina have got in early; her voice is astonishing and I can see Isabella moving to the Ballroom quickly.

Elizabeth & Jameson have also opened for Jools before. The duo put out an EP last year with the fun title Dead Ends and Hand Me Downs, including the suitably chirpy Catching Crickets and the very mardy Tell The World To Go Away. Their sound made me think of a more strings-led Paul and Jacqui. Their 2020 album Northern Shores & Stories was all about Whitby; it includes Live by the Sea, which would suit Blackpool as well as it suits the Yorkshire coast, and the irrepressible Bottomless Beer.

After her soft launch at last year’s festival fresh off the plane from New Zealand, Kylie Price continues her busy year with a TBCMF set. Her latest single is called Perfect, a chirpy singalong with a lyric full of empathy which is very topical. The Westlands, meanwhile, will pop up from the West Midlands with riffs and charm. They’ve got plenty of songs available to stream, including the squealing Fallin’ and the punchy I Like Trouble. They’re also equal opportunity: they like grain (Whiskey Chaser) as well as hops (Beer on My Lips)!

Simon Howard will prepare his tongue to get around the rapid-fire lyrics of his most recent single Trojan Horse. His delivery reminds me of Niall Horan’s, while his arrangements mimic the Mumford sound (Youth’s Ground) and Devendra Banhart (Hairdresser’s Room, which has a trumpet solo). Both of those songs can be found on a four-track EP which came out in 2021. Sound of the Sirens will be promoting their recent album Damage Control, which is full of vim and confidence. I look forward to hearing their blistering vocals on the title track and, especially, Why Not Now?, where the pair challenge their audience to ‘shake it up’.

Scott Beckett, another fine singer/songwriter to come out of Liverpool, also has a host of songs on Spotify so that the crowd can learn them before September. With a voice that puts me in mind of Parker McCollum and Tim Burgess from The Charlatans, Scott will certainly play his three most popular songs: The Best I Can For You, a finger-picked folk song in the modern idiom where he offers companionship but ‘can only go so far’; and the direct, self-explanatory pair Hard To Say Goodbye and Days Will Get Better, both from his own four-track 2021 EP.

Lincoln Skins offer ‘three chords and a story’, the best of which is a love song called John Wayne (‘all the men want to be him, all the women want to track him down’), and the duo will be perfect for the small acoustic stage in the Arena beside the ballroom. Jennifer Juckes, who may well play the Horseshoe Pavilion, has just one song available on streaming services, Just for the Company. It possesses the same musical feel as Taylor Swift’s song Lover but with lyrics that show Jennifer offering herself as a shoulder and a friend. Sam Turner found country music when studying in Guildford (alma mater of Backwoods Creek), and his song My Grandpa Does Magic would fit snugly in a set by his beloved Brad Paisley.

Kirsten Adamson has gone into the family business following her dad Stuart, who was in The Skids and Big Country but was born in Manchester. He also spent a few years in Nashville where he formed a duo with Marcus ‘Bless The Broken Road’ Harmon before ending his life in 2001. Kirsten will be down from Scotland playing songs from her album Landing Place, which came out in February. Indeed, one track is called My Father’s Songs, which Kirsten sings in the same high alto as someone like Hannah Rose Platt.

As with much of the album, it has a gently MOR arrangement with spacious guitar lines. I can already hear her vibrato echoing up to the Ballroom ceiling on tracks like Up and Down and the gossamer thin Time With You. There’s also a comedic waltz called Useless At Being Alone, which sounds like a country title to me, and a couple of rockier tracks like Without Warning, on which Kirsten admits she doesn’t know the words to many ‘modern songs’, preferring ‘retro things’. It seems like she puts her life in a song.

Like The Dunwells, Chris Fox comes bearing folky-roots music from his second album In Plain Sight. Start with the break-up ballad One More for the Road and the hortatory Perfectly Normal, which reminds me of Bob Dylan’s Forever Young. Even if he doesn’t bring the double bass that runs through his album, Chris will be fine enough on his own with his excellent songs.

As well as solo acts, Martin and Marina have booked some bands who are perfect for the main Arena during the daytime. The Heartland Roots Band will be playing down in Portsmouth at Country on the Coast in April, where I hope to catch songs from their recent album Something Better. I like the perky Bad Times Good, the self-empowerment jam Yell! and All that Glitters, which has a neat extended guitar passage.

The Coaltown Daisies put out Listen in 2020, which includes the majestic 52 Reasons and some fine band arrangements, especially Hangman and the toe-tapper I Went Down. The Often Herd are a bluegrass quartet from Tyneside whose debut album Where The Big Lamp Shines came out last year. There will be mandolin, as well as impeccable musicianship.

Phil Hooley is based in Yorkshire and will make the short trip across the Pennine hills. After putting out his debut album Songs from the Back Room in 2021, he released the follow-up Provenance came out in April. Once again Phil offers acoustic roots music full of stories and soul. I would guess the comparison has been made before but Kris Kristofferson is an antecedent for Phil’s almost whispered vocal style.

Ian Dury’s speak-singing style can also be heard on tracks like If Only, which is anchored by a chunky double bass part and a regretful lyric about fixing broken hearts of ‘china or clay’. He swears off love on Matter of the Heart, which is driven by a magnificently bluesy piano part. There’s pedal steel and mandolin on the winsome Magdalena, while Words has some portamento (sliding) string lines and a namecheck for Hank Williams as Phil kicks himself for not taking the chance on a lady.

Happily, he is lovestruck on Trouble and unable to sleep, with a major-key arrangement matching his mood. The Key has Phil wanting to buy a boat, ‘live like some hobo’ on a train or fly in a plane, but for now he’ll settle on driving around with his new flame who, he says, holds ‘the key to my heart’.

Casualty uses the same dominant seventh chords as This Guy’s In Love With You but also employs some tremulous fiddle which underscores Phil’s narration of a lady who is a ‘casualty of love’. Oh Susannah, meanwhile, is a sad sarabande where our narrator reminisces on an old flame. Some Say is a tribute to a ‘sweet old guitar player’ who was a casualty of alcoholism, told through lines which begin with the song’s title. The album ends with The Veteran’s Song, where Phil’s narrator seeks to ‘fight for my dignity’ and wants to be ‘the last one to fall’.

Phil and the rest of the acts will play the fourth British Country Music Festival (TBCMF). It takes place across the weekend of Friday 1 to Sunday 3 September at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens. Tickets are available at the discounted price of £97.50 (£10 cheaper than usual) here.

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