I’ve been thinking about UK country a lot this year. I’m trying to take the pulse of it on behalf of The British Country Music Festival, which happens in September and closes the summer festival season where its heart beats most loudly. It will take me and few thousand others up to Stockport this weekend to enjoy a line-up full of Brits who to their great credit are side by side with American acts. They include Two Ways Home, Matt Hodges, Backwoods Creek and Emilia Quinn, who are all extremely good live performers with great catalogues.
As I examine in the essay’s forthcoming second part, Nashville Meets London has brought US and UK acts together for a good few years. This week it hosted Robbie Cavanagh, Paris Adams and Connor Christian: Robbie’s from Manchester, Paris is from Birmingham while Connor, the frontman of The Southern Gothic, is based in Nashville but grew up in Ohio.
Robbie was launching his album Tough Love, his first since 2017, which has been beset by inevitable distribution issues that thankfully didn’t prevent it coming out in time for the late May bank holiday. Robbie comes with a Bob Harris Recommends sticker after he was awarded the UK Americana Award which is given by Bob to promising roots performers. Later this year he’ll be playing The British Country Music Festival and The Long Road, and ought to convert more acolytes to his cause.
There’s evidence of a master craftsman here: there’s an off-kilter bar near the end of Thinkin’ Of Leaving (‘get up and go!’ he advises), a spectacular middle eight on Another Dead End and the near seven-minute centrepiece Feels Good bathes the listener in brilliance. I think Robbie’s own description of ‘fine dining music’ is perfect, although I won’t compare the album to an expensive steak or a vintage claret.
It’s a trite and easy comparison but Fare Thee Well Letter (‘there ain’t nothin’ at all like losing you’) sounds like a lost James Taylor song from 1969, with a directness in the delivery. Helpless has the spiky guitars, massed harmonies and lapping organ of Nathaniel Rateliff’s work, as well as a main ascending hook which you will find it helpless to try to shake from your head.
As per its title, there is heartbreak etched over the album. Abby Gundersen voices the female figure on Hungover, where Robbie tells her to ‘look for something better’ and not to ‘waste your life being here by my side’. On Hung Up, which is one of plenty of toe-tappers on the album, he sings of ‘a million things to prove’ while he hears his beloved ‘screaming down the phone’. There are places where his voice matches the grit of Ed Sheeran’s, although I hear a lot of Ben Earle from The Shires too.
Driving is present as a motif running through the album, as on the first line of Hey It’s Alright (‘what if I drove far away from here?’) and the choruses of Another Dead End (used as a metaphor) and Drove. That song takes him to Paris but he ‘should have stayed home’, at which point the melody clambers up to the falsetto range in a fine musical moment.
The album ends with the showstopper Look Out Below, where Robbie realises he and his beloved have drifted apart. The strings and pedal steel guitar provide a melodic accompaniment to a lyric where Robbie is ‘standing in the garden ‘neath the ashes and bones’ which makes me think of Ben Folds or Ron Sexsmith, two other technicians of songwriting.
It’s hard to fault this album, with its variety, musicality and depth. Like his fellow North-Westerner Robert Vincent, Robbie flies the flag for contemporary British songwriting which should move beyond the country movement. I hope his music finds a wide and appreciative audience and I can’t wait to see him at the Empress Ballroom in September.