Quietly, country music has been growing. Or rather, it’s been...changing. You think country, you think Dolly, you think Cash, you think Hank. “Three chords and the truth”, Harlan Howard’s old adage that is proudly displayed on the walls of The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the mother church of Country music.
However, there are two sides two every coin, and the slickness of Nashville country saw its opposite in the grittier, darker alt-country of the likes of Jason Molina, Bill Callahan and Jay Farrar which sprung up in the 90s. Weirder instrumentation, jarring vocals, pretty dark subject matter. Now, 20 years on, it seems a new generation, raised on a more varied diet of Country music, are influencing the mainstream in a more direct way, and as a result the genre is enjoying something of a resurgence - typified by Country 2 Country, the three day stetson-hatted bonanza that turns the O2 into something resembling a heavily-branded barn dance for three days in the Spring.
The acts on show tow this country / alt-country line pretty evenly. On the mainstagers you’ve got the likes of Carrie Underwood and Eric Church, powerhouses of Nashville in their own right, who could probably sell out the O2 without the backing of a weekend festival. Then younger, more up and coming heirs to that sound - the impressive Brooke Eden who wailed with raspy, tassly songs about cheating men, staying out all night, and doing it on your own. The Shires, a UK duo making pretty considerable waves across the pond, opened the day at the Brooklyn Bowl (do they have bowling on at the same time as gigs, normally? Weird if so. Very weird) and had the place totally packed out, with everyone wooping and hollering and harmonising along. There was a sense of pride that these guys were from not too far away, and holding their own against Nashville’s finest. It should be noted, Country2Country is one festival that cannot be faulted for having a male dominated lineup - it has bucked the trend in that respect and should be commended for it.
The act who really exemplified the atmosphere of the festival was undoubtedly Chris Stapleton, who you may have seen alongside Justin Timberlake at the CMAs last year. On the main stage, with a spare four-piece band, including wife Morgane on backing vocals, he held the pretty-packed O2 arena in the palm of his hand. Vocally, it was as good a performance as I’ve ever seen. Like, the man is an absolute thunderstorm, he belts out the big notes, but has so much control, a total mastery of his instrument. Playing his track Whiskey And You solo acoustic, he broke out from his towering soul rasp into a flawless falsetto, and I swear, we all drew breath. Across 40 minutes of tracks from his debut record Traveller, produced by the same man who sat behind the desk on the last two Jason Isbell albums, and Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, he won the entire room over. A UK return isn’t scheduled, but I can’t imagine that’s far off.
There is one man who looms large over Country2Country, and indeed, the UK country music scene full stop - good old Whispering Bob Harris. As well as introducing acts on the main stage, and generally just striding around the arena (dude’s way taller than I imagined), he was promoting his next big venture - the Under The Apple Tree Festival, a spin-off from the successful YouTube series Bob’s been curating for the past few years. The sound on the Under The Apple Tree stage was a little muddy in comparison to the others, but it didn’t matter all too much. Dexeter, hailing from Leicestershire, got a standing ovation for their set early in the day, which definitely felt like a folk-infused kind of country, an English sensibility with wailing Stratocaster solos mixed in.
It’ll be interesting to see where both C2C, and indeed Under The Apple Tree, go from here. To my mind, the UK’s country / roots music scene is incredibly strong, and that’s reflected in the amount of homegrown acts Mr. Harris (no relation, I should add) has at the festival - Jess Morgan, Worry Dolls, The Lake Poets, Blue Rose Code, Danny & The Champions of the World, Danni Nicholls, Luke Jackson. All from these shores, all carving out a good thing for themselves, all seem to have a good idea of where they’re going. Watch this space.
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