Country music is wildly popular in the UK right now. My own association with it began in the 90’s after trips to USA saw me coming home with CD’s (remember them?) from artists such as Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Mindy McCready and Faith Hill to name but a few. Keith Urban and Sugarland saw me through the early part of the millennium but it wasn’t until a trip to California about 5 years ago that I began to really fall in love with the genre. Since then, along with many other people in England, I’ve turned my back on my first musical love (hard rock / heavy metal) and become a dyed in the wool country fan.
I want to analyse and examine why this has happened for not only me but countless other British music fans.
Firstly, as with most things these days, the internet has played a huge part in the change. If you were a country fan back in the 90’s there was little you could do beside buying an album that would further your interest in any particular artist. A few specialist magazines existed for those wanting to take an interest further but the chances of hearing about or even watching a musician perform were few and far between. The advent of the internet and social media has been a godsend to country music fans. Albums are released here simultaneously in MP3 format with release dates in America. You can now ‘talk’ to the artists themselves on formats such as twitter, you can watch them perform from way out in the back of nowhere on Youtube and read all about their personal lives on one of many thousands of websites. The accessibility of information is amazing meaning there is now little difference in how you can interact with an artist from Baton Rouge to Bromsgrove!
Country music itself has changed. It is a much broader church than it used to be. Mention country music to your average English person and you will still get Dolly Parton and line dancing jibes but for those of us immersed in the genre it is now a musical treasure trove of diverse sounds from Sam Hunt to Sturgill Simpson. Many artists and writers have flocked to Nashville over the years, widening the parameters of what is deemed acceptable in the country world. This has ‘blown the bloody doors off’ the country scene and whilst you can still here the odd dissenting moan about certain music ‘not being country’ most genre fans seem thrilled with the wider choice. Dan Huff himself, the most popular producer in Nashville, used to be the focal point of hard rock band ‘Giant’. He has brought a rockier edge to the country sound and he is not alone. R ‘n’ B, Hip Hop and Rap have all been assimilated into various artists and bands’ sounds meaning that the country world of 2016 is a lot more inclusive and accessible to those of us overseas than it was in 1986.
The change in the way musicians earn revenue has also benefitted country fans from ‘across the pond’. Back in the 70’s and 80’s an artist would record an album and then tour in support of that album. Album sales drove revenue streams. That model is long dead now. Now, in 2016, artists record albums so that they can tour because the live arena is where the big money is. I have ticket stubs from gigs in the late 80’s where I was paying no more than £8 to see an act live!! £8!! Now you don’t get much change out of £50 for the big arena acts and the very top bands can charge three figure sums and sell out arenas night after night. Artists need to play live if they are going to build a pension pot of any note which means more live gigs and concerts for the average fan. Country fans from the 80’s and 90’s must be amazed at how many genre artists now come over to England compared to how sparse shows used to be. I can’t believe how many country artists I’ve seen in the past 5 years that I never dreamed I would ever see live and it’s seeing a musician in their live habitat that builds loyalty and increased fan attention.
There is no doubt that another contributing factor towards the popularity of country music in the British Isles has been the success of the C2C Festival, held every March at the O2 arena in London. Starting four years ago as a one day event it has blossomed into what I can only describe as ‘my Glastonbury’. I still haven’t worked out whether there was a whole Kevin Costner / ‘Field of Dreams’ ‘If you build it they will come’ thing or the organisers sniffed a sea change zeitgeist moment for country music in the UK but it has transformed into a huge 3 day event which easily sells out most of the tickets for each day. The joy of the event, though, is not just the major American acts that have graced the stage over the four years (Carrie Underwood, Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert, Lady Antebellum, Brad Paisley to name but a few) but it is in how the festival is also becoming a showcase for new and emerging talent. Over 70 smaller acts, some American, some European played in various venues around the O2 this year, turning the event into an unmissable feast of country / americana / folk themed music. The festival now has a symbiotic relationship with the music genre in that its success has fueled greater interest in the genre as a whole which in turn has generated more interest in the festival as each year goes by. Certain acts, like Kip Moore in 2015, have created a fan base for themselves overnight by simply gracing the stage at the C2C festival and links with the Bluebird Cafe, Radio Two and other ‘big hitting’ genre organisations have only added to the popularity of the event.
Added to the glitz of the C2C festival the ‘Nashville’ TV show has brought a dose of ‘Dynasty’ style glamour to our tv screens. The heartbreaks and hurt of Deacon, Reyna, Juliette and Co have been immensely popular in England. We do ‘Downton Abbey’ and send it over to the States and in return we get the trials and tribulations of music city’s finest. The music has been great, a real eclectic mix of east and west Nashville with a healthy amount of slick pop thrown in. For a nation addicted to soap operas ‘Nashville’ is manna from heaven, Eastenders without the grime, Corrie without the bleak Northern backdrop – it hits us right where we want it to the most. ‘Hollyoaks’ but for grown-ups who like great music! All part of the jigsaw of events that have conspired to come together in a perfect storm of country music driven popularity.
England is a largely rural country populated by blue collar workers who know what it is like to punch in at 9am on a Monday morning and clock out again at 5pm on Friday. We were the country that created the shipyards, the coal mines and the car factories – we know what it’s like doing a hard week’s work. This proletarian outlook forms the basis of approximately 35% of all country music songs!! OK, we might not be tear-arsing it around on John Deere tractors or toiling away on a farm but a working day is a working day, no matter where in the world you are. And as for songs about drinking…..? Have you not been in an NHS A&E department at 10pm on a Saturday night? We invented drinking. We like a party – why would we not like songs about those things? Most English guitar music is a dreary amalgam of shoe gazing indie bands like The Smiths or angry mod posers like The Jam. Where’s the joy in that? One of the other reasons that country music has become so popular in the UK is that it is an expression of the fun and the good times that we want to have. Life is hard in 2016 and many people just want to have a bit of fun with their music. Country fits the bill. Last thing I want to hear about after a hard day at work is how some spotty kid from Manchester is angst ridden because it’s raining again.
Finally, I’m going to throw age into the mix. The original ravers and rockers of the 60’s and 70’s have all grown up and got old. However disposable incomes and healthier lives have meant that they still want to hear live music. The breadth of the audience at C2C is amazing. In one row of the arena this year I could see people from the age of 7 to 70 all enjoying the same type of music. Country music knows no age boundaries like other genres do. Can you imagine people in their 60’s rocking up at a rap gig? A lot of the genres spanning the music industry these days are populated by young people only, country music is all inclusive – age is no boundary to enjoying the music and there are a lot of people out there who want to hear good music, played well by people of all ages with amazing voices – that to me is what the heart and soul of country music is all about and why it is no co-incidence that it is so popular in the British Isles and Europe right now. Long may it continue.
James Daykin : Twitter (@rockjames)