Country to Country 2017: Our 4-day Review!

Alex Headlines, Live Review, News

  All Photo Credits: Hels Bels Photography (for Nashville Over Here)

CMA Songwriters

A number of C2C attendees have passionately informed me that CMA Songwriter’s Series is their favourite event of Country 2 Country Festival; high praise for an event that happens the night before the festival actually begins! For those who haven’t been before and don’t understand the format, it’s a showcase of songwriters, some you will definitely have heard of, and some you may not have, hosted in the Indigo at the O2. It’s a chance to shine the spotlight on hit songs in a casual, intimate setting, allowing the writers to tell their stories. Six performers with five acoustic guitars were on stage from start to finish, taking it in turns to represent their craft in bare-bones format. They bounce off each other’s stories, contribute jokes and complement each other with additional guitar when it’s not their turn. Instead of the star performer, it’s a chance to witness personalities and gain appetising insights of behind-the-scenes Nashville. It’s impossible to be bored; the sheer character on stage and select set list sees that every song and interval is a highlight.

The event was hosted by Kristian Bush of Sugarland fame, who took on Sugarland favourites and songs from his solo career, telling how the UK festival is the symbolic birth of it – his first major solo show was here back in 2013. His cheek continued throughout the evening and promised no dull moments. After all, how can a confessional about being so drunk you struggle to “stay on top of your flip flops” warrant anything but audience participation?

The event was hosted by Kristian Bush of Sugarland fame, who took on Sugarland favourites and songs from his solo career, telling how the UK festival is the symbolic birth of it – his first major solo show was here back in 2013. His cheek continued throughout the evening and promised no dull moments. After all, how can a confessional about being so drunk you struggle to “stay on top of your flip flops” warrant anything but audience participation?

Throughout the night, Drake White followed Bush with a weathered and passionate singing voice you could only wish you had. His set of songs was the best advert for his acclaimed debut, titled “Spark” (2016), and he made every possible case for why he’s sticking around for the long haul. With writing chops like these, he’s got plenty more to say in his future.

Maren Morris is likely the most buzzed of the five acts, and she was joined by her guitarist for her two hit singles ‘My Church’ and ‘80’s Mercedes’, unknown but excellent lyric ‘Bumming Cigarettes’, and finally her upcoming single ‘I Could Use a Love Song’. She took this moment to prematurely announce her upcoming autumn UK tour, stating that she wasn’t supposed to until the weekend. The message was met with great applause, but it wasn’t the only surprise of the evening…

Kristian Bush called out into the audience for The Shires, and once on stage, he presented them with their first ever CMA award. A standing ovation from the audience warranted a performance from the astonished UK band, but unfortunately they did not. They would have been perfect as a surprise addition to the line-up, as their performance on Sunday was likely to be extremely packed out.

Liz Rose was the next performer, known for her hits with Taylor Swift (‘You Belong With Me’, ‘White Horse’) and Little Big Town (‘Girl Crush’) which she performed throughout the evening, accompanied by Mac McAnally on guitar. Rose, mother of Caitlin Rose, began her songwriting career at the age of 37 and plays no instruments. Her forte is her lyrical content, and the willingness of the audience to sing along with her is all the proof needed of that. Her stories and temperament were fascinating; describing the song ‘Husband In-Laws’ with a personal anecdote about being on her fourth marriage: “I don’t think I have any ex-boyfriends. I think I married them all.” It’s easy to imagine Pistol Annies getting a kick out of writing with her.

Mac McAnally described himself as “one of the few musicians who is exactly what their parents want them to be”. Of all the stories of the evening, McAnally’s received the biggest laughs. A genuinely funny person, he informed the audience “When they inducted me [to the CMA] I demanded a recount. Nobody listens to me!” His direct wit translates excellently into his songs, and his impressive instrumental skills made his songs a highlight of the evening. The applause at the end of the night was guaranteed, as is a sell-out show next year, regardless of the 2018 line-up. Grab those tickets early!

C2C Day One

Beth Thornton on the WM Stage was a great start for UK talent on show at the festival. The combination of a keen band and a strong voice is all but unstoppable in such an environment, and it’s almost certain she gained new fans with their well-executed set in their perfect setting. She played here again on the last day of C2C, giving festival-goers and the public alike a second chance to see her. Worry Dolls followed their Friday set; one of the folkier acts on offer. Zoe Nicol and Rosie Jones’ harmonies are evocative of First Aid Kit’s, and their banjo/mandolin embellishments make them an interesting addition to the C2C line-up.

