Interview: Baylen Leonard “There’s lots of moving parts but it’s all coming together, I’m excited”

Baylen Leonard's dog Clyde
Baylen’s gorgeous dog Clyde is barking mad with excitement at the thought of going to The Long Road.

Clyde has been measured for his hi-viz jacket, the final ‘i’s are being dotted and the ‘t’s crossed. With less than three weeks to go, Alison Dewar checked in for a chat with The Long Road festival’s creative director Baylen Leonard.

The Long Road Festival Logo

When the dates for this year’s The Long Road festival were announced, there was a sharp intake of breath from some quarters, namely due to the August Bank Holiday weekend being such a traditionally busy time. There were however, some pretty good reasons for bringing it forward from its traditional September slot, not least the fact that a certain Garth Brooks is playing Dublin.

Baylen explains: “Well, Garth has got a pretty good concert on, on our normal dates, so we didn’t want people to have to pick between us and Garth. It’s that great weekend to celebrate the very end of summer, yeah, it’s a crowded weekend and lots of festivals are on, but the kids are still out of school and lots of families come to The Long Road.

“Also, hopefully the weather will be a little bit warmer. Although we’ve had good days, the nights can be pretty cold so, looking at it altogether, it just made sense. We’ll never please everyone, but general consensus on feedback forms was they would quite like it a little bit earlier in the year.”

After the hiatus of the last two years, he is “really excited” about TLR 2022 and promises a few surprises along the way.

Baylen Leonard Interview 2022. Baylen and Alison
Baylen and Alison – looking forward to catching up again this year

“I keep catching myself being unable to believe that it’s just around the corner. I’m feeling really great about it. I’m feeding off the excitement of people online who are preparing to come and it’s also that period where a lot of the ‘i’s get dotted and the ‘t’s get crossed and all of the finer detail of the festival gets locked in. There’s lots of moving parts but it’s all coming together, to sum it up, I’d say I’m excited.”

Given that some of those moving parts include changes to the line-up – think Lauren Alaina, or Chapel Heart (who are doing well in America’s Got Talent) – I asked if he always has a Plan B.

“Sometimes you have a Plan B and sometimes you just have to react to what is happening. With over 80 artists on a festival there is always something that will crop up and you just have to react to it when that happens.

“You mention Chapel Heart, I was so excited to have them here and I know a lot of other people were too, but they have this exciting opportunity to reach more people in America. We will have them back, and maybe they will be big stars when we do.

“But you know, you go with the flow, I take things as they come and think ‘ok, what do we do about this, how do we get this sorted out’. And let’s not forget, in year one, we had Carrie Underwood drop out so after that, touch wood, I can deal with anything.”

Long Road 2022 Headliner Chris Young
Chris Young is the Saturday night headliner. Photo credit: Jeff Johnson

This year’s headline artists include Chris Young, The Cadillac Three, Brandy Clark, Villagers, and Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives.

Baylen makes the point he is always looking to achieve the right balance between bands, individual artists and duos (Locash and Seaforth being examples) saying: “I don’t just try and look at the balance across the genres, I try and look at the balance of the experience you can have as a festival goer. Plus, festivals and bands go hand-in-hand don’t they.”

Speaking as someone who has been a fan of Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives since that fantastic Legends slot at C2C, I for one am delighted to see him back in the UK again – and Baylen agrees.

“Me too, I’ve been such a fan of Marty Stuart for ever and he is one of those artists that, you know, he played in Johnny Cash’s band for god’s sake. He’s such a legend and still making exciting music, I’m just so excited to have him on the stage.”

For this writer, it’s proving to be a festival with ‘added value’ thanks to the imminent arrival of firm favourites Drake White and Kyle Daniel.

Baylen is also a fan: “I love Drake White and I am just so happy he is back on his feet again. What a man and I cannot wait to see his set – what a way to open the festival on Friday.

“And I’m such a fan of Kyle Daniel, I have had him booked for three years now and the two years we had to cancel, he has been there consistently. I have been a fan of his music since the first moment that I heard it.”

Baylen Leonard Interview 2022. Villagers will play main stage at The Long Road 2022
Villagers will be playing on the main stage

One act that may be less well known than some is Irish indie folk band Villagers, who feature on the main stage on Sunday.

