GIG REVIEW: CMA Songwriters Series – St. George’s Hall, Liverpool

Songwriter rounds have always been my favourite format for a live show. They bring the magic of country music to life and remind us all why we became engrossed in the genre in the first place. The stories, the emotion, the rawness – the list goes on. It’s also a challenging environment for the artists on stage, who are plunged into great vulnerability, and you must have a certain gift and raw ability to really shine. For this year’s CMA Songwriters Series tour, we had four immensely talented individuals in Tenille Townes, Chris DeStefano, Kassi Ashton and Ashley Campbell, showcasing everything there is to love about the close-knit song writing circle in Nashville.

Let’s start with Tenille Townes. Man, this girl can write! Signed with Columbia Nashville/Sony Music UK, she’s got a new album coming next year, produced by Jay Joyce, and her new single ‘Somebody’s Daughter’ is available now. She was absolutely mesmerising to watch in Liverpool, and you can see why there’s a buzz about Tenille in Nashville right now. As well as a wonderful performance of the new single, she showcased the material from her acoustic ‘Living Room Worktapes’ EP. An acoustic setting really brings out the best in her, with the distinctive vocals and incredibly powerful lyricism. I doubt there was a dry eye in the house when she performed ‘Jersey On The Wall – I’m Just Asking’ (check it out – it’s country song writing at its finest), and I loved ‘Where You Are’ and ‘White Horse’. The ability to completely silence a room with just an acoustic guitar is a talent that only belongs to the very best. This girl has a big future ahead of her – definitely one to watch.

Seeing Chris DeStefano in the UK was a real treat. If you’re not familiar with Chris’ back catalogue, he’s written for the likes of Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Dan + Shay and many more. In other words, he’s a song writing powerhouse. He kicked off with a rendition of Carrie’s smash-hit ‘Good Girl’, and I was instantly drawn in by his soulful voice; this guy should be a star in his own right! He gave us hit after hit with Brett Eldredge’s ‘Don’t Ya’, Dan + Shay’s ‘From The Ground Up’ and Carrie’s ‘The Champion’. But the highlight for me was his own solo single, ‘Wide Open’, which I’ve had on repeat ever since. It’s a song that he’s had in the can for quite a while that he just kept going back to, and eventually he just had to record it. It’s a mega-hit in waiting.

Kassi Ashton…. One word – sass. Kassi just oozes confidence and she connected with the audience straight away; a great sense of humour and a damn fine voice is all you need to be a fan favourite here! She’s got a record deal with UMG Nashville and has released two singles to date – ‘California, Missouri’ and ‘Taxidermy’. The former is a big favourite of mine; it’s a sort of self-deprecating description of her one-stoplight hometown, whilst still maintaining a respect and personal connection to the place that built her as an individual. The fast-paced vocal delivery is so intriguing (phenomenally executed too) and we were all transported into Kassi’s early years for just a few minutes. ‘Taxidermy’ is completely at the other end of the spectrum and allows Kassi to let loose with her sassy side! Written by song writing genius Natalie Hemby, it was never going to be bad, was it?! Let’s be honest here! I also adored her performance of ‘The Straw’, which she wrote with my favourite writer, Lori McKenna, and it pulls on the heartstrings like only a McKenna co-write truly can.

Of the four artists, Ashley Campbell was the most familiar face for the UK fans. She’s already made numerous trips across the pond in recent years, and it’s wonderful to see her fan base over here continuing to grow. She performed fan favourite ‘Better Boyfriend’ from her debut album ‘The Lonely One’ (an album well worth checking out), as well as a brand-new track titled ‘Lonely Guy’ which will hopefully be on a new project coming next year. Her rendition of her Dad’s classic ‘Gentle On My Mind’ included a simply mind-blowing banjo solo – Ashley can shred that thing! She finished with ‘Remembering’ and told the story of how she went out on Glen’s final tour (which came to the UK) and how his health deteriorated to the point where he eventually couldn’t continue performing any more. Hearing the full background makes the song even more special, and Ashley was still evidently struggling to get through the story without getting emotional. How she performs the song itself so beautifully every night, I’ll never know.

We’re so lucky to be able to see these showcases right on our doorstep here in the UK now, and an awful lot of credit has to be given to the CMA for persisting with their aim of developing the genre over here. This year’s show was one of the most memorable nights for a long, long time and I’m already looking forward to next year’s offering.

Dan Wharton
@LifeInASong_Dan