Your teens are the decade where you experience the biggest chances due to curiosity and growth as you explore yourself and the world around you. This is a real reflection of country music as a genre during this last decade with particular emphasis on growth on this side of the Atlantic and change along with acceptance as a whole.
As we look back on the last decade musically from the position of a writer and a fan, these are things that are very prominent and very evident. The genre has grown in popularity in the United Kingdom substantially over this period as we have a number of large events attracting stars from around the world along with a number of national radio stations to satisfy the desires of fans. Europe is also becoming a regular and integral part of touring schedules and planning with artists either keen to dip their toes in the water to test this new market or are adamant that they want to come back so regularly.
The other key change this decade has been the commerciality of “country” music, a lot of people may have their own perspective of what music is or isn’t but mainstream national airplay on both Radio 1 and the big commercial stations like Capital, Heart and Kiss that are typically geared towards a younger generation which influences the UK charts more significantly is a huge step. This is based on the collaborations and more cross-over successes of the likes of Chris Stapleton recording with Justin Timberlake on ‘Say Something’ in addition to Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars for ‘BLOW’ then Maren Morris had a global mega hit with Zedd and Grey on ‘The Middle’ plus Florida Georgia Line achieved the biggest notice with their recording with Bebe Rexha on ‘Meant to Be’ along with also featuring on ‘Let Me Go’ with Hailee Steinfeld and Alesso.
There is one other artist that has made the most significant contribution to the global growth and success of the genre who I will come on to more as we move through the decade but I categorically believe that this person is the reason we are having more and more access to country music outside of North America and regardless of how people perceive their current musical direction, they have enticed more people to explore the genre than anyone else.
When we go back to the start of the decade, country as a genre still had the stigma of requiring the ‘& Western’ attached and outsiders focused on an idea of a Disney themed fancy dress party where people all would come as Woody the Cowboy from Toy Story. The genre had begun to grow slowly over here, move away from this stereotype and have attention prior to the start of the decade: Carrie Underwood had already won American Idol, we had already been a big part of the careers of the Dixie Chicks and just before the start of the decade a track called ‘Love Story’ reached number 2 on the overall UK singles charts but over the past 10 years, things have really started to kick on and gather momentum.
2010 opened with the sophomore release from Lady Antebellum, where ‘Need You Now’ which launched them into the attention of the audience in the UK as the Grammy award winning record would be the first of 7 studio albums over the decade from the trio who made their first of many trips to these shores during August of the year. The other significant album release was at the end of 2010 when Taylor Swift dropped her third studio album ‘Speak Now’ which through the decade would be followed by a further 4 releases (which will come to talk about some of them in due course) and numerous live shows in the UK which first came about to tour the record in March 2011 where I was fortunate enough as a fan to be in the standing pit at the side of the stage during the show at the o2.
My first significant gig of the decade was also at the o2 when I saw Bon Jovi for the 8th time during ‘The Circle Tour’ between these 2 country album releases of the opening year in June. Rock, pop and dance have always been a big part of my musical preference and this still reigns true as I maintain that rather than being an out and out country fan I like a lot of different music where there is just a fair portion that falls under the umbrella of the genre. Seeing Maroon 5 along with Sara Bareilles, the legendary Stevie Nicks in Hyde Park, still clinging on to my youth with Arctic Monkeys at V Festival in Hylands Park which had always been a regular highlight of my summers growing up in Chelmsford and finishing up on New Year’s Eve seeing Kasabian and Chase & Status during the year just highlights this further.
We also had the first UK appearance of Zac Brown Band along with the first of four albums from the decade by both Eric Church and Miranda Lambert with ‘Chief’ and ‘Four the Record’ respectively. 2011 also brought the launch of a new festival that would ultimately become a big draw for country fans as BBC Radio 2 brought their first ‘Live in Hyde Park: A Festival in a Day’ which in subsequent years would see the likes of The Band Perry, Kacey Musgraves, Shania Twain and Kelsea Ballerini grace the main stage.