Jennifer Nettles on ‘Stay’: “It is a beautifully emotive song, and as a storyteller and a songwriter, it’s one of the most special that I’ve been gifted to write. I’m very grateful for that song.” (Richard Wooton, RW Publicity)

Jennifer Nettles need not prove the excellence of her voice to anyone at this stage of her career. It is her strongest asset, and country is lucky to have her on its side. With a smattering of covers (Salt-N-Pepa, Tears For Fears), Sugarland hits (Baby Girl, Want To, Stay) and tracks from her own albums (Drunk In Heels, Unlove You, Playing With Fire), Nettle’s well-rounded set was satisfying, if slightly too short for her extensive abilities to really be laid bare.

Chris Young on ‘Sober Saturday Night’: “Having Vince Gill on a song with me is something that’s kinda mind-blowing. I basically cold-called him. He knew I was gonna call, but I’d never called Vince Gill before! I thought, he’s just gonna hang up! He said, ‘sure, I’d love to be a part of it! Just come over to the house’. …Excuse me? So I ended up at Vince Gill’s house. He was one of the first artists I actually got to see live as a kid. I’m sure he loves me saying that.” (Richard Wooton, RW Publicity)

Chris Young’s wonderful baritone travelled pleasingly through the arena, reaching his particularly high number of fans in attendance. Cassadee Pope’s live input on their recent hit duet ‘Think Of You’ was definitely a highlight. His stories about struggling with the falsetto note on my favourite of his many hits ‘You’ was a brilliant way to personalise the song, and some of the loudest applause of the weekend ensued.

Cam on who she listens to when she’s feeling down: “I sometimes really like feeling down. I actually like sinking into it and feeling worse! Tracy Chapman. St. Vincent, I think she’s an awesome example for the women. I do listen to Patsy Cline all the time still.”  (Dina from Red Rose Country) 

To a Cam fan, it was unfortunate that she was demoted to the Yamaha stage, the only artist from the original line-up announcement subjected to this. Conceivably, she’s as big as Maren Morris and Brothers Osborne, sales-wise, and although the process of working out how popular they are in the UK is slightly more difficult given the lack of available information, it seems as though it could have happened to any of the three. Lucky for said fans, Cam had an intimate show at Bush Hall in London immediately after C2C, and she still had her own press conference. Cam had just 15 minutes to perform, and ‘My Mistake’, ‘Half Broke Heart’ and ‘Burning House’ were great choices.

Brad Paisley on advice to upcoming artists: “It’s all about the song in the end. Where your career goes is what you cut. Anybody who had the songs that I had would be as big or a bigger star than me. I just happened to either write some or find some. You can never let yourself think it’s about you. Rarely is it. Elvis might have been a star singing anything, but the rest of us need songs. It’s really important that you figure out who you are song-wise, and then you’ll go as far as you can!” (Linda, [Unknown])

Brad Paisley certainly had a few tricks up his sleeve to improve on whatever could possibly have come before him. Who else has a (pre-recorded, but convincing) Facetime session planned with no other than Carrie Underwood, to perform on their multi-platinum duet ‘Remind Me’, on her birthday no less? Who else boasts enough humour to feature their South Park cameo appearance as their stage backdrop? Who else signed a guitar for an audience member, exclaimed “that’s how you make a Taylor Swift right there!” before running through to crowd to play on the Yamaha stage? No amount of peppered novelties would be a good show by themselves, though, so it’s lucky he’s got 19 #1 singles to fall back on for his set, played on an assortment of beautiful telecasters, and a few dubious anglicisms thrown in for good measure.

C2C Day Two

As I entered the O2 on the second day of C2C, the proceedings had already begun. Katy Hurt and her band were proof of two things during their steadfast performance on the Big Entrance stage; to the festival goers that UK artists are not to be counted out, and simultaneously to others passers-through that country music is louder, more compelling and infinitely more fun than perhaps they’d ever thought before. She was a perfect choice for the main stage and made for a thoroughly enjoyable audience experience. Security staff had their jobs cut out keeping the crowds from blocking the path through to the main arena.

After Katy Hurt, I made through the non-signposted, roundabout path to Building Six for Raintown, the nicest couple in the genre. I was pleasantly surprised to hear their music at a distance from the room itself, and I was happy to see that despite the odds of their position and time slot, they had it packed out and everyone knew their lyrics. They were definitely one of the loudest acts of the weekend, and their set was all the proof needed that they’ve made the absolute best of their resources as a UK act. A thrill to watch, nobody can say that the effort they make with their career warrants anything but the huge line for them to sign merchandise that they received. Excellent: I’m proud!

