In case you hadn’t noticed, Music Week has not exactly been quiet on the country front lately. Hell, we even did an entire Nashville-themed issue last week.
The reason? Country is still very much on the ascent in the UK. Anyone doubting the veracity of that particular statement should have paid a trip to London’s O2 Arena this past (extended) weekend.
Country To Country Festival – which also takes in dates at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro and Dublin 3arena – has long been the single most important moment in the UK scene’s calendar. In some senses it is much more than a music festival, what with its own town village set-up featuring BBQ stalls and a lot of places to buy cowboy/cowgirl regalia.
But it is ultimately the music that counts. It is a credit to the bookers of C2C that, once again, they have curated a bill that comprises the cream of the crop of country and brought it across the Atlantic. As such, there isn’t really much to report by way of misfires; such is the calibre this year, there’s barely a fluffed note to be reported. Here Music Week rounds up all the action taking place on the main stage and spotlight stage.
This time last year, Jennifer Nettles opened C2C’s main stage with the best performance of the entire weekend. So, you know, there’s probably more pressure on Old Dominion than there should be. They acquit themselves brilliantly. You would never guess from the noise and huge sing-along to No Such Thing As A Broken Heart that it’s not even 6.45pm. Even better is Snapback, which breaks out into rock via some thrilling guitar solos. Afterwards, compere Bob Harris will christen it a “special moment”. He’s not wrong.
One of the most unique aspects of the C2C experience is the spotlight stage. Situated at the back of the O2 Arena by the sound desk, this pop-up stage showcases some of the most exciting emerging acts in country by giving space for a mini-set between main stage performances. First up this year is Morgan Evans, who adds an extra country to the usual USA/UK exchange. The Australian star is here without his backing band, but thanks to working his loop pedal with Ed Sheeran-like precision, he does well warming up the crowd for the next act. Who also happens to be his wife.
For anyone needing a refresher course on how Kelsea Ballerini became a country superstar in lightning-speed time, her opening video montage provides just that – showing some of the extraordinary highlights from the past year or two of her life (hanging out with Shania Twain and playing with Steven Tyler – that kind of thing). Tonight the songs that first catapulted her into that lofty position – huge singles like Peter Pan, Dibs and Yeah Boy – all go down extremely well, but it’s the material from her latest album Unapologetically that are most compelling, especially via the ballads In Between, I Hate Love Songs and Get Over Yourself. This is a comprehensive victory in showing off an entirely different side of her songcraft.
Back on the Spotlight stage, Brett Young earns one of the biggest rounds of applause of the day before he even plays a note, let alone hit single In Case You Didn’t Know (99 million Spotify streams and counting, folks). From the sing-along reaction to that tune alone, it seems the C2C crowd has already set him aside as someone destined to migrate to the main stage in the future.
The first day comes to a close with the one of the biggest draws of the entire line-up: country royalty Faith Hill and her husband Tim McGraw bringing their Soul2Soul tour to the UK for the first time. This not only involves the duo playing songs from their recent collaborative 2017 album The Rest Of Our Life, but also mini solo sets that see the pair passing the baton of hits.
Faith Hill dispatches Breathe, The Way You Love Me and pop crossover classic This Kiss, and also adds a snippet of Beyoncé’s Freedom into her rendition of Free. Afterwards, McGraw gets the kind of crowd reaction to Humble And Kind and Live Like You Were Dying that leaves him pumping his fists in the air like he’s just won Wimbledon and the World Cup at the same time.
Those jaded of heart would perhaps find the overt schmaltz overwhelming at times; at one point the pair sing while watching photos of their lives projected onto huge screens like the whole thing is the biggest wedding party ever. Likewise, for those in the upper tier, there is a notable sound problem from the start – McGraw and Hill’s voices at times struggling to overpower the deafening bass. Still, between the bona fide anthems, what surely must be a bankrupting laser display, and McGraw and Hill both taking time to stroll through the crowd, the Soul2Soul tour’s first outing across the Atlantic is a success.
