The British Country Boom

Back in the 70’s, the summers were long, we had powercuts, the Wombles, Mike Reid hosting Runaround and Country Music wasn’t country music, it was just music. Growing up then, and this is a scientific survey, carried out with 2 people, myself and my wife, but growing up if you heard let’s say Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves or Dolly Parton, it wasn’t Country Music, it was just music. In my house at least, we didn’t differentiate.

The 1970’s were that last time that Country Music had a boom in the UK. This was the time of Mervyn Conn’s International Festival Of Country Music at Wembley, running between 1969 and up to 1991, reading like a who’s who of Country Music legends, Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, George Jones, the list goes on and on. Every one played it.

The charts also featured country, or at least country tinged singles and albums, Dolly had a top 10 hit with Jolene, Kenny Rogers had numerous hits, as did Johnny Cash, even CW McCall had a hit with Convoy,  The 70’s were good to Country Music in the UK. It was a good time and some great music was produced then.

The 80’s came along and perhaps that was a beginning of an end to a degree. It was a time of the first utterings of That’s not Country Music, that unfortunately persist to this day. With the 90’s the rise of the country superstar in Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson had an impact in the UK, but it was the music of our parents. It was the music of old farts and jackasses, to quote Blake Shelton. Country Music in the nineties was off limits to a lot of a certain generation. Not entirely, but broadly it was not Oasis, or Nirvana or Rave culture. It was wrangler shirts, Stetsons and harmless love songs. It was Country and Western.

This persisted into the last decade, Country Music just wasn’t cool. If you talked about a Country Music artist, it sounded like you were namedropping some tiny obscure singer you found in the small ads of the NME. “Oh yeah I love this really cool indie artist called Toby Keith”. Perhaps for the best considering the attraction to mullets in the genre.

Then something changed. I really can’t put my finger on what changed, I can’t even put a specific date on the change. I know that Mervyn Conn brought back his International Festival of Country Music back in 2012, with Reba and Lonestar playing, it has to be said it was poorly attended, the sound was dreadful and it gave no indication of the Country Music boom that was on its doorstep.

2013 and Country To Country was born. A Country Music festival that seemed to pick up on the broad cross section of established and emerging Country Music fans. Fans that were respectful to the past, but also had an eye on the future. Fans that know what is troubling the US charts, that know of obscurer tunes, that know of indie country artists, but also know the hits by country superstars. That know Pontoon or Cruise from the first note. Country To Country pulled it off then and keep giving people what they like, and know, ever since. Expanding and adding to their established format.

2015 saw them expand that format by adding 2 of the biggest UK acts in Ward Thomas and The Shires. Two unashamedly Country Music artists who are spearheading the current boom for the genre here in the UK.

Ward Thomas, two sisters, Lizzie and Catherine, who had an early single championed by

Radio 2 and then through touring, promotion and hard work have a highly successful

debut album in From Where I Stand.

Similarly The Shires, scored a UK top 10 album with their debut. A first, exceptional .

This is not Country Music of old, this isn’t Stetsons, playing cowboys, and the Country

Music of our parents. It’s where Country Music is in 2015. You are more likely to find one

of the new generation playing a cover of an Ed Sheeran or George Ezra than covering Tom

T Hall. Their audience is young, their audience could be at an indie concert but, BUT, their

audience is also the parents. That’s the difference in 2015. You go to an Eric Church

concert, you have people from 16 to 60 and beyond. The old farts and jackasses never left

the genre but now the next generation is seeing it in all its glory. Seeing that UK Country

Music, more than the US is not cheesy, that its professional and it isn’t all achy breaky

heart.

Undoubtedly the TV show Nashville has only been positive in showing people that Country Music has changed, Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church et al can only help further the cause. Similarly the impact of UK Country Music radio station Chris Country getting a broad cross section of US and UK Country Music out there can only be commended.

The future in the UK looks good for Country Music, the fantastic album by adopted daughter to these shores, Jess and The Bandits has had a track play listed by Radio 2 and the album is working its way up the charts. Jess gives a Nashville shine to UK Country Music and if you buy one album this month I heartily suggest it is this one. If anyone is poised to walk in the footsteps of The Shires and Ward Thomas, then based on Here We Go Again, it is looking like it may be Jess and The Bandits.

Then you have Frankie Davies, a singer songwriter from Jersey, who along with her band has released a few singles, all of exceptional quality. Fantastic live and look, for all intents and purposes on the verge of something good when an album is produced.

Also Dexeter, who have supported The Shires and Ward Thomas, and via social media have built up a hell of a buzz around themselves. Always positive reviews, a great live show and about to release their crowdfunded second album, 4000 Miles To Nashville. Securing their total via Pledgemusic easily, and then some. Could Dexeter be the next UK Country Music success story?

What Country To Country has done the past 3 years is give UK Country Music a stage, a way to convince the UK that a new breed of artist is out there, performing their own original material, without irony, with quality that matches, and in some cases outstrips those that are appearing on the main stage. Be it Jess Roberts, Laura Oakes, Raintown or Fitzwallace.

My hope for the future is that Country Music continues to grow in the UK, that we see more and more artists producing the quality of music being released by The Shires and Ward Thomas. That we have breadth of material, from traditional to contemporary and that a place exists for all of it side by side. That the audience continue to support the genre through these good times and stick around through leaner times. That CD’s are bought, that projects are funded and gigs are attended. That burgeoning talents are supported and encouraged. Country Music is currently at its most successful, most interesting and for this writer at least, enjoyable.

Recommended Listening.

Nashville Grey Skies – The Shires
Footnotes (Happy Ending) – Ward Thomas
(Isn’t Just) Another Day – Dexeter
Superman – Frankie Davies
Nitty Gritty – Jess and The Bandits

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