Hunter Hayes’ arena performance began marred by either technical issues or his self-professed nerves. The set up didn’t seem best for the higher pitch of his voice. Although he took time to recover from whatever the issue was within a few songs (unfortunately, after two of his biggest hits: ‘I Want Crazy’ and ‘Storm Warning’), his guitar playing was consistent throughout. All weekend we’ve been blessed with performances from so many guitar virtuosos, but the young multi-instrumentalist was impressive enough to – dare I say it – give Brad Paisley, Friday’s headliner and often regarded as one of if not the best in the genre, a run for his money. Charlie Worsham joined him for a shaken-up version of ‘Somebody’s Heartbreak’, and as a guest could not quite live up to Hayes’ faultless shredding. Despite the aforementioned issues, Hayes managed to prove that he does indeed have a number of good songs under his belt, and his new material seems stronger than ever.

On the Yamaha stage, Seth Ennis threw his last chewing gum into the crowd. His rookie-ish nature was a good fit for the small stage and his genuine attitude (“I haven’t done anything like this before!”) seemed to make connections in the audience no trouble. It was good to see the stage used for the newest of artists.

Darius Rucker on his acting ambitions: “You can laugh at me but I’m serious! My next career goal is to move to London for a year and be a regular on Eastenders. That would be so much fun for me. (A goodie or a baddie?) Either one! I could be that nasty American that comes along and tries to steal everyone’s girlfriends!” (Lee Williams, CMR Nashville)

Hype throughout the day for Darius Rucker was huge. It could be said that he trumps headliner Reba McEntire with his extensive appeal, given his Hootie & The Blowfish days. He was a very dynamic performer in a fantastic pair of shoes, and his three covers (‘Friends In Low Places’, ‘No Diggity’ and his encore of ‘Purple Rain’) went down an absolute treat. Up until that point, he received the biggest applause of the whole weekend.

Drake White compered to announce Cassadee Pope to the Yamaha stage – one he would take himself the day after – Pope proved that she is past the rookie stage, her voice and stage presence sharpened by her years in the pop punk band Hey Monday. After three songs, including a new track ‘Me, Myself and I’, she made way for the day’s headliner – Reba McEntire.

It was a pleasure to witness a country Queen. The last headliner to be announced, and something of a surprise addition, the 61 year old tended to a different generation to Brad Paisley and Zac Brown Band. Her voice seems no weaker than it ever did, and her anecdotes about her 40+ year career were highly entertaining. She told of the only way she could watch her first music video: waiting for the adverts on HBO while staying in a hotel for the chance of seeing the 1986 single ‘Whoever’s In New England’. She had been excited by the colours in the area in which it was filmed.

“…And then they played an Aretha Franklin video.
…And then they played mine!
…That video came back in sepia tone!”
Reba packed a lot of her songs into a short run time, which she was able to do given many of them are two minutes in length. Showing zero fatigue through highlights like ‘The Greatest Man I Ever Knew’, the theme tune to her sitcom ‘I’m a Survivor’ and a rendition of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, she completed the second day of the festival heartily.

C2C Day Three

The queue for Drake White, who would be followed on the Indigo stage by the native Shires, was far too long for me. Thankfully (given that White had numerous other performances throughout the weekend, and I’ve had a few opportunities to watch and talk to Ben and Crissie) there were plenty of other stages for me to be at. Take the WM Stage, for example, praised for its similar layout to real Nashville venues (with the stage at the entrance). On Sunday, the final day of C2C 2017, Dominic Halpin and his band were one of many UK acts to benefit from its atmosphere.

“This is a song about my girlfriend. It’s called ‘Talk Of The Devil’, said the retro swing artist halfway through his set, before announcing “We’re not together anymore. I wrote it after!” to much audience appreciation.

Temecula Road – 16/17 year olds Maddie, Dawson and Emma – are an American band who already have 100,000 Facebook fans, and are signed to Buena Vista Records despite only having one single available for download. Despite perhaps leaning a bit too close to pop for this festival (“you’ll know this one [‘Closer’ by Chainsmokers], so sing along”, despite being sung way better than the original, wasn’t received as well as they might have hoped) their chart potential is undeniable. The song ‘I’d Rather Do Nothing’, written by the mastermind behind ‘The House That Built Me’ Tom Douglas was the highlight of their set, and deserves a single release immediately. It’s a song like that which will prove their longevity past their Disney subsidiary label, and their musicianship warrants such a career.