This was also a big year for televised talent competitions. American Idol would launch the career of Lauren Alaina (who was the eventual runner up to Scotty McCreery) and on this side of the pond The X Factor would bring together Perrie Edwards, Jade Thirwell, Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Jesy Nelson to form the shows victors Little Mix. Although not a country act, there are reasons I want to highlight the four girls becomes more apparent as the decade goes on because having seen them a number of times there are things we can definitely learn from them as music fans at live shows.
One of the most culturally significant years in the lifetime of people in London and around the UK was 2012 when the capital sprung to life and during 2 weeks that summer the nation was completely united and people would even talk willingly to strangers on the tube! We were in awe of the great Mo Farah, cheering on Jessica Ennis and Chris Hoy then all feeling connected by the performance of Team GB at the Games of the XXX Olympiad came to our capital city and rejuvenated the nation. Staying on a sporting context 2012 also was my first time seeing New England Patriots QB and future NFL Hall of Famer Tom Brady. Now I’m a die-hard Cowboys fan who I got to see play in London 2 years later but seeing a true master who is genuinely one of the greatest of all time is something I am truly grateful for, similar to the opportunity to see Drew Brees and the Saints also return to London during this decade in 2017.
Returning back to the point of focus and country music particularly in the UK, we had the first real step in regard to festivals as The International Festival of Country Music was brought back after a 21 year absence and returned to Wembley with Reba coming over as headliner. This revival was short-lived as we have not seen the festival since but it did open the door for what was to come just over 12 months later. Before moving on to the unstoppable juggernaut that is C2C: Country 2 Country in 2013 we have the first introduction to a pair of artists that have been fundamental to the growth of the genre and pioneers in making the UK a priority tour stop.
‘Up All Night’ the debut album from Kip Moore was released in April 2012 and quickly established him as a real favourite over here. Kip would make his first trip in 2015, but since his performance at C2C really has been someone that has taken every opportunity to return regularly and show the benefit of growing this fanbase. The second is my country music artist of the decade and the artist I have seen live more than anyone across all genres. Kacey Musgraves really has shown a masterclass in making fans believing in them as an artist and performer. Prior to her 2013 debut album being released, Musgraves made her first trip in July 2013 opening for Lady Antebellum and has since constantly rose in the size of venues she has headlined herself over her since. From Bush Hall, through Shepherds Bush Empire, through the Royal Albert Hall, 2 mainstage appearances at the o2 arena during C2C (one of which as headliner), playing to around 50,000 people in Hyde Park and her own headline arena tour including Wembley Arena. There is also the small detail of all 3 studio albums being nominated by the Recording Academy and a mere 6 Grammy Awards in her possession.
C2C or Country 2 Country has quickly become one of the largest gatherings of country music fans outside of North America. Beginning in 2013 and returning for its 8th instalment in March next year, this remains the focal point of the UK calendar for country music fans. It continues to grow year on year where we have seen the likes of Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Eric Church, Florida Georgia Line, Sugarland, Kacey Musgraves, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley and Little Big Town gracing the main stage.
The festival has a number of smaller stages which have introduced fans to newer artists who have since gone on to be announced for the larger stage or established UK tours in subsequent years. The likes of Sam Hunt, Ashley McBryde, Old Dominion, Lauren Alaina, Runaway June, Ashley Monroe, Drake White and Maren Morris had their first UK experience at the festival. The fact that the UK fans are so embracing of new artists and they go out of their way to listen to an entire body of work is something that you hear over and over again from artists as to why they want to come over here so this being an example of a way to progress an audience is very apparent.
The summer of 2013 was when I FINALLY decided to leave my real life Van Wilder days behind me and after 6 years (across 2 different courses) of study I graduated university. Also for the first time I was able to see the greatest male and female entertainers on the planet who both will feature in any all-time lists. Seeing Bruce Springsteen is not just a concert, it’s an inspiring and pretty much life changing journey which seeing him light up the Olympic Park that had brought so many triumphs from the summer before was an exhibition in how to do a live performance.
