Seemingly ever since Brad Paisley struck the final chords of the Country To Country Festival 2014 at London’s O2 in March, speculation has been raging as to which artists would be on the bill for the event in 2015. With anticipation reaching fever-pitch C2C unveiled the line-up in London this week, the satisfying growth of the festival evidenced by an impressive official launch show taking place. As you would expect, following the announcement social media was in meltdown with UK Country fans (and those in Norway & Sweden, where C2C will also visit next year) airing their views on the artists chosen to make the trip over from the USA.
The NCUK twitter account was absolutely flooded with reaction to the seven acts revealed (an eighth was a surprise announcement just before tickets went on general sale) and as remarked during the week, feedback was split in to two fiercely opposed camps. Firstly, there were the wildly excited, fans absolutely delighted that some of the biggest names in the genre will be performing in the UK whilst at the very height of their success. The alternative opinion was from those hugely disappointed at a pre-dominantly male line-up, with heavy leanings towards the rockier side of Country. The number of times the relatively newly-coined phrase ‘bro-Country’ was used must have come close to getting the term trending on twitter.
This article is not intended to be an opinion piece on the line-up for 2015, all I will say is that I completely understand both views. Yes, I would have preferred a more varied line-up. For example, 2014 had the traditional Country of Brad Paisley, the southern rock flavour of the Zac Brown Band, and the Country-pop of Rascal Flatts. Yes, I feel that the remarkable pool of talented female artists are under-represented (C2C continuing the trend of US radio). Having said that, I am amazed at the line-up that C2C have assembled and thrilled that a UK Country music festival which only came into existence in 2013 has attracted huge US-based recording artists, currently playing some of the largest American tours in any genre of music. There are some personal favourite acts in there too, who I was unsure would venture over to Europe, so I am counting my blessings that I purchased early-bird tickets for March.
Some of the acts are lesser established in the UK, and some seem not to be widely known by the more ‘casual’ UK Country fan. Therefore, it seems to be sensible to take a look at the eight headlining acts in some more detail. Such is my tendency to ramble that I will split this into two articles, tackling the acts for Saturday (in London) in this first piece.
The announcement of Brandy Clark was as surprising as it was pleasing. An incredibly skilled songwriter, Brandy proved that she was also a complete artist in her own right when releasing the superb ’12 Stories’ late last year, one of the finest Country albums of 2013. The list of songs (co-)written by Clark and cut by her fellow artists makes for impressive reading, amongst her better known compositions are hits for Miranda Lambert (Mama’s Broken Heart) and The Band Perry (Better Dig Two). A fruitful professional relationship has also been forged with UK favourite Kacey Musgraves, the two working together on ‘Dandelion’, ‘It Is What It Is’ and ‘Follow Your Arrow’.
Full-length debut album ’12 Stories’ debuted in October 2013 and across its’ twelve tracks represented the very best that Country music can offer. Cleverly written songs, encompassing relevant and sometimes edgy subject matter, her music has a bravery to it which is lacking in a number of mainstream releases. The album was also further proof that male artists may be making the biggest waves commercially, but the female artists are delivering the most creative and exciting releases. Rooted in traditional Country but with a fresh, modern sound ’12 Stories’ comes highly recommended. Delightfully quirky lead single ‘Stripes’ featured in the NCUK Top 30 Singles of 2013 and is a perfect taster of Brandy Clark’s music.
Lee Ann Womack
Lee Ann Womack burst on to the Country music scene with her self-titled debut album in 1997, achieving platinum status that release was a traditional Country delight epitomised by the glorious ‘Never Again, Again’. It also introduced listeners to ‘that’ voice, absolutely gorgeous vocals managing to be both powerful and vulnerable at the same time, additionally instantly recognisable. Success continued for Lee Ann and with the release of her ‘I Hope You Dance’ album in 2000 the lady from Texas ascended to another level of stardom. That album sold in excess of 3 million copies and its’ title track was a huge hit, remaining an iconic song for Womack (the single also charted in the Top 40 in the UK).
Crossover success of single ‘I Hope You Dance’ led to experimentations with a pop-Country style on follow-up album ‘Something Worth Leaving Behind’ which failed to repeat the commercial success of its’ predecessor. Lee Ann returned to traditional Country with her next two critically-acclaimed albums, the cruel irony being that by that time Country radio was showing decreasing interest in tradition. In 2012 Womack left MCA Records having sold over 6 million albums and notching up 11 Top 20 singles.
