Thought Piece: Has Country Music Reached Its Peak In The UK?

Friday November 17th, 2017. That was when it happened. An otherwise unremarkable day for the majority of people in the UK but in a small bubble of a musical genre a seismic event happened that went largely unnoticed – that was when we reached ‘peak Country’. That was the day that the Country music lovers of the Midlands had to choose between going to see The Brothers Osborne & The Cadillac 3 in one venue in Birmingham or Ryan Hurd and Maren Morris in a separate room across town. Never before have we had that sort of clash in this country – yes, there are clashes during the C2C festival and there were some difficult decisions to make across London in October during Country music week, but never before had two Country music tours collided in the same town before, and a town in the provinces to boot!

What we witnessed might never happen again, infact a decent promoter doing a modicum of due diligence should really ensure that it doesn’t happen again, but it made me realise that we might have reached the peak popularity of Country music in this country. Let’s examine the evidence:

  1. How many gigs did you go to this year? 5? 10? 30? There were Country shows everywhere in 2017 – from the smaller, more intimate shows like High Valley at the beginning of the year and Chase Rice at the end, to the arena extravaganzas of such behemoths like Miranda Lambert and Lady Antebellum. I think we have reached the point where everyone who was ever likely to come and play Country music in the UK has been, particularly once Tim & Faith roll into town in March. There is a glimmer of hope that Garth Brooks might pay us a visit next year but most of us have given up hope with the likes of Blake Shelton or Keith Urban ever coming. Neither Lady A or Miranda sold out their shows, both acts had to have areas of the arenas they played in curtained off and whilst they were willing to come this time round it might not be the same for future tours if the level of fan attendance has reached a peak. Country music seems to be stymied somewhere between being bigger than regional theatres yet not quite enough to sell out the arenas.
  2. Radio 2 has become the official home of Country music on the radio but it won’t commit to specific genre related programmes. Yes, you can regularly hear The Shires and Ward Thomas on Radio 2 with the odd American act thrown in for good measure which is a big step forward and their branding and sponsorship of events and stages at the C2C festival, including the pop-up station, is commendable but that’s about as much support as mainstream radio can and will give, it has reached a peak in what they are willing to support.
  3. The reaction to this year’s C2C festival across social media is another indicator that Country has reached its peak. For the first time there was some discontent with the initial line up with many people not believing that Kacey Musgraves was headliner material with only two albums behind her whilst many of the other acts, like Kip Moore, Kelsea Ballerini and Little Big Town had only just completed UK shows in Otcober before they were announced as coming back again in March. This wouldn’t have happened 2-3 years ago when we were grateful to see any sort of Country music on a stage in the UK but our expectations are bigger now and our demands more diva-like! That is partly due to the success of the festival itself, a kind of vicious circle, if you like, as the organisers have brought over the likes of Dierks Bentley, Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood in the past – thrilling us with the chance to see these Nashville legends, but like a greedy, Victorian orphan we now hold out our bowls and ask, ‘Please Sir, can I have some more?’ We are now voicing a modicum of unhappiness with the line ups and have a wishlist of acts that we think the organisers should be able to bring over for a small amount of money to fulfil our needy desires! Peak country again.
  4. The celebrities are starting to jump on the bandwagon – that’s always a sign that things have gone too far!! This year saw the likes of reality TV ‘star’ Megan McKenna involved in a show about her efforts to write some songs in Nashville. A real marmite moment for the burgeoning fanbase over here. Some people liked the exposure and the notoriety that McKenna brought to the genre as a Brit abroad with a major channel camera crew alongside her whilst others thought it cheapened the genre and was a slap in the face to all the hard-working musicians who have toiled away for years in the UK trying to build a career from the bottom up. The latter part of the year saw Shane Ritchie espousing his Country credentials with an album of country-covers amid a smattering of originals. He was on the One Show, he was on Loose Women, he was everywhere talking about his love of Country music and his desire to get himself on the bill at C2C next year. Again, some music fans were pleased that an ex-Eastender brought a song by Jon Pardi into the national consciousness whilst others were generally appalled by his antics, suspiciously believing there was some serious bandwagon jumping going on. Whatever your own personal opinions it’s clear that once the celebs start to get involved things have reached peak potential.
  5. Country music is back on the TV, and not just on some obscure Sky channel with slightly wobbly sets and enthusiastic but hokey presenters – we are talking about Sky Arts channel and the BBC! The CMA awards were shown on the BBC, albeit as part of a hacked apart highlights package, for the first time in years whilst Sky Arts have transmitted all sorts of retrospectives about greats like Johnny Cash and Glenn Campbell and have also dipped their toe into more modern waters by showing concerts from the Dixie Chicks and the CMA Country Christmas extravaganza that only aired a couple of weeks behind America. Again, this is probably a peak point that will not usher in a 24 hour, Country only channel, but is about as good as this small, niche bubble of fans can expect.

Reaching ‘Peak Country’ is not a bad thing and I am not advocating that the only way is down from here on in, what I am suggesting, however, is that I’m not sure the genre can get any bigger over here than it actually is. Thomas Rhett can come and sell out venues like the O2 Academy in Birmingham but will not be able to take that next step up – there is a definite enthusiastic and vocal fan base out there for him and his peers but I’m not sure that there are any potential fans out there that haven’t yet been found or are still hiding in the closet. This is about as good as it’s going to get – which is way, way more than we Country fans had three years ago, so be thankful but be realistic – it is still a small niche of a genre that doesn’t make its performers a great deal of money. The Brothers Osborne told me back in November that they lost money touring a band with the Cadillac 3 but it was something they were prepared to do to reach the fans that they know are there. Not all Country artists feel the same about that and that will provide a barrier to them touring the UK. And don’t even get me started about where the fans seem to melt away to when any of the hard-working and talented UK Country acts go out on the road either – any one of the 1500 people who packed out the O2 Academy in November to see the aforementioned Thomas Rhett would love acts like Holloway Road, The Southern Companion, Liv Austen or Darcy but as hard as these people and acts like them work, they still struggle to pull in a decent crowd away from the bright lights of London, and that is how, as we reach peak Country in the UK, we can still find room for some expansion and growth – by supporting our homegrown artists as well as the big name, fancy Nashville stars.

We have, indeed then, reached Peak Country in all areas but one, the one that is still lagging behind in popularity and footfall – so, if you do one thing in 2018 to ensure that Country music continues to flourish in the UK it’s this – get out and support our home-grown singers and song-writers. Let’s see if we can’t give them the boost that so many of them so richly deserve. We are spoilt for choice elsewhere as more and more established and aspiring American Country acts come over looking for our support and validation, for which we should be very grateful because it may not last forever, but we can also give a hand up the ladder to the UK artists, who, for so long have been looking in from the outside. They must be confused as to why Chase Rice can come along and play to a room of people who would never dream about going to see someone just as good, who just happens to have been born in the UK!

James Daykin – @rockjames