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TC in Conversation with Charles Esten

Ahead of his upcoming return to Europe for Country to Country (more details HERE)  and before a busy weekend which included performing at The Grand Ole Opry and being part of a momentous occasion for sport in Music City, we spent some time chatting with one of the nicest guys in the business Chip Esten about English Breakfasts, Nashville as a community, emerging songwriters, The Blues Brothers and everything in between!

Chip Esten on a typical Friday in Nashville that involves playing at The Grand Ole Opry:

I’ve got nothing but energy for that, that’ll wake me all the way up! It’s a good day, there’s people that will have a far harder day than me! I talk to you, I’ll be doing some practising and rehearsing for coming over for C2C, working on some songs and then tonight I get to play a couple at The Grand Ole Opry so it’s a good day here in Nashville!

Chip on what makes playing there feel so special:

It absolutely has the same magic, all I can say what it doesn’t have any more is the low-level terror! First time I stood in that circle my knees were definitely knocking, I was a little shaky because it all means so much. I’ve been a fan and a student of the Grand Ole Opry for most of my life so the first couple of times I stood in there, I had just enough to get the song out but now all that energy and nervousness is purely positive. I believe this will be my 134th time and every bit of the magic is there every time!

Chip on what the Opry represents:

First of all as a show ‘The Grand Ole Opry’ is utterly unique because of it’s centrality in country music. What they say is that it’s the show that made country music famous, is the phrase and that’s for a reason! The Grand Ole Opry, WSM the radio station that broadcasts through this amazing huge antenna that’s still out there meant the signal from there would beam miles and miles all across the country. Some other venues and shows the genre made famous, this is the opposite! The show, the antenna and the radio station spread the gospel of country music across this country.

and the unique concept as a platform for legends of the genre and the stars of tomorrow to share the same stage:

That’s exactly right! Steve Wariner is one of the best guitarists in the whole world, a big artist in the nineties and two thousands who will be there tonight alongside Kalie Shorr who is a young artist who is just blowing up right now so it always spans the spectrum. The first time I was there the great Jimmy Dickens who was 93 years old and he had played with Hank Williams and Minnie Pearl. There’s that song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” so to do it you connect the past with the present and the future, so to be a part of that is huge to me.

Chip Esten on Kalie Shorr:

There really is this community almost like the show Nashville here! My daughter Taylor is a young artist here in Nashville, so I met Kalie through Taylor’s involvement in Song Suffragettes and that was the first time I got to see her on stage with how fantastic she was. I know first hand how hard it is for independent artists, for people to start from scratch here and to build it up to make it work. She is somebody that I have such admiration for both musically and how hard she works, how she has created her path and is leading others as well!

Chip on writing with another emerging young artist, teenage singer-songwriter Ava Paige:

Oh Boy! Ava is one of my favourites in the wide world and I love you guys have been talking about her and talking her up! I was originally scheduled to meet Ava when I was going to be introducing her at a charity event where she was going to be playing and speaking a little bit about what she’s been going through with her chemotherapy and her journey with cancer. Then coincidentally, we ended up the night before being in the same writers round. I was so glad, I generally like to know someone a little bit before I introduce them, so this was perfect as I got to meet her, talk with her and hear her most importantly. So the next night I was properly able to introduce her at that event and I was able to hear her 2 songs then after I got to go up and say hi to her again, hi to her mom and since then we have written together and it’s just a song that I absolutely adore, we’re gonna do it again for sure. That night I said to her “if you didn’t sing a note, you would be an amazing young woman” not just because of how she speaks but her journey and how she is navigating it.

Then how talented and inspirational this incredible young lady is:

It’s hard, hard stuff at that age or any age. Our daughter when she had leukaemia was 2 and a half years old, with that the only strange blessing that offered was a lack of real understanding or awareness. Now she went through a lot of pain, spinal taps and things like that but she never knew that she had a spinal tap the next day. She didn’t know she was going to lose her hair or what it meant, she didn’t know any of the mortality issues or all those things. Somebody Ava’s age, you’re gonna know all of those things and you might be afraid of are you old enough or are you mature enough to deal with this? So often the answer is an unbelievable yes, where these young people are somehow incredibly special, they’re just a different breed because they end up knowing what’s important so young! At such an early age, they GET what matters and what doesn’t. So I said “If you never sang a note, you would be amazing!” then I said “On the other hand, I said if you were completely healthy you would be amazing!” because of her voice and her song writing. She’s got both those tracks covered, she’s quickly jumped into a part of my family’s family and we love her. Then look on social media, we talked about the hard work of young artists but let’s talk about the hard work of Ava Paige! I see her posts every single day of her writing with another great writer and meanwhile she’s going through what she is going through medically. It blows my mind and she is so deeply impressive as an artist!

