Bob Harris Interview: We Interview the UK’s Country Music Messiah and Chat Country2Country, New Talent and Much More!
If country music in the UK had a leader, a higher power, it would be ‘Whispering Bob Harris’. For years, he’s presented ‘The Country Show’ on BBC Radio 2, showcasing some of the best country music from the USA and beyond. He’s been the face of Country2Country Festival since its birth in 2013 and is the go-to man for anything country music related in the UK. From flying the country flag alone to sharing the scene with a huge community of country fans, Bob has seen huge changes in the genre over the past few years. We were recently lucky enough to sit down and chat about his favourite C2C moments, thoughts on the next big artists and much much more!
I think everyone is just about back to Earth after Country2Country, how was the weekend for you?
I know! I mean, in terms of our work and our routine backstage it was my favourite one! I loved all aspects of it, of course being up on the main stage I get to look out on the whole thing and get to sense the vibe of everything, I think people really really enjoyed it this year. I think it was just about my favourite one! You know, some of the performances in past years have been sensational but this whole weekend, with all twelve acts, there wasn’t one that I didn’t enjoy!
Absolutely. We had writers in London and Glasgow. It’s lovely to see the consistent reactions across the whole thing, everyone was raving about the artists!
Yeah. I think that’s true.
A lot of people also commented on how good the sound was too…
Yes and much better than last year when there was such a controversy over Tim and Faith – and the bass end in London particularly. It’s funny because the O2 in London is sort of a sound funnel, depending where you are in that huge auditorium there are little corridors where the sound is very different from the sound in the rest of the auditorium. Particularly towards the back, there’s a little bass funnel where it seems to be heavy. I didn’t even get that this year, which is great. Normally, if someone has a complaint – or praise for that matter, they tend to direct it towards me thinking I’m the one in charge of the sound!
Really?! I guess that’s the problem you have, you’ve been the face of this festival! The downside being that if something goes wrong, it’s Bob’s fault!
I can’t believe we’ve now had seven editions of C2C. Back in 2013 did you ever imagine what it’s become, these three nights, amazing acts, the Radio 2 stage and more?
No, to be honest. I was just thrilled that it was happening on the scale that it happened in that first year. I thought “this is amazing. Country music coming together. Nashville coming to Britain!” Historically Nashville had been quite reluctant to make that journey and suddenly this new generation of artists didn’t find it a chore – they wanted to be here, they saw the now vibrant market in the UK. They’d been speaking to their friends and colleagues who’d maybe already come over and done gigs and that word of mouth thing, you can’t underestimate how important it is! If you have a Brad Paisley, for example, who’s going back to Nashville and saying “god, I had this great time over there! The fans really are something!” that gets around. Truly, this year, I do all the interviews with everyone and without exception, apart from the really big names, more the Chase Rice’s of this world, they were all saying “I wanted to come to the UK because I’d heard from friends of mine how fantastic it was”. That word of mouth thing, with that new generation having the willingness to lift their heads and come over, then going back and saying “you should go to the UK! Shepherd’s Bush Empire – it rocks!” Honestly, I think that’s been a very important part of it.
I would agree. A lot of the artists I’ve spoken to say the people make it. Brothers Osborne are a great example, they might not really make any money from touring Britain, it’s just the crowd vibe that brings them back. It’s strange, you don’t tend to hear of that in other genres of music…
I specifically can pinpoint one reason why that is. Obviously, country music is about the song, the whole of Nashville was and still is built around the song. To these artists who come over, you sit and talk them about their music, the one thing that comes round and round is the power of the song and the lyrics. One thing that American artists consistently say to me is that British fans ‘go deep’. In other words, in America the big hit singles get the crowd participation whereas track three side two is pretty flat because it’s not a hit that everyone knows. Contrast with the British audiences and they’re finding them singing along, they know the lyrics to these songs! To the artist, the idea that this audience in Britain is spanning across all their work, they’re not just listening to ‘Small Town Boy’, they’re going deep into Dustin Lynch’s album and getting to know the whole album. That’s a big surprise to them, seeing those lesser-known songs getting the same reaction as the big hit – they love that! That’s acknowledgement of their work!
It’s great when you’re at a show and the artist acknowledges that! I remember Dierks playing a new single and he couldn’t believe people knew it, he was literally asking “how do you know this, it came out yesterday?!” If it’s out there, we’ll listen though!
As I say, you can’t overestimate the extent to which the artists love that. They really feel complimented by that because we’ve taken the trouble to explore their music. It’s a big endorsement.
I’m interested to know from you, Bob. You’ve pushed country in the UK for years, did you always have a feeling it would blow up like this and all it would take was maybe something like a C2C to help these fans emerge from the shadows?