Re-surfacing on Sugar Hill Records, the singer has recently released new album ‘The Way I’m Livin’ which finds her sounding better than ever on one of the strongest albums of 2014. After a six year wait for new material Country fans can revel in a collection of worthy, emotional songs from an artist seeming revitalised by creative freedom and singing up an absolute storm. Lee Ann Womack will be a complete joy to hear live, kudos to C2C for adding her to the line-up. We will all be able to hear why the lady has five CMA and five ACM awards to her name.
Florida Georgia Line
Florida Georgia Line are duo Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley and are one of the biggest music acts in the US. Following releases of EP’s their full-length debut album ‘Here’s To The Good Times’ was released in 2012 and has sold over 2 million copies. Aiding the success of the album was single ‘Cruise’ which is nothing short of a musical phenomenon, the track has achieved sales in excess of 7 million and its’ 24 weeks at number one on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs is the longest reign at the top in the seventy years of the chart. The guys have released sophomore album ‘Anything Goes’ this week in the US (a 3rd November release in the UK), which looks sets to continue their staggering success. Lead single ‘Dirt’ has already hit number one and been certified platinum.
It is hard to shy away from the fact that Florida Georgia Line have their fair share of critics. Exponents of the ‘bro-Country’ movement the duo deliver Country music with a heavy dose of rock, rap, hip-hop and ruffle plenty of feathers along the way. It could well be that this new modern-fusion sound is exactly what the UK market needs to catch its’ ear and attract it to Country music, removing the stigma unjustly associated with it. Conversely the genre should not have to dress itself up as anything else, potentially diluting its’ potency in the process, for widespread ‘approval’. Debate rages and would take far too long to explore further. Personally FGL are not one of my favourite acts, their sound being a little too far removed from my (albeit wide-ranging) Country tastes, their song-writing & lyrics also concern me.
That being said I applaud C2C for attracting Tyler and Brian to the UK. They are the reigning Duo Of The Year winners from both the CMA & ACM and are white-hot at the moment. The O2 is an extremely large venue for a Country music show in the UK and I have no doubt that Florida Georgia Line will put on a show that will get the arena rocking and provide a real shot in the arm for Country To Country. With genuine curiosity I look forward to seeing them in March.
Luke Bryan is the top headlining act for Saturday in London, his inclusion at Country To Country is a huge coup. The singer is currently making his way across the US with his juggernaut ‘My Kind Of Night’ tour and is arguably the biggest male artist in Country music at the moment (one of C2C Day 2 acts may have something to say about that!). The Georgia boy has had something of a slow-burn of a career, debut album ‘I’ll Stay Me’ was released in 2007 and went gold, ‘Doin’ My Thing’ followed two years later and went platinum. In 2011 ‘Tailgates and Tanlines’ was released and Bryan’s career cranked up, the album moved over 2 million units. The four singles released from ‘T&T’ produced 3 number one hits and combined to sell over 8.5 million copies.
Hits including ‘Country Girl (Shake It For Me)’, ‘Drunk On You’, & ‘I Don’t Want This Night To End’ helped make the singer a Country superstar. In 2012 Luke Bryan took home an astonishing 9 American Country Awards, in the same year he also picked up Entertainer Of The Year at the ACM Awards. Last year Luke released his ‘Crash My Party’ album, debuting at number one the record sold a phenomenal 528,000 copies in its’ first week, on the way to becoming the third biggest selling album of 2013 in all genres in the US. ‘Crash My Party’ saw a slight shift in Bryan’s musical style, some of the charm of previous outings was lost in a bigger, brasher sound. Quieter moments such as the wonderful ‘Drink A Beer’ showed just what a talent the artist is and the NCUK review of ‘Crash My Party’ was a positive 8/10, but with a hope that he does not get swept away striving for crossover success.
The growth in the scale of Luke Bryan’s sound probably reflects a similar shift in the scale of his career and also the size of crowds to which he is playing on a regular basis. Harking back to the point raised for Florida Georgia Line, this experience of performing huge arena tours will surely serve Bryan well at The O2 and the main beneficiaries of that…UK fans. An undoubted personal highlight of the first C2C festival was seeing the arena absolutely rocking during Tim McGraw’s set, a sight that many UK Country fans doubted we would ever see. Luke Bryan has his nay-sayers over here but it is difficult to imagine an act better suited to generate more excitement on that Saturday night in March, rounding off Day 1 of C2C with an almighty bang.
‘Country To Country 2015 – The Line Up (Day Two)’…coming soon.