TJ Osborne on ‘The Breaker’: “We never really performed it. Once or maybe twice. There’s certain songs to me that feel very personal, all of them to some extent. Some of them are saved in the vault, and that one was sitting back there for some time. When you really shatter someone else’s life, and break their heart, it’s awful. It’s why I can’t sing the song. Karen from Little Big Town heard the song and tried to talk us into recording it, but ultimately I think it was good service for them to do it.” (Alex Driscoll, Nashville Over Here)

Brothers Osborne were possibly the band I was most looking forward to out of the whole weekend. Their excellent ‘Pawn Shop’ album is one of the most satisfying country debuts of recent times. TJ Osborne’s voice is satisfyingly deep and brilliantly controlled, perfect for avoiding the arena’s audio issues with artists who sing at higher pitch. As a live act, they’re about halfway between Johnny Cash and Kings of Leon; arena rock, but not insipid. I would love to have heard ‘Dirt Rich’, and they missed a trick by not bringing out female accompaniment on ‘Loving Me Back’, but I was lucky enough to see them the day after at Camden Dingwalls, where John Osborne’s wife Lucie Silvas took on Lee Ann Womack’s verse in the song. The 40-times smaller venue gave them the freedom to perform with rock band attitude, a guise they certainly seemed more comfortable in, while keeping their country cred: ‘If you don’t like Willie Nelson, then fuck you.’ Winning their first ACM award while on stage for New Group of the Year, their extended encore was a treat, including a cover of ‘Goodbye Earl’ and plenty of their melodious guitar playing.

When Drake White took to the Yamaha stage for the last of his many coveted performances, the question is begged; how can someone with a voice that rich, varied and powerful perform so many times and not hurt his throat? His solid fail-proof growl is so well suited to acoustic performance like this and the CMA Songwriters series on Thursday. He is one artist whose material will always sound best on stage.

Maren Morris is something of a cousin to country music. Her defiance of genre boundaries leaves her open for much scepticism, despite having one of the most critically acclaimed albums of any genre in 2016. She felt mildly underappreciated on stage before Marty Stuart and Zac Brown Band, unfortunately seeming lost on some of the crowd. She sang serviceably and with several well-known songs under her belt already in her short career, a finale mash-up of ‘Second Wind’ and Beyoncé’s ‘Halo’ was a bold move. Had it been swapped with ‘My Church’, she could have maximised her impact in a difficult slot with an apparently tough crowd.

Marty Stuart – the Wild Card, at least in my head. I feel I can be forgiven for thinking he wouldn’t be a big draw. As part of a young UK generation with little existing mainstream access to country music, if I don’t look up individual artists and research their discographies, the truth of the matter is, I will never come across their songs. If I hadn’t taken it upon myself to listen to Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, how would I ever have known their songs? Stuart is not an artist that I had done this with. It’s not like I assume the old genre artists wouldn’t be worth my time, as Margo Price and Kelsey Waldon are all the proof I need that the traditional is worth it. But an artist with few actual chart hits even in his native US, and all before I was born does not rank high on the priority list.

I am pleased to announce my conversion. His band, the Fabulous Superlatives, were indeed fabulous and superlative, and his stories about Johnny Cash, accompanied by his song ‘Dark Bird’ as an off-scripts surprise was a highlight and a moment of magic. Larger than life, the applause was immense. Those with full knowledge of his career seemed to make up a lot of the crowd, and I wished I was one of them.

ZBB on new country artists that excite them: “Maren Morris. She’s really good. Jason Isbell is one of the greatest songwriters alive right now. He’s one I listen to a lot. Brothers Osborne, their new album is great. Killer guitar playing and great songs. Two brothers, in it to win it too. They’ve got a lot of passion and soul in their music.” (Alex Driscoll, Nashville Over Here)

One drum kit is apparently not enough for Zac Brown’s band, and neither was simply sitting down in spectatorship. More than for any other artist of the weekend, the audience were focused explicitly on the stage, the majority stood up. On many of Zac Brown’s guitars, there are whole patches in the paint where his pick moves so fast. Along with the celebrated musicianship of the 8-person band on stage, proven stars Marty Stuart and Drake White returned to the stage for extra variety. After a cover of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – woah, that takes guts – I didn’t realise I was still clapping until long after the song was over. A look at a new song of theirs ‘Real Thing’ from their upcoming, Dave Cobb-helmed album, a well-deserved finale of ‘Chicken Fried’, and the weekend was over. I think London knew at this point that they had saved the best until last.

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16 March 2013


The O2, London

About the Author


I'm Alex, 21 and from Greenwich, home of C2C! A lifetime lover and player of music, I got into Country during my early teens and I've been hooked ever since. I want to be part of the new and exciting UK Country movement, heighten exposure, and show people just how great the genre can be.