I’m not sure there was a light bulb moment where we moved from the dark into the light and you could say “wow, that’s it, that’s the single reason this has happened”. There were a whole number of signposts that began to point in this direct, in fact I became aware of an arriving shift at the time when I first started doing the country show and started going to Nashville in 1999. When Alan Jackson and George Strait and people like that were ruling country music with an iron rod, however a new generation were just starting to arrive and I think of Brad, Sara Evans, then Keith Urban, more sort of broad minded artists who were prepared to think that there is something beyond the horizon line! There’s a rest of the world out there that actually might enjoy country.
I’ve quoted this a couple of times, but to me it summed everything up at that moment. We were broadcasting live at the Grand Old Opry and this is when we were doing literally the live coverage of the CMA Awards. Richard Wootten was with us and the door of the studio was open, Alan Jackson was stood literally just outside the door about 15 yards from me and my microphone. Richard said “oh, there’s Alan Jackson, I’ll go grab him for an interview”. I was privy to this conversation, Richard said “Hi Alan”, Alan knew who he was, he said “we’ve got the BBC here, with an audience of 15 million, they’d love to have a chat with you so that maybe you could talk to your fans in Britain for a couple of minutes, it’d be really nice”. He looked at Richard and said “why would I want to do that?” I’ve always remembered that. To me that narrow and closed mind, these new artists were beginning to blow it away. Lonestar, Rascal Flatts, these are the artists that paved the way and were the first of the newer acts that were coming here to build an audience. Then Taylor, the influence with the young girls like Catherine McGrath who were inspired by her. ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ was very influential, I remember T Bone Burnett saying it was like a depth charge then a few years later all the bubbles starting coming to the surface – for us that happened with the likes of Mumford and Sons. Then you get the likes of The Civil Wars, who inspired The Shires, they were the first outpost of British country. That all coincided with the arrival of C2C. It was a lot of filings that eventually began to point to magnetic north. It was a gradual process. Of course, don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to forget The Country Show. Right from day one I was the guy who was saying “have you heard of Gillian Welch? Rascal Flatts?” I think Millie Olycan was massively important to C2C and she was a huge supporter of my show, she saw it as a massive catalyst.
It’s funny you say that, I remember driving home from university about twelve years ago and you played Brad Paisley ‘American Saturday Night’ followed by Toby Keith ‘American Ride’, that really kicked things off for me… I know you mentioned The Shires before, do you feel that the British artists helped build the scene just as much as the American artists coming over did?
Totally! Let’s take 2011, The Shires were really influenced by The Civil Wars, individually, then when they started singing together they realised there was something tonal about their harmonies that reminded both of them of The Civil Wars. There was something important about that album ‘Barton Hollow’ for the British audience to think “wow, the roots of this music are deep. Let’s explore where they go and be influenced by the harmonies and structure of the songs”. That was 2011, we’re now eight years later, somebody who was 14 then is now 22. They would have taken country music from that time with them to now, with that has come the emergence of a plethora of styles, obviously starting with The Shires and Ward Thomas but then people like Robert Vincent, Catherine McGrath. We’ve got this new generation of artists who have their own identity and don’t have to lean on the American sound, they’ve found their own voice. Catherine would have been thirteen when she first heard Taylor and it’s that generation that are bringing country now. It’s an interesting thing, actually, I think I’ve become aware there’s a sort of country generation gap between the older people who rightly appreciate their traditional country. They’re maybe old enough to even remember the old Wembley concerts, they’re still pretty die-in-the-wool and rather genre protective. On the other hand, this new generation of country fans, they love country but they love pop and rock, maybe they like a bit of Harry Styles, they’d go and see Harry Styles and Kacey Musgraves and wouldn’t necessarily see a massive distinction between the two. You’ve got this very open minded family that has joined country and brought this phenomenal energy. I can tell you, from looking from the stage at the O2, it strikes you how young the audience now is – which I think is a fantastic thing because it’s taking that music into the future.
I feel like C2C and The Long Road particularly, bring together a lot of styles that cater for everyone. It makes for a great atmosphere.
One of the things I sort of liken it to, and I say onstage a lot, is that we’re a community and a family! It’s like going to a football match where everybody is wearing the same colour scarf, we’re all there to support the same team, we’re all going to have a great time but there are parallels in there. In the O2, for those moments, it’s one great single thought. We’re all bound together by the music and that’s a fantastic feeling.
Going back to the British acts, I really wanted to speak about the Under the Apple Tree tour that kicks off soon. Is that a real passion project for you?
