Review: CMA Songwriters Series – a little less conversation but a masterclass in making music

View from above - Songwriters
A brimful of talent at CMA Songwriters kicked off this year’s C2C in style – photo credit Neil Hallam

For me, Thursday night’s CMA Songwriters Series is always an early highlight of the C2C Festival and one I undoubtedly look forward to most.

As always, you couldn’t fault the quality of the artists…as one of my fellow writers said ‘I’d have paid the entrance fee to see Ashley Gorley on his own’.

The man is a true legend of the songwriting world, having chalked up 62 number one hits and, as Lainey Wilson (who sat alongside him) said – ‘for every song you’ve heard, Ashley has probably written it’.

The pair were joined on stage by Dalton Dover and Nate Smith, both newcomers to both C2C and the UK – although judging by the audience reception, they’ll be back again before long.

Ashley Gorley
Hit-maker Ashley Gorley – photo credit Craig Dewar

Ashley gave us a masterclass in some of his best known songs, including You Should Probably Leave (a favourite which has been replaying in my head ever since), written with Chris Stapleton and Chris Du Bois, and a massive hit last year for Stapleton.

He talked about being in writing rooms and ‘finding the magic’ – something he clearly has in spades, about his love for ballads, being a ‘piano boy’, and the fact that once you’ve written that song, first you have to hope the artist records it and secondly, that they actually put it on an album. I think it’s fair to say he’s been pretty successful at getting those album cuts…

Among them of course has been Sand In My Boots, co-written with Josh Osborne and HARDY, which was a huge number one hit for Morgan Wallen, and we were treated to his own fabulous live version on the keyboard. The best singalong of the night however, went to She Had Me At Heads Carolina, a rewrite of Jo Dee Messina’s original 1990s classic Heads Carolina, Tails California, which proved a big hit for Cole Swindell last year and was co-writtten by Ashley with (among others) C2C headliner Thomas Rhett.

Lainey Wilson
Lainey Wilson lit up the stage – photo credit Craig Dewar

Sharing the Songwriters stage with Ashley must be pretty daunting, but Lainey Wilson, who took home Female Vocalist of the Year and New Artist of the Year at last November’s CMA Awards, made light work of it.

Her set was predominantly taken from her 2022 album Bell Bottom Country and she cracked off with Those Boots (Deddy’s Song), a song she wrote for her Dad – a major classic country and Glen Campbell fan (sensible man says this writer) – and, after a year in which her father suffered serious illness, she spoke of how important it was for her that he could share her red carpet walk at the CMAs.

Both Heart Like A Truck – described by Lainey as a song about not being ashamed of ‘picking up a few dents along the way’ – and Hillbilly Hippie got the audience singing along and, despite having struggled with losing her voice earlier in the week, she proved she was back on track.

Lainey’s final song of the night was Things a Man Oughta Know, taken from her 2021 album Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’, rightly named Song of the Year at the 2022 ACMs, setting her up perfectly for the big stages to come over the weekend.

And, as I write this after the festival, it’s clear that no matter whether you were in London, Dublin or Glasgow, Lainey was one of the most popular and best loved acts to grace that top flight. There are already plenty of calls for her to be a future headliner and, given what seemed to be rather a dearth of female artists in the Arenas this year, let’s hope it won’t be too long before we see her back again.

Dalton Dover
Dalton Dover made his UK debut at C2C – photo credit Craig Dewar

Let’s go back to Songwriters however and tap into Dalton Dover and Nate Smith. Both were newcomers to C2C and to the UK itself and each declared themselves delighted to be there, with Dalton calling it ‘an honour’.

He started with Giving Up On That, released just last month and which became his first song on country radio. His second song was a brand new one, You Need A Rock (and I am a rolling stone) about going on a road journey, a song which perfectly showcased the depth of this man’s voice.