As far as starts go, you would perhaps struggle to find a more poignant one than the sight and sound of Ashley Campbell paying tribute to her late father Glen. It is a beautiful moment, and one that makes the eventual arrival of Luke Combs on the main stage somewhat jarring as he roams the O2’s stage sipping beer and letting his booming voice reach every corner of the cavernous arena. He does, however, have the crowd onboard. If the announcement that he is adding a second Shepherd’s Bush date later in the year doesn’t already confirm the UK is taking to him, the response to Hurricane very much seals the deal. It’s a confident showcase of his talent, just not as compelling as what follows.
There is a sense in which every C2C throws up one act who puts on a performance that instantly gives them a profile in the UK – the kind usually earned after years of graft over here. This year actually provides two of those moments, and both of them on the Saturday. The first comes courtesy of Ashley McBryde, who is nothing short of a revelation. Huge of voice and endearing of personality, by the time she finishes Girl Goin’ Nowhere, the feeling is very much that she has just safely secured herself thousands upon thousands of new fans.
McBryde is assuredly, then, a hard act to follow, but Kip Moore gives it his best shot, emerging onstage to strains of Foo Fighters’ My Hero. It sets the tone for what is, in truth, more a driving southern rock set than a country exercise. It’s not exactly a problem when he has Springsteen-esque songs like Plead The Fifth in tow, yet it is notable that his acoustic closer Guitar Man – which he christens the most personal of his career – gets a better reaction for seemingly dialing the noise back.
The Shires introduce the spotlight stage arrival of Jillian Jacqueline. Again, in the shadow of McBryde’s set, she doesn’t quite have the whole arena’s attention, but she does deliver an accomplished run through Hate Me.
When it comes to Sugarland’s turn to grace the main stage, the reunited duo emerge as a ball of energy. During what is only their second full set since they called a hiatus in 2012, it is hard to tell who is happier to be onstage – Jennifer Nettles, essentially a 6ft grin sporting a Technicolor jacket, or Kristian Bush, bounding from one side of the stage to another like he’s spent the past six years dreaming of this moment. New song Still The Same shows the magic that defined their back-catalogue is still very much in play, but – as anticipated – it’s the performance of Stay that steals the show. Nettles, who is incredible vocal form, reduces the entire O2 to a hushed reverie as she chews on the tearful words. If anyone hears a pin drop, it presumably produces a splashing sound on the floor. They deserve a headline slot next time.
As earlier intimated, there is another set today over on the spotlight stage that will likely go down in C2C history. That moment belongs to Lukas Nelson. Anyone who has heard his latest self-titled solo album could attest that he writes superb songs, but it’s his showmanship tonight that stands out as he tailors Just Outside Of Austin and Find Yourself (which normally features Lady Gaga) to broadcast his pipes to mesmeric effect. As the son of Willie Nelson and a member of Neil Young affiliates The Promise Of The Real, he has longed orbited legends. Tonight it seems he is on the fast track to becoming one in his own right.
And so it falls to Music Week’s recent cover star Kacey Musgraves to bring the second day to a close for her first ever C2C headline set. She is clearly happy to be in this exalted position: “Well, hello, how are you?” she beams. “I’m doing well, I’m headlining the fucking O2!”
First and foremost, what is so impressive is the risk Musgraves takes with this high-profile set. No-one else across the entire weekend tries to pull off something as ambitious as she does, effectively turning the headline set into something of a beautifully-conceived showcase for her latest material.
When she opens with new song Slowburn – taken from her upcoming album Golden Hour – it sets the tone for a spectacular and spellbinding evening not just in terms of content but also in mood. While she does play signature hits Follow Your Arrow and Merry Go ’Round, plus a resplendent rendition of It Is What It Is and a storming run through Mama's Broken Heart (an anthem she penned for Miranda Lambert), some of her more upbeat, crowd-pleasing staples are notably absent tonight.
