C2C Country To Country 2016: part one

The rebirth of country music in the UK is continuing apace with the ongoing success of C2C Country To Country. Starting as a two day event in London, 2016 - it’s fourth year - saw the event expand to three days, and take up residency in Glasgow and Dublin as well as London’s O2 Arena.

Following the much discussed bro-country focus of 2015’s weekend, where Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Florida Georgia Line took up three of the top four slots, 2016 saw two of the genuine superstars of modern country music top the bill: Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood.

First up though are the pop-up stages. If you’re not familiar, these are the London-centric free stages that are dotted around the public area of the O2 - though a ticketing system was introduced, confusingly, for some of these stages this year. Mainly used as a showcase for UK talent, the hard touring likes of Dexeter, Frankie Davies, Red Sky July, Balsamo Deighton, and others fill the majority of the slots; which means it’s a great chance to see some fresh British talent.

Increasingly though some top US talent is finding its way onto these stages and 2016 saw Lori McKenna (co-writer of the Grammy winning phenomenon ‘Girl Crush’ and respected artist in her own right), Shane McAnally (another hugely successful Nashville songwriter), Old Dominion, and Maren Morris take to tiny stages to perform. In fact Old Dominion’s show in the Indigo at the O2 was one of the best of the weekend. It’s a great way to see some of the most exciting upcoming talent from the UK and US.

Over in the arena opinion was split on the country music merits of Thomas Rhett and Sam Hunt. Neither really qualify, and certainly neither are anywhere near traditional but the likes of Rhett’s earworm ‘Crash And Burn’ (actually co-written by Chris Stapleton, but more on him later), and Hunt’s ‘Break Up In A Small Town’ are excellent pop songs with huge hooks and downbeat lyrics. The sentiment if not the delivery is totally Nashville.

The complete antithesis to this modern day country-pop was the legend that is Dwight Yoakim and the up and coming Andrew Combs. Yoakim rocked double denim with white cowboy boots and hat, and while he lacked a real energy to his show he and his band more than compensated with their craftsmanship. Keeping the chat to a minimum he rattled through fourteen songs in his 50 minute set. Opening the Sunday (in London) Andrew Combs was something of a left-field choice. His downbeat, under the radar music, and two albums have barely registered on the public consciousness; in fact he himself professed his surprise as the last time he played London it was “at Hoxton Bar & Kitchen to about 75 people”. His half hour set moved seamlessly between the downright sad (‘Too Stoned To Cry’), the dark and groovy (‘Month Of Bad Habits’), and the traditional country (‘Suwannee County’).

London’s Sunday line-up was the most traditional of the weekend. Kacey Musgraves turned the venue into her Rhinestone Country & Western Revue, all raspberry suits and sequinned costumes, whilst belting out really clever lyrics. ‘Silver Lining’ is perky, her cover of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ was beautifully sung and turned into a harmonica driven hoedown, album track ‘Die Fun’ really came alive, ‘Spoonful Of Sugar’ was camp in the extreme, an acoustic ‘Merry Go Round’ handed out spine tingles; Musgraves set had too many highlights to mention. She’s the real deal and a country outlaw for a new age, unashamedly twangy and unafraid to talk about the unspoken. She may seem all sweetness and ballerina skirts but her songs are laced with sass and hippie attitude.

Following the Texan was the self proclaimed bad boy of country, Eric Church. A cold caught in Germany hampered his voice a little but Church is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. And he can knock out the tunes: ‘Drink In My Hand’ and ‘Jack Daniels’ get drinks waved in the air, ‘These Boots’ get boots held aloft, and ‘Springsteen’ is sung like it’s the song we’ve been waiting all weekend for. It’s a rousing end.

The real winner though is Chris Stapleton. The burly, bearded, belter brought his Grammy winning songs to the festival and had without doubt the best reception of the weekend. The standing ovation he received after leaving jaws on the floor with his solo rendition of ‘Whiskey & You’ - the single best three minutes of the weekend - was moving. And the noise as he left the stage was ear deafening. The big songs, like ‘Fire Away’, might be more showy but the Kentucky native has it all: the voice, the musicianship, the songs. And now a triumphant, heart stopping performance at the O2.

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