Completing his turn on stage was Baby I Am which, as luck would have it (and whether by design or not) was co-written by none other than Nate Smith. Having launched his singing career on The Voice, it was, said Dalton, putting this song on TikTok that ‘changed my life’. It’s probably fair to say there will be plenty more changes to come.

Nate Smith
Nate Smith has a new album out soon – photo credit Craig Dewar

Last in the line-up was Nate himself. According to Lainey, when she asked the ‘radio folks’ who to get excited about, it was Nate’s name in the frame (apologies for the pun!) and he certainly didn’t disappoint.

With a new self-titled album due out on April 28 and packed full of 20 songs (yes, it’s just over an hour long), Nate took the opportunity to shine the spotlight on some of those forthcoming tracks. First out of the blocks was Sleeve, followed by Under My Skin – he’s already getting messages from folks telling him it’s their wedding song – and then tearjerker I Don’t Wanna Go To Heaven. For those that don’t know, Nate used to work as a nurse assistant, and he talked briefly about meeting someone who was struggling with cancer and how it means a lot because you never know what a song will bring to people.

It wasn’t all sad songs though and he wrapped up his slot with Whiskey On You, a lively and fun track which scored him his first number one. (You can catch our recent Six Shooter Country interview with Nate here

As is the tradition these days, the Songwriters event allows for a few extra surprises in the shape of the artists who will be performing on the Introducing Nashville segment of the main stage during C2C itself.

Alana Springsteen, Tyler Braden and Caylee Hammack each picked one song to make their mark on the Songwriters audience.

For her first time playing an overseas gig, Alana chose Twenty Something, the title track of her debut album, which reflected on things you wish you knew in your twenties.

Tyler endeared himself to everyone by saying this was a very emotional moment, and he was so proud of his first ever physical CD, that he brought one along, signed it and gave it to someone in the front row. As to his chosen song, it was Try Losing One, a stunner of a track which generated massive cheers and probably a few tissue moments too…even Ashley Gorley paid the ultimate tribute by saying he wished he’d written it.

Completing the hat-trick of Introducing Nashville stars was Caylee, who was finally getting to play C2C after her C2C 2020 appearance was abruptly cancelled due to the pandemic. There was a plus side to having to stay at home however, she said, as not being able to travel meant even the bigger artists could take time to listen to new music.

When she wrote the harmonies for Small Town Hypocrite it was with Chris Stapleton in mind and, on the basis that ‘if you never ask, the answer will always be no’, she expressed her wish, which came true when he duetted with her on the 2021 version. Nope, he didn’t join her on stage this time, but her own stunning vocals brought her plenty of cheers on the night.

The Songwriters artists
Another fabulous Songwriters event – photo credit Craig Dewar

In summary…the standing ovation drew its own conclusion as the curtains came down on yet another successful Songwriters evening.

For me, the one thing that was missing was perhaps a little more of the energy, storytelling and crowd interaction that we’ve seen in previous years. Who could forget 2019 when Jimmie Allen jumped off the stage and ran upstairs to fist bump with the fans, his drinking game challenges with Travis Denning and the sparkling repartee from Cam.

I remember describing that night’s atmosphere as electric, you felt as if you’d gatecrashed a party of old friends.

Or indeed 2022, when Shy Carter won himself plenty of new fans for his sheer exuberance as well as his singing and songwriting, plus of course, the humour from another songwriting legend Luke Dick.

As I began this review, you certainly couldn’t fault the quality of the artists or their songs, they were 100% brilliant, but for me it was the personality of the show itself that was a little lacking this year – that spark of conversation and character between the writers that lifts the evening above and beyond merely an acoustic music show.

They all felt like they were in their own little bubble. Perhaps they were still a little jetlagged, feeling under the weather in colder climes and not quite warmed up yet…who knows?

But I do have one question for future debate. That’s if, given all the time spent on video calls, TikTok and social media, some artists are beginning to lose a little of the art of face-to-face conversation and spontaneous interaction?

Let’s hope not…

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