Baylen sees TLR as a broad church of music, saying: “We’ve always tried to have something a little bit different dotted throughout the line-up. We’ve always had a handful of smaller artists that are adjacent to, but sit outside, of the core kind of genres that we cover in terms of country, Americana and roots.

“Villagers are a much bigger band in that world than we’ve had on the show before but I think they fit in perfectly. You can have stuff that isn’t core country, because I think we all have our likes and our dislikes.

“For the most part, everyone is a music lover, we all want to hear good music. The great thing about a festival with multiple stages and loads and loads of artists, is that you can put a band on, and maybe some people who only like country haven’t heard of them before, then they hear them and have a great time. And they discover some new music.

“The Villagers also have a huge fanbase on their own, wouldn’t it be great if some of their fans come to The Long Road and discover some great country artists that they had never heard of. Then they become country fans as well.

“I’m always trying to push it forward and make sure that the core audience and the core genres are well represented and well looked after, but always bringing in some surprises because I think that makes a great experience for everybody.”

I tried to pin Baylen down on who might be that special surprise hit this year, but he refuses to be drawn.

“It’s never someone you think it’s going to be…it’s always a band that you know is fantastic, and they just have some connection with the audience. You never really know until you are on site and see how they are reacting to the audience and how the audience is reacting to them. I’m just as excited as you are to find out who will be the big standout this year.”

Baylen Leonard Interview 2022. Bob Harris will be speaking at The Long Road 2022
Bob Harris will be talking about his life in music at the Interstate stage

One man whose name is no surprise, is country music broadcasting legend ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris OBE. Having been at the heart of the UK music scene for nearly 50 years and previously fronted the festival’s BBC Introducing session, this time he has a Sunday slot of his own in the Interstate – Bob Harris In Conversation – quite a coup.

“You know, I love Bob and I have so much respect for him. He has been so kind to me in my career. Obviously we’ve worked together for quite a few years now and I’m lucky enough to call him a friend.

“He is responsible for so many people liking country music in the UK and I thought it would just be so nice to hear from Bob. He has had such a long and interesting career, both inside and outside of country, so I am really looking forward to just hearing him talk about his career as well.”

Planning for TLR starts well over a year in advance – Baylen is already booking for 2023 – and he gains ideas for artists from a range of places.

As well as using major events such as C2C and CMA Fest and other gigs as audience sounding boards for future bookings; he also takes note of feedback from his radio programme and his social media. Sometimes, he says, it is as simple as keeping his ears open to new artists that people suggest.

Priscilla Block was one of the standout artists at C2C this year
Everette will be making a hotly-anticipated return to The Long Road

“I’m always seeing how people react. I was playing Everette and Priscilla Block (on the radio) before they were at C2C, so I already knew they were great. It’s a little bit of a mix, sometimes acts will be booked after I’ve seen them, sometimes I’ll book them just knowing that they are great and they haven’t been to the UK before, or they are looking to come to the UK. All those things come into play.

“Sometimes they are booked for The Long Road before they are booked for C2C, other times they are on C2C and then they are booked on The Long Road; sometimes it happens at the same time. Sometimes I’ll be playing them on the radio and have a relationship with that band and their management or agent and we’ll talk about how, since people are liking them on the radio, we can get them over to the UK.”

Given that several of the US acts have put in tours around the TLR dates, I wanted to know which comes first. Baylen is clear that “usually” it is the TLR booking which fixes the artists in to the calendar.

The Cadillac Three will close out TLR 2022
Topping the bill on Sunday night – The Cadillac Three

“We are usually the kind of flagship that they anchor everything around. In the case of The Cadillac Three, they weren’t mean to be touring at this time, they were meant to have been here already, but covid put a stop to that. The next available dates they had, we already had them booked, so they put their tour around us.

“In terms of the bigger artists, it’s a case of we book them and then they build up around it, some of the smaller artists will already be coming over and add the festival to their bill.”

In the US, being on country radio is a recognised dealmaker or breaker when it comes to major exposure and success. I asked Baylen if he agreed it’s different in the UK, where audiences are perhaps more prepared to take a chance on new artists.