Normally you would advise against a headliner ditching big songs like Bisuits and Pageant Material in order to air unreleased material, but in Musgraves’ case you can make an exception. She has, after all, already played C2C before and wowed it by bringing her wittiest music to the fore, and is clearly not intent on giving everyone the exact same set as two years ago. That gamble pays off in the best sense – this is a Kacey Musgraves show the likes of which has not been seen before. What's more, the new music aired from Golden Hour is superb, from the life-affirming strains of Love Is A Wild Thing, Butterflies and Rainbow (the latter played on piano on the spotlight stage), to the heartbreak of Space Cowboy and curveball disco-tinged odyssey of High Horse (replete with neon inflatable balls bouncing around the crowd).
The message writ clear is thus: it is a new chapter of her career; it’s time to explore new sounds and feelings. And with all of this conducted in impeccable form, Musgraves’ first C2C headline set is an absolute, and resolutely bold triumph.
Day three begins courtesy of the much-hyped Midland. Turns out they are much-hyped for good reason. To the naked eye, they are a baffling proposition – playing serious country music, but packaging it up with an exuberant fashion sense seemingly inspired by both Anchorman and The Bee Gees, while also demonstrating some, let’s say, unique dance moves. It would be hard to take them seriously were it not for their prodigious chops as a live act. Their affectionate cover of Tom Petty’s American Girl goes down well, but its Drinkin’ Problem that gets the whole arena waving their phones in the dark.
Following them is rising Canadian star Lindsay Ell – the only act of the entire weekend to headbang during a mini set on the spotlight stage. In songs like Criminal she certainly has the raw talent to go far, but the feeling lingers that holding the whole O2 captive is slightly beyond her reach for now, as she draws a polite rather than ecstatic response.
Afterwards, critically-revered songstress Margo Price takes to the main stage. Of course, it’s not always a given that being the toast of reviewers everywhere translates to a brilliant arena-pleasing show, especially considering just over a year ago she was headlining Islington’s intimate Assembly Hall. What is clear is that Price takes things in her stride tonight, airing excellent songs like Cocaine Cowboys with a supremely confident delivery. Things get even better when she invites yesterday’s spotlight stage hero Lukas Nelson onstage to join her for Learning To Lose and Hurtin’ (On The Bottle). Yes, Price joining in on a superfluous extended drum solo is, well, a bit pointless, but her set proves without a doubt that she’s not just a brilliant songwriter, but also one who can handle a venue like the O2 easily.
Scratchy of acoustic strumming and smooth of voice, rising star Russell Dickerson follows on the spotlight stage and fairs particularly well with his song Every Little Thing. But seriously, was that a velour T-shirt you were wearing, dude?
As far as introductory songs go, you can’t beat one called Here I Am. Especially when it is being delivered by a living legend: Emmylou Harris. Tonight her performance of Red Dirt Girl and Michelangelo deserve a host of superlative words to be thrown at them, but here – for the purposes of space – breathtaking and elegant will have to suffice. That she also finds time to embrace her inner-stand-up comedian only sweetens the deal, the 70-year-old quipping “This is a song I wrote back when I was a brunette” before playing Boulder To Birmingham. It is one of the finest C2C sets of the year.
It’s a hard act to follow back over on the spotlight stage, but Walker Hayes – who is given a warm introduction from The Shires – wins people over with a combination of big choruses and southern drawl verses. While he does eventually teach the crowd to sing his song Beautiful, even then it struggles to rival the sheer gleeful infectiousness of his opener You Broke Up With Me. In a short set like this, sometimes it’s better to just let yourself do the singing.
And so C2C Day three draws to an end, and if anyone can lay down the claim for being “band of the people” this year it is unequivocally Little Big Town. From the moment they open with a cover of Elton John's Rocket Man they have the crowd in the palms of their hands. Rarely has a Sunday felt this much like a Friday.
Hits like Pontoon, Better Man, Tornado and Boondocks – all bolstered by immaculate four-way harmonies – get the anticipated ecstatic responses, while Girl Crush scores the single biggest (and loudest) round of applause of all three days. Yet for all of this, the best two moments of their set are both graceful and somber: their beautiful cover of Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman, and the searing introspection of Can’t Go Back.
As they remind the crowd, they were indeed present at the inaugural C2C in 2013, and it’s actually hard to separate band and event on a night like this. Little Big Town, like the festival, like country music in the UK, has come a long, long, loooooong way. 2019 has a lot to live up to.