Totally! It’s grown from the sessions we do here in the studio, the seed of those were sown exactly six years ago funnily enough. Kristian Bush was the first act I introduced on stage at the O2 and a couple of days earlier he was down here talking to my son Miles who was doing an internet radio show. We were talking about doing sessions and Kristian did one whilst he was here. That was where it started, we did other sessions, Miles was regularly curating sessions, bringing people in and then filming those sessions and posting them on our YouTube. It was our way of saying to the UK grassroots community “there is an open door for you here and we can provide a platform”. It’s worked and the channel has now had close to two million hits. We look after the artists and give them a lovely day, Miles gets a phenomenal sounds, they love the experience and get the exposure from the channel. From that we started taking stages up to festivals and promoting our own concerts at Cadogan Hall. Live Nation then approached us and offered us a helping hand to get these artists in front of more people. That’s how it happened, they’ve been fantastic and here we are going out on our first UTAT tour. I’ve got to completely credit my son Miles, he’s the one who’s been curating these sessions and his commitment, love and passion is incredible.
I was going to say, it’s a real family affair. It’s funny you mention Kristian Bush, isn’t he just the nicest guy?!
Let’s face it, there aren’t many people around the country music community that are horrible. It’s such a cliche but it’s true! Whenever I say how nice people in country music are people say “oh, you’re just saying that!” No I’m not! Have you met Kristian Bush? Brad Paisley? Brett Eldredge? They are absolutely lovely! Even backstage, the last interview at C2C was Chris Stapleton and my wife Trudie was standing to the side as we got a photo, Chris is saying “come on Trudie! Get in the photo! Let’s all have one together!” Trudie was really touched that he’d reach out to her in that way. It’s just another example of how lovely they are.
I’m very interested to know if there’s anyone you’re listening to at the moment and think is going to break through in the next 12 months?
Molly Tuttle. I love Molly Tuttle. She’s just fabulous. She’s not dead-centre country, more bluegrass but she was the instrumentalist of the year at the Americana’s at the Ryman last September. I think she’s lovely, she’s got a really light touch, her music is very driftily creative. She’s coming over in April and I think she’s wonderful. The other name, actually recommended to me by Sam Outlaw, is Caleb Caudle. His album is beautiful, really really lovely.
It’s funny you say Sam Outlaw’s name, what a great artist. It’s funny how there are certain artists that seem to make a name over here but struggle back in the States. It’s a strange phenomenon.
And Sam is definitely in that category. He’s been struggling a bit in America whereas here we’ve really embraced him. I was will Al Booth, Mark Hagen and Millie Olykan at a little venue in Madison on the outskirts of Nashville called Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge, Sam had a residency there playing 90’s country covers. It was one of the best gigs I’ve been to in years and yet he was basically playing as a cover band. He is sensational, I was very happy Millie came with us because, with her position at CMA, I really wanted her to see him.
Just to wrap things up, this is an open question, but what do you see for the future of country music in the UK?
I think it’s just going to keep on going. It’s interesting how broad a church it is but perhaps that’s more emphasised today than at any time. I do think that one of the reasons is the fact that some of the new artists have been listening to the radio, going on Spotify and exploring genres and picking off music they really like. They’re allowing the influence of things they like to bleed into music they’re making now. It’s like Keith (Urban) really, if you really really analyse his set at the O2 it’s not awash with pedal steel but it’s rooted in country music in a way that’s difficult to define. His music has grown out of Nashville, and alright it may have taken on board influences from other musical genres, but it’s based in country. I think we’ll gradually see more of the definition lines in musical genres blurring. I think that’s a long-term process in the next five to ten years but I think it’s going to happen. I don’t see that with any kind of dread. For the traditionalists, this is the end of country music as we know it! I say to people who moan; OK, well, turn the clock back to the late 50’s early 60’s, to Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins and the production of that, what were they doing? They were turning country into pop as a reaction to the rough and raw sound of rock n roll. The audiences were concerned what they were hearing when they heard the new Jim Reeves record was a pop single with a country basis. Now, the traditionalists are saying “music isn’t like it was when Jim Reeves was making records” – well he was making pop records! The people who are now saying country is going too pop – have we not heard this before?! I’m absolutely against the idea of resisting this change. I think it is a change, it’s an energy, it’s amazing fuel being poured into country and I’m 100% behind that!
I think it is a very exciting time for country music in the UK and I think we should all be excited. We all owe a real debt of gratitude to you, Bob, for persisting and helping this music come to Britain.
Well, it’s so interesting Mark. Turn the clock back ten years and I was standing in this lane completely unaccompanied! I was the only flag bearing country music enthusiast! Now, you can see the way things have changed. It warms my heart, it really does. We’ve got two TV stations, a new radio station, Chris Country. I think Baylen is doing a fantastic job, I’m a massive supporter of him and I’m sure over time he’ll probably be presenting the Country Show on Radio 2. We’re all in this together and I really feel good about that!