Something strange and banjo-shaped has taken hold of British music fans. First there was Radio 2 and DJ Bob Harris’s steadfast helping of twang on Thursdays; next the explosive ascension of US sweetheart Taylor Swift; then came megawatt musical melodrama Nashville.
Before we knew it, we were under country music’s spell. This weekend, for the fifth year in a row, tens of thousands of fans will descend upon London’s O2, as its stages are invaded by the brightest stars in the southern states for the C2C Country to Country festival, which will be celebrated on a pop-up digital station, Radio 2 Country.
“A lot of different forces have fused together to create this moment,” says Bob Harris, who comperes the festival. “It’s been amazing over the past three or four years to see artists like Kacey Musgraves move into the mainstream. American artists love to play to a British crowd, and they tell me that, over here, we go deeper into an album than any other listeners,” he says.
It’s not just American artists dominating the charts: a British country scene is rising with the Shires, a Bedfordshire-Hertfordshire duo, shining a light on the phenomenon in a BBC4 documentary this Friday.
On the same night, US comedian Rich Hall traces country’s Appalachian, blues and Celtic roots, before heading to the genre’s heartlands, of Nashville, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas, to explore how the music scene differs in the two cities.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Hall has his own take on the state of country music – and he’s no fan of the “formulaic, guy in a cowboy hat, singing about pick-up trucks” that, he says, most UK listeners are probably used to.
“Nashville’s a great city and has its charms, but lots of the music doesn’t come from any real emotional centre. In Austin, they’re not focused on being a factory for hits – they celebrate individuality and artistic endeavour, as opposed to commodity.”
“It used to be that the rural lifestyle created the music. Now it’s the other way around. People sing what the audience want to hear, and it seems every song on the radio goes, ‘If I could drink a beer with Jesus…’ It’s ridiculous – first of all, Jesus drank wine, if he drank anything!
“Lots of the biggest stars in country aren’t really the blue-collar people they claim to be – and music should appeal to listeners who identify with the lyrics, more than the singer. If you want to sit and listen to someone tell real, authentic musical stories, you’ll realise country isn’t all just pick-up trucks and halter tops.”
So what should we be listening to? “Nashville always has to have its darlings – and at the moment it’s Kacey Musgraves. She’s 28, and brings in a new, young audience like Taylor Swift did before her, and that’s always good for music.
“But she’s a better songwriter than Taylor – her music sounds older, it’s more progressive and more literate. She’s one of my favourite female singers. And if you talk to people in the know, they’ll tell you Chris Stapleton is the next big thing. He’s the real deal.”
If you’re new to country, Hall suggests turning first to the greats, then, “if you like Dolly Parton, listen to Matraca Berg, or the Quebe Sisters – incredible harmonists. And if you love Johnny Cash, try troubadour types like Sturgill Simpson, Hayes Carll, Chris Knight and Slaid Cleaves.”
But, like Harris, Hall isn’t surprised country music is experiencing its moment in the spotlight on this side of the pond. “Country is about the roots of everyone’s existence – it can be either really light and translucent, or very dark. It wasn’t created in a big city in a studio; it was created out in farms and fields and on front porches when people had to entertain themselves. That’s what lots of it still celebrates – it hasn’t really ever got away from its essence.”
Both Hall and Harris agree: the genre is diverse, and from rhinestone-clad divas to traditional bluegrass beats, we Brits are doffing our Stetsons and embracing country rhythms like never before.
Rich Hall’s Countrier than You is on Friday 17th March at 9:00pm on BBC4
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