On the other end of the performance spectrum V2013 announced the biggest headliner that they had ever had and probably the most sought after female performer of this millennium when the full on stage show and masterclass from Beyonce came to Chelmsford which really opened my eyes as an out and out music fan to see that sometimes a big old stage production can leave you equally as in awe as a typical rock concert because music is as much about people, being in that moment with them and the memories that they create which was always a reason I looked forward to V until it’s eventual demise in 2017. This is obviously a very fitting link to Bruce through the Eric Church song as that ideology is exactly what the song is about.
By the time 2014 came along the evolution and growth of country music in the UK was in full swing: Natalie Maines and the Erwin sisters were making a much wanted return to the UK as Dixie Chicks were the big draw for the 2nd C2C Festival, Dan + Shay who have since become multi award winning and a firm UK favourite released their debut album and the whole nation could not get enough of the genre as Dolly Parton headlined Glastonbury and drew the biggest crowd ever seen at Worthy Farm.
This growth was coinciding with a 24 year old from Pennsylvania being the biggest artist on planet. ‘1989’ was the point where Taylor Swift was not restricting herself to her music being geared towards Nashville but was clearly moving away from the sound of music city. She had paved the way for so many by opening doors, attracting new fans and setting the standard for people wanting to listen to country music in the UK which in turn made the market become more appealing and accessible. With her almost distancing herself from the genre, it was almost like Nashville had lost a princess and needed someone to take up this mantle which fortunately wasn’t too long for her successor to step up, as in November came the debut EP from Kelsea Ballerini! Her debut album followed the next year and despite the reluctance that still remains at the end of the decade for radio to endorse female artists began the influx of high quality, creative, fresh girls that are taking the genre in an exciting new direction.
This influx of female artists continues but it is demoralising and perplexing how few of them receive the recognition that they deserve but that is something that requires more time and attention because unfortunately is still not going away with country radio which is just so wrong to view from the outside. However one person who definitely is receiving the deserved recognition is Maren Morris who made her UK debut on the smaller stages at C2C in 2016 (before returning to the mainstage the following year) the year which also saw the release of her debut record ‘Hero’ and continues to go from strength to strength and being such an empowering and inspirational figure for changing the negative perspective towards women in the genre with her much deserved CMA recognition of her sophomore release ‘Girl’ which achieved Album of the Year in 2019.
Maren’s UK debut in 2016 was personally the tip of the iceberg for the year for me because a lot went on as a music fan but mainly for the people I got to spend it with! We had the first appearance across the Atlantic during C2C Festival by Miranda Lambert and Lauren Alaina, we had a new outdoor summer festival in Canary Wharf called Nashville Meets London that was free and opened up the genre in terms of accessibility to even more people then we also had repeat trips to these shores from Dierks Bentley along with Dixie Chicks and the long awaited return from England’s very own Lucie Silvas (who would return again the following year for both C2C and Nashville Meets London) at the beginning of the year.
This growth of the genre and continuation of acts touring Europe has continued to rise at the back end of this decade with the long awaited return of Keith Urban earlier this year with a full tour planned for next year along with 3 further substantial festivals arriving in England through Black Deer and The Long Road in 2018 then followed by Dixie Fields this summer in 2019 in addition to a dedicated Country Music Week taking place through London in October since 2017. I also have made 2 trips Stateside for a festival in Nashville, attending CMA Fest in both 2018 and 2019 which is a very different experience all together and the city is not quite what you are expecting but in a good way.
My Nashville trips basically began to spring to life with a pair of concerts in 2016! The Cadillac Three at Electric Ballroom in February followed by Dan + Shay at Bush Hall in September were the real bookends that catalysed the forthcoming US adventures which resulted on initially being drunk and meeting someone who would become one of my best friends before they moved back to Australia then ending with (again induced by alcohol) a pact to visit music city together as an annual way of seeing each other.