“I think that’s true. The great thing about UK audiences is that they really dig in. They are discovering artists on their own as much as they are hearing them on the radio or more, and everyone shares new artists they have discovered and think people might like on social media.

“I think you’re right, it (radio) is less important in the UK at the moment. As country radio grows in the UK and as the country fanbase grows in the UK, we’ll see if that remains the same.”

A packed crowd at TLR 2019
2019 at TLR saw a packed crowd, but there’s no doubt that times have been tough for festivals this summer

Which led me neatly on to my next question around where Baylen thinks country music is positioned versus the whole of the UK music industry. In recent weeks Keith Urban’s new single has been all over BBC Radio 2 and newer artists like Morgan Wade have been championed, but from my point of view it’s still harder for less well-known artists – or those not backed by a major label – to get airplay on mainstream radio.

Does he think there will be a point when country music becomes more widespread?

“I hope so. I certainly think it’s moving in that direction. If you look at the stats, country music has been for a while now, and remains, the biggest growing genre in the UK – of all genres – so, long may that continue.

“The more people hear country music, the more it challenges their perceptions of what country music is. A lot of people like country music and don’t even know that it is country music.

“I guess it still remains a niche, but every single week I get an email or a message on social media from somebody who has just discovered country music, just started listening to it and realise that they love it. Whether that was on the radio, or they saw a country act at a multi-genre festival or something, I get a message from somebody who’s a new country fan – so I think that bodes well for the future.”

It’s been a tough time for festivals this summer and, with only so much money in your pocket and the cost of living going up almost daily, I asked Baylen what he and the team do to make sure their festival is the one people want to come to and, most importantly, can afford.

TLR shopping
Retail therapy is always a popular pastime at TLR. Photo credit: Craig Dewar

“That’s always a discussion we’re having, whether that’s the price of the actual tickets or the price of food and drink and merchandise and stuff on site,” he says. “I’m always very aware that people work very hard for their money and it’s a tough time financially for everybody, we have really strived to make it as accessible to as many people as possible.

“And if people choose to come and spend their money at The Long Road, I want to be sure they’re getting real value for their money.

“In terms of longevity, and how to ensure that people continue to come to The Long Road, I think it’s that stuff that I just talked about, but also making sure that we just hold fast and true to being the type of festival that we set out to be – an inclusive festival, good value for money, friendly, on time, and a nice vibe that people want to return to.

All the fun of the fair at TLR
All the fun of the fairground at TLR makes the festival a real family affair. Photo credit: Craig Dewar

“And, of course, making sure that there is a wide kind of variety of entertainment, both music and non-music, across the weekend.”

Talking of entertainment, fans of the live karaoke sessions should be excited to hear these will be happening on each of the three nights and this year’s car show will be bigger than ever, with motorbikes added to the line-up too.

Baylen promises visitors will also see a few other changes to the layout as the festival evolves in what, after all, is still only its third year.

As generous as Baylen is, I couldn’t monopolise him all afternoon, so I had three final questions:

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever been asked for by a country artist?

“You know, the great thing about country artists is that they’re not very demanding. In terms of riders and stuff, there’s never been any huge surprises, there’s been a few tricky moments – certainly in the first year.

“I won’t name the artist but there was a minor medical emergency about 10 minutes before they went on stage. They were fine, but it was one of those where the audience was there, and there was this moment when it was quite a hairy situation, but it all worked out in the end. They went on stage and nobody was any the wiser. But in terms of demanding artists – touch wood, so far so good.”

If you had a wish list, who would be at the very top – I’m guessing Dolly.

“Dolly is Dolly, so yeah she’s on anybody’s wishlist (laughter). You know, whether you’re talking about a festival or anything else, it’s always going to be Dolly…but we also have to be realistic!”

And lastly. Is Clyde coming?

“Oh Clyde is coming. We’re a dog friendly festival, he will absolutely be there. You know the great thing is, dogs in the arena obviously they’re fine, but Clyde will be with me backstage, in the artists’ areas where we’re moving equipment, so they have already ordered his very own hi-viz dog jacket.”

I bet we won’t be the only ones who can’t wait to meet him!

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