As the Christmas decorations are about to come down, the fridge is empty of leftover turkey, the tubs of Celebrations have nothing left that is not a Bounty, most people have just about stuck to their New Year’s resolutions so far and the inevitable realisation that you have to return to work has crept in means it is a good time to not just look forward to what 2020 has is store but also to reflect on what was a really exciting year for country music in 2019.
In London we saw the long awaited return of Keith Urban to play live over here. His show in Camden followed by his appearance at C2C were his first UK shows in over a decade which have reignited his love for playing this side of the Atlantic with a substantial European tour announced for 2020, his first for 12 years! C2C in it’s 7th occurrence in 2019 also brought UK returns for Lady Antebellum and Chris Stapleton as fellow headliners whilst artists like Runaway June, Dustin Lynch, Abby Anderson, Caroline Jones, Carly Pearce, RaeLynn and Michael Ray had the opportunity to make an early impression on fans this side of the Atlantic as the event continues to grow year on year in both popularity and stature.
Country 2 Country was not the only UK festival to prove a resounding success as both Black Deer taking place just outside of Royal Tunbridge Wells and The Long Road Festival in Lutterworth, Leicestershire returned for their second instalment which were aesthetically and organisationally superb and were 2 of my favourite UK festival experiences I have ever encountered. Both events had a stellar lineup with The Staves, The Dead South, Yola and Band of Horses being the highlights down in the south east whilst a first UK tour from Josh Turner, an incredible headline set from Kip Moore, the second UK trip of the year which brought a lesson in how to own a festival crowd from our buddies LANCO and the blissful vocals combined with musicianship of the finest calibre from Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi emphasised how much scope there is for the genre going forward taking place in the Midlands.
There was also a much needed return for having a festival in Chelmsford, where the Essex city had long been the home of one of the UK’s largest festivals V, before it’s demise but Dixie Fields arrived to try and and take over the mantle in a specific genre field. With Dixie Fields came the second visit to these shores of Lauren Alaina who arrived for one of the most enjoyable and extensive tours we have seen from any artist coming over from Nashville. I have made no secret in previous posts of how incredible I think this young woman is both as an artist and a human being along with how she is fantastic a role model I think she is, spending time with her and seeing her live (which I did 3 times during the tour) is infectious and so uplifting so was definitely amongst my highlights of last year.
It wasn’t just UK festivals that were a big part of last year as I returned to CMA Fest in Nashville for a second year running. Unlike 2018 it was a lot cooler and wetter, as rain was a big part of our time in Tennessee. CMA Fest is a very intense few days with a lot going on where I would definitely recommend for any country fans who have not made the trip before. So many highlights like: seeing Pistol Annies on stage together, Brothers Osborne not just being Brothers Osborne but bringing out Brooks & Dunn along with Ashley McBryde (with the biggest smile I have ever seen in music as she walked on stage), the first time me and my best friend got to see Maren Morris live together, Tenille Townes absolutely owning that stadium when she joined Dierks Bentley during his set and the certain matter of Mr Eric Church and the most amazing live set I have ever seen with his acoustic hits medley which was worth the trip on it’s own. Our other overseas adventure took me and Annette to Amsterdam to catch up with Ashley McBryde before and after her show which we will just leave it at saying it was real #FunTimes
It is in our capital however that remains the heart of the movement over here in Europe, with the a particular highlight being one of the hottest days of the year IN SEPTEMBER where Kelsea Ballerini brought the southern sass to slay Hyde Park for Radio 2’s annual Festival in a Day whilst the likes of Dan + Shay, Old Dominion, Lindsay Ell, Brad Paisley and LANCO also returned for highly enjoyable UK shows during the year. That is not forgetting Country Music Week, which always proves a week of fun and madness that incorporated the C2C launch event for 2020 where amongst other highlights to look forward to in March we will see the return of the guy that I view as the best entertainer in country music: Eric Church. The week of shows across London brought the likes of Logan Mize, Michael Ray, Tyler Rich, Temecula Road, Walker Hayes and a very special evening in Hoxton Sqaure where Tenille Townes played her first ever sold out headline show not just in the capital but anywhere. This girl for me has something very very special as a songwriter, guitarist, storyteller, a blissful vocalist that really sends chills down your spine when you hear her sing and is one of the most open, honest,fun and kind people you will come across in music. Her debut album which is due this year is what I am most excited about musically for 2020.
On the subject of albums 2019 really was a strong year for releases for the entire country and Americana spectrum’s and that includes UK artists too! East Anglian sextet Morganway quickly have become seen as the premier UK live act in the genre and their self titled debut album just enhanced everything people were saying about them even further, then we need to talk about a lady from Bristol who is just a mythical being from another world! The incredible Yola and her smooth, powerful and infectious ‘Walk Through Fire’ record has already caught the attention of the recording academy, earning her a mere 4 Grammy nominations! She has toured with Kacey Musgraves and is a featured artist on The Highwomen record which is just the beginning as she is a real shining light for Americana and British music that is really showcasing the level of talent over here.
Looking over to Nashville we were well and truly spoilt in 2019 with releases that brought about an instant impression and substantial impact as a lot of people really found their A Game with what came out! Brooks & Dunn reworked a number of their classic hits with some of today’s finest in Nashville for “Reboot” whilst Bruce Springsteen headed down a less familiar path with “Western Stars” which is the most powerful, open and honest release from The Boss in a long time, that is a record that somehow slipped under the net when a lot of people talk about the top releases of the year as is definitely up there as a contender for the best thing I heard in 2019.