The whole idea of community and friendship by living life then interpreting it through music is what draws us to the genre. It is why we love it because it reflects the good times along with the hard times but more importantly the people we share it with. Not just friends in other countries like the US, Australia, The Netherlands and Canada for me specifically but in the UK at these gigs and events people talk to each other and forge really strong bonds which has evolved into an inclusive and supportive community where real friendships are born which is a beautiful idea shaped by a common interest.
Then there is the position of writing this piece. I had known Annette for quite a while due to the community being how I described it above and we had become friends (I remember one particular night in Bournemouth that involved a lot of shouting about prosecco and then being amazed how she didn’t somehow manage to fall over and roll the whole way down a grand old staircase) before she text me on my last night in Nashville and I agreed to do a one off piece for TC. The next thing I know I am sat in a dressing room at Shepherds Bush Empire talking to Luke Combs! I love writing as it’s a way of untangling random thoughts in your head and expressing them so talking to artists is almost a bonus. You just get to have a chat with someone and make some magic happen! We have a lot to come in the future with what we have here in the UK along with what Patti, Bill and Amy are doing in Nashville and I am so excited to be a part of it during this integral time for the genre and industry in the UK because the people that do things behind the scenes or cover shows are a really fun, dedicated and hardworking group of people!
We really want to help as much as we can taking things further on both sides of the Atlantic and even further afield. We went to Amsterdam to cover a show and interview Ashley McBryde (we also had a very late night after but that is another story altogether) then we are able to bring content from so many events in the States and here in England but above all like anyone else that works in the industry we are music fans like you so the passion to deliver comes from our own will to help the genre grow in our own little way!
So going forward, we are about to move into the twenties where we have an exciting time ahead of us not just for the continued growth and expansion of the genre in the UK but also for the exploration, identity and evolution of the sound of country music. Whether people like this or not the genre box is expanding and being influenced by other genres which I really like, it is bringing artists and writers to be more creative as they are not being confined by set parameters which ultimately results in just making the best music possible rather than just trying to fit a mould. Attitudes and perceptions are changing, we are seeing the emergence of more diverse backgrounds in the industry, we are seeing the opportunities for home grown artists making country or Americana grow and grow. You only need to look at Yola right now to emphasise this!
The fans grow in number in the UK, they want to be a part of this movement, they like the connectivity with the artists and the camaraderie with the community that are fellow fans so this in turn grants more expose which is driven by demand and more artists with the ability to tour here as it seems very rare without a big gig to go and see in London in any given week. However I want to throw some caution to the wind because having been attending country shows over here way before C2C began, I know how things were when we didn’t have an excessive amount of festivals or artists touring and when you would barely hear the genre on BBC Radio 2 outside of Bob Harris weekly programme.
I made the left-field mention of Little Mix earlier in this piece which are an act I have seen live 6 times now. Firstly in 2014 when I went along with my girlfriend at the time and more recently for the final 2 nights of their tour at the o2. Let me just put the o2 shows into context, these were the 4th and 5th shows of 5 SOLD OUT nights at London’s largest venue and they reminded me how magical live shows are and the real joy and beauty that comes with being a music fan. Seeing groups of kids going to their first ever concert where some would have received tickets as Birthday or the previous years Christmas presents and been so excited for so long about going made the whole environment electric. This was not something they were taking for granted, it was not just like for me and my friends where it was a pretty cool way to spend a Thursday seeing a band we liked but one of the biggest nights of their lives and at times some of us need to remember that any gig you attend there could be someone in this same position so no matter how many dates you can do on a tour or how long you sit outside the venue for, being a fan is not a competition.
Country music is in a really strong place over here right now with a growing fanbase that is truly dedicated and artists desperate to make the trip over because of the audience so the more we can be inclusive, polite and welcoming to each other and the people coming to play the more that this will continue. As I have credited Taylor Swift as the pioneer for this movement over here it is only fitting I end this with some of her words to set the tone going forward. The final track on her ‘Speak Now’ record is ‘Long Live’ which contains a lyric at the end of the first verse that sums up the current position we are going into 2020 perfectly: “It was the end of a decade, but the start of an age” which is such a positive outlook to go into the new year and hopefully it will be an age of equality for all artists!