and how the warm, supportive and embracing community people describe Nashville as, is exactly that:

That’s the beauty of you guys having that foothold and a presence here, that if I said that to you it would probably sound a bit like a cliché and maybe you would think that might be true or just something you say. Because you guys are part of the fabric here, you know as well as I do how true that is and how it’s not a given either! I mean there’s some great cities with great people in them but it doesn’t necessarily mean, I don’t know if it’s the unique size? As the band calls it Little Big Town and that’s what it is and also the industry with this culture of kindness here that I find so appealing, uplifting and it’s one of the things that kept us here when the show ended.

Chip on his initial impression on his first Country to Country in 2016:

It was the first time I believe I had seen the O2 Arena because we had not played there yet with Nashville then I was thrilled to see the burgeoning of country music in your country and that was proof positive that it was blowing up over there. All those people coming out to see this genre that is not super readily available but is becoming more and more with groups like you, different radio stations and different DJ’s that make it their business with certainly Whispering Bob (Harris) being one to name. More people are having more access and hopefully to some degree Nashville was a part of that! I felt that might be true by the response, me and my friend Colin Linden who was beside me playing dobro and guitar. He was of course the voice of Deacon Claybourne’s guitar on the show so when Deacon is singing that is me but when you hear him playing that’s Colin. The two of us were stood there and they mentioned Nashville, that was what was getting the reaction and the applause! I wish everybody in the crew and the cast was there to see that because everybody deserved that and I tried to share that when I went back that this little show we are shooting in a warehouse just outside of Nashville is making an impact all the way over there.

Chip on the growth of country music in the UK:

I didn’t hear that much about country music at all over there in the early nineties. However looking back it should have been fairly predictable because so much country music has it’s roots in the UK and Ireland. All these instruments came over on boats across the Atlantic a long time ago as did a good many of the melodies that we’re still playing as well so you are hearing echoes of your own music for sure! Also in the early nineties I was in a show that was incredibly popular about a guy from Texas playing guitars, bass and drums. It wasn’t country, the whole point of the show and Buddy’s life was he was expected to play country music but he ended up playing this other thing called Rock & Roll! The funny thing now when you listen back to that music now is that it’s wild, it’s got a wire in it of electricity that obviously differentiates it from the country music at the time but I’m not sure how far it differentiates it from a lot of country music now. There’s a whole lot of rock in country music right now, there doesn’t have to be but I was first hand witness to how the UK loved this young Texan making music so it’s not very surprising to me that they might go deeper into the country music genre.

and the impact of his role as Deacon Claybourne in ‘Nashville’:

We hear on line and whenever I’m interviewed that Nashville had an impact! I’m not sure how they would measure exactly but whatever degree it is, that’s one of the things I hold dearest about Nashville. If we were able to spread this gorgeous genre of country music, even if just a little bit and I was a part of that, My Goodness that’s everything! You don’t even know the ripple effects! The Delta Blues and the Chicago Blues found their way over to you and all these great bands came back. Whether it be The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin or Clapton or so many others were able to fire up imaginations over here of an echo from our own country that had been made unique by your countrymen. How many people did those bands influence over here? It’s cool to think we’re bringing back echos of that music to you, how many bands is that influencing? You already have in this arena of British country the likes of The Adelaides who we’ve toured with, Twinnie, The Shires and The Wandering Hearts, there’s just so many that you can point to! I’m not claiming specific influence from Nashville for any one act or any one person though.