There are plenty of pieces out there where people throw in their 2 cents on what the best albums were last year and you see a lot of familiar names that I agree with. The self titled debut release from The Highwomen is iconic, it’s powerful, crosses a lot of boundaries and sends out a really clear message. As does the sophomore release from one of their members as ‘Girl’ by Maren Morris was the rightful winner of Album of the Year at the CMA’s and a true work of art. ‘Wildcard’ and ‘Ocean’ are the 7th and 8th studio releases from Miranda Lambert and Lady Antebellum respectively which both really reflect their current position as artists which have just simply gone back to what they do best which is making great music that is fitting for both of them that has resulted in being up there amongst their strongest releases to date.
We also were treated a pair of standout debut releases with Kalie Shorr’s ‘Open Book’ and ‘No Saint’ by Lauren Jenkins really setting the mark for the creativity of what is happening in Music City. Shorr’s emotional roller-coaster delivers a healthy dose of attitude, wit, raw honesty and down right straight talking incorporates a variety of influences and not being afraid to speak her mind that has shaped her both as an individual and an artist which in turn delivers things that people really can connect with. ‘No Saint’ is a powerful journey which again is completely real and is an honest reflection of Jenkins which is beautifully complimented by her chilling vocals and honest songwriting where you can relate to those stories so easily.
Back at the start of 2019, Kacey Musgraves third album Golden Hour (which was released in 2018) received the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in both the country and all genre categories, where the recording academy also awarded her the country awards for Song of the Year (Space Cowboy) and Solo Performance (Rainbow) at this year’s ceremony. Dan + Shay were the only other winners in the genre (Best Duo/Group Performance) for their recording of Tequila.
Golden Hour also received the Album of the Year crown and Tequila gave Dan + Shay the nod once again for both Song and Single of the Year at the 54th ACM Awards in April where both acts won the respective awards for Female and Duo of the Year. This along with the Group of the Year for Old Dominion and Best New Artist going to Ashley McBryde (the ACM’s have a male, female and group winner whilst the CMA only have an outright winner) was reciprocated by the CMA in November when these awards found themselves heading to the same homes. Whilst Golden Hour was the reigning holder for the CMA Album of the Year, it was another Texan female taking the world by storm that would be this year’s winner with Maren Morris and her sophomore record Girl taking home the honour.
Seeing female artists claim all 3 of the major album awards in the genre and also the biggest prize in all music still begs the question as to why female artists are still struggling for exposure and airplay in the genre. The American charts appear to be a more complicated issue than Brexit to explain but essentially there are 3 ways to have a number 1 song! The Billboard Hot Country chart takes into account a combination of sales, streams and airplay whilst the other Billboard chart (Country Airplay) is essentially the song that is played the most on the radio in terms of spins. The Mediabase (which we would typically grasp as when people talk about Country Radio position) chart is again based on spins but takes into account the size of the market being reached.
Collectively across all 3 charts in 2019 we have seen Kelsea Ballerini with ‘Miss Me More’ along with ‘Girl’ the title track from Maren Morris’s award winning album and Lindsay Ell’s duet with Brantley Gilbert ‘What Happens in a Small Town’ achieve a number 1 song. To speed up the maths for you that is 3 songs (one of which was a duet with a male artist) from 3 women that have topped a chart in 2019. ‘Miss Me More’ was the first track by a female artist to top the Mediabase chart in 15 months back in June when Kelsea herself was the last girl to achieve that in February 2018.
Both this chart and Billboard’s airplay chart change regularly and are set up to have shorter stints at the top of the chart where there is a long process for a track rising to the extent an artist may release a second or even third track in the time between release and the track peaking. The Billboard Hot Country Chart also takes into account streaming and sales so may appear the most accurate in terms of what people are listening to most. There have been 8 number one songs on this chart in 2019 (3 of them from Dan + Shay) and not a woman in sight, however 2018 was a different story as the same song was number 1 for 46 weeks through the year. For a total of 50 consecutive weeks on top of this chart Bebe Rexha reigned supreme with her collaboration with Florida Georgia Line for ‘Meant To Be’ emphasising how big this track was.
If you want to look for a female artist more people would umbrella under “country” you would be looking at Lauren Alaina in November 2017 and her Kane Brown duet ‘What Ifs’ or for a solo female artist you would have to go back to September 2016 which is over 3 years to see a woman having the most popular country song when ‘Peter Pan’ by Kelsea Ballerini topped that chart. This all becomes quite data heavy and sort of puts into perspective why there is so much conversation about letting the girls play! Radio gets songs heard and if the songs aren’t being played to be heard, they won’t be streamed or downloaded so would have less impact on this chart. The fact that female artists are so under-represented in these figures just shows how big an issue it is and why the conversation is so relevant because in both the UK and during my trips to Nashville I still really struggle to find these people that are really against listening to the girls.
However 2019 can only be summed up by 3 words: “Old Town Road” as 19 weeks on top of the overall Billboard Top 100 which is an all time record and topping the UK singles chart for 2 weeks is an incredible achievement. Regardless of what you want to class this song as, it is the song you have heard in every bar on Broadway and at every party you go to so is a real statement for diversity in the quote unquote genre and has brought attention to country music across such a wide spectrum all around the world and long may things like this continue in the future to grow the genre even further and wider afield.