The CMA Songwriters Series show proved last year to be the perfect introduction in to Country To Country weekend for UK fans, and so it proved to be again this year. Taking place in the more intimate setting of the Indigo at the O2, a sold-out crowd were treated to a relaxed evening of acoustic Country music from a collection of wonderful singer-songwriters, complete with the stories behind their compositions.
Hosting the event was the veteran Kix Brooks, formerly (and soon to be once again) one half of super-duo Brooks & Dunn. With over 30 years experience in the business Kix was the perfect choice to lead events, an hilariously self-deprecating story-teller all told in that laconic drawl. Generous with his praise for the younger artists sharing the stage with him, he was equally happy to playfully tease them also. As a long-time Brooks and Dunn fan it was thrilling to hear Kix recall the early days of their career, as well as performing versions of ‘Red Dirt Road’ and ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone’. A highlight was his rendition of a track he wrote back in 1989 for McBride & The Ride, the emotional ‘Sacred Ground’. (A special mention for the lengthy, but oh-so funny, story of Kix calling up a fan in the crowd to propose to his girlfriend on the stage at a Brooks & Dunn show…only to call up the wrong couple and unwittingly mistake their confusion simply for nerves, rallying them to go through with it!)
Ahead of her set in the main arena on Day 1 of Country To Country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark was on hand to give a teaser of the wonderful performance in store for UK fans. Clearly appreciative of the (deservingly) high praise for her Grammy-nominated ’12 Stories’ album, Brandy was at ease sharing the tales behind some of its tracks. A mischievous performance of the tongue-in-cheek ‘Get High’ was a stand-out, even more impressive was the achingly-gorgeous ‘Hold My Hand’, a Country song in the true classic mould. Prior to the release of her debut album Brandy was already having her compositions cut by some of Nashville’s finest. Her version of ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’, a platinum selling hit for Miranda Lambert was a big hit with the London crowd. One of the biggest responses of the night was when Brandy broke into CMA Song of the Year ‘Follow Your Arrow’, recorded by Kacey Musgraves. Brandy Clark is a hugely gifted writer and has an effortlessly elegant Country voice, a true pleasure to watch.
Englishman Sam Palladio is best known for his role as Gunnar Scott in hit US TV series ‘Nashville’, however he is rapidly gaining recognition as an artist in his own right, we just need that debut album he mentioned was hopefully in the works. Clearly happy to sing outside of his comfort zone, Sam was content to only perform a couple of ‘Nashville’ tracks, thankfully one of those was the brooding ‘If I Didn’t Know Better’. A heartwarming tale relayed to Sam by his grandfather provided the inspiration for the original, sweet ballad ‘Wake Me Up In Nashville’, which he shared with the audience. Even more impressive were the two new songs, the young singer confessed he had only played a couple of times. During his Saturday performance in the main arena on the satellite stage, Sam played the pick of these, ‘Lightning Bones’ a thrilling track showing just how much energy and intensity can be generated by one man & his guitar…when he is this talented. Humble and with a real love for Country music, Palladio is an artist on a steep upward trajectory.
One of the many joys of these CMA shows is to hear from the songwriters who whilst having an incredible career as writers may not be internationally-known performers in their own right. A lady in this category is Jessi Alexander, who has written some serious hit Country records and shared centre-stage on Friday night. It should come as no surprise, given the wealth of talent in Nashville, that Jessi also has a wonderful voice. Admitting that Blake Shelton had been ‘good to her‘, performances of her songs ‘Drink On It’ & ‘Mine Would Be You’ (both No.1 singles for Blake) were delivered masterfully by the lady from Jackson, Tennessee. Another success story for Jessi was ‘The Climb’, an inspirational track cut by Miley Cyrus (and a hit in the UK for Joel McElderry, I was NOT expecting his name to crop up on Friday!), which proved popular on the night.
The highlight from Jessi was undoubtedly the story surrounding and beautiful performance of ‘I Drive Your Truck’, a huge success for Lee Brice which earned Jessi CMA & ACM Song of the Year trophies. During her performances Jessi was accompanied by her husband Jon Randall, the two performed on the pop-up stages across the weekend and were hugely popular with harmonies honed to perfection.
Jon Randall is an artist I have been familiar with for longer than I care to admit, this may well date back to his debut album on RCA back in 1995. (On a side note I would still highly recommend his 1999 album ‘Willin’, which features two of the most sublime ballads I have ever heard). Randall has it all – strong tenor voice, fabulous picker and a talented writer. Similar to his wife Jessi, Jon has also been in good company and performed two songs he had co-written with & were recorded by Dierks Bentley, the hugely fun ‘Pretty Girls’ and the rocking ‘Am I The Only One’. Randall has also co-written one of the finest Country songs in years, most famously a sublime collaboration between Brad Paisley & Alison Krauss, ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ is a modern classic in the genre. The UK crowd were treated to a breathtaking version of the track, with Randall and Alexander singing in perfect harmony.
Approximately two-thirds of the way through the show there was clearly a little commotion back-stage, a slightly flustered Kix Brooks almost falling off his chair. It was then revealed that Striking Matches were in the building and wanted to play a song of the Indigo crowd. The duo were one of THE hits of Country To Country 2014 and their reputation has only grown since. Justin & Sarah took the stage and blew everyone away with a scintillating performance of their breathless track ‘Make A Liar Out Of Me’, superb.
Kix Brooks was keen to impress upon the audience how gratifying it was to see such a wonderful reception for the CMA Songwriters Series shows in London, and what a strong message it was sending back to Nashville. A pleasing ending to a thoroughly entertaining and captivating evening, as the artists on stage successfully managed to ‘bring the Bluebird to London‘. (A huge thank you to Matthew from Nashvilleoverhere.com for giving me the opportunity to attend on Friday night)
(All photos copyright of Hels Bels Photography – www.facebook.com/HelsBelsPhotography)