Chip on UK country music fans and likening the impact to the commercial growth of the blues:

I do know something similar going back about Blues again, I remember when The Blues Brothers which was hilarious and a ridiculously funny movie but along the way what Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi did was with their love, their true love what they didn’t mess around with was the importance of blues and how much it meant to them! Showcasing the likes of Aretha Franklin and first of all the band, Matt “Guitar” Murphy and all those people, Cab Calloway and on and on and on. It became a real Blues document! There were many people and I was one of them that didn’t know the Blues at all and saw this mass media version called The Blues Brothers. I didn’t stop at the Blues Brothers when I was looking at Blues, I went all over which is the same way it seems to me in the UK about Nashville and country music. Nobody just stopped where it is with Nashville! What I love about UK Charts is you will have current upcoming acts like Kalie or The Adelaides then any of the bigger stars over here such as Jason Aldean or Dierks Bentley or whatever and you also have there’s Dolly Parton from 20 years ago or Hank Williams! It’s unbelievable, but what that means is people are deep digging the genre, really learning the nuts and bolts of it!

Chip Esten as a songwriter in Nashville and his memories of joining Shane McAnally, Lori McKenna, Charlie Worsham and Ashley Monroe (plus a guest appearance from Miranda Lambert) for the CMA Songwriters Series during his last C2C appearance:

That is a very, very good warm memory for me. In that moment I was like this is kind of an amazing round I’m in right now and it’s great how it holds up over the years for the people I was with! For me that’s just another version of something that’s happened since I got to Nashville. I made a decision that every opportunity that came to jump in, say yes and be in the deep end! That is some High Cotton there as they say in the south. That’s about as good as it gets in terms of song writing, those people I was up on stage with so in retrospect I probably should have been far more nervous but part of that philosophy, that ethos of I’m just gonna do the best that I can. I have nothing but great memories of that, everyone was so kind, so welcoming, I’ve been made to feel part of this Nashville community from the very beginning and that includes the writing community! Which if I’m being honest may be my favourite part of it all, there’s something about writers. They’re emotionally intelligent, they’re necessarily funny. How good is your song going to be if you can’t have humour? They’re necessarily storytellers in country music, I don’t know how good your songs are going to be if you can’t tell a story? That is exactly the kind of person that I want to hang out with! In song writing they call that a hang, maybe you get a great song out of it but make it a great hang for sure. For me to be amongst those wonderful people that write these songs that have blown me away, then be on that stage with them and that’s the great thing about these writers rounds. That’s comparable to Mount Rushmore talking the last 10 years of country music right there! There’s other people that weren’t on stage with us but the pedigree of those fantastic people is unbelievable yet the night itself is just warm and relaxed, personable and funny then I can guarantee that those people on the stage are no different to what they are off the stage. What you see is what you get and what you got was some unbelievable hit songs from some of the best songwriters and me up there trying to hold my own as well!

Chip on what he enjoys most about his former home, London:

You will laugh because they are things that you have everyday! It’s not the finest or most special version of anything you’ll find over there but being Anglophiles I love a great English breakfast. I love it but I’m not gonna lie I love breakfast in general, I love a great Southern breakfast too. Give me everything that comes with an English breakfast including a good cuppa and it’s truly a warm feeling to have that! I’m a fan of pub food as well, you know a pint and some pub food! My father passed 10 years ago unfortunately, so he wasn’t able to see any of the Nashville ride but what he was able to do is come visit me when I was living in London, playing Buddy and what he loved so much about it was so often when your visiting other countries is that you’re in and out so you can only experience it as a tourist. He, my wife and I when he would visit a few times said I like that next level thing where you just get to live there for a little while. Those young memories of mine, playing Buddy they are all just the happiest in the world being there in that great city, so whenever I’m over all of it takes me right back. From the streets that we’re walking down, the weather and the food too!

Then finally Chip on being part of a momentous day for England’s beautiful game in Nashville, TN:

Let me tell you something else that I’m doing tomorrow! You talk about country music coming from here and going over there, well for years and years football or soccer has been threatening to get bigger and bigger here and it absolutely is! I am very honoured that tomorrow is the debut game of Nashville SC playing in the MLS over here! They have been here in another form but now they are finally part of Major League Soccer and I’m very happy to say that I’ll be singing the national anthem tomorrow ahead of the game at Nissan Stadium! So far over 50,000 people are already coming, we’ve been threatening to embrace your sport for so long and it’s really cool for someone who has played it myself, all my kids played it for years and my daughter is now playing it in college. It’s really cool that it’s coming here to Nashville where I think and hope it’s gonna be utterly embraced starting tomorrow!

Charles Esten plays the main stage at C2C Country to Country in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Glasgow and Dublin. You can find all his upcoming tour news and keep up to date with Chip on his website and socials:

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