The straight-talking monthly column on all things country, Americana, roots and acoustic…
The past few years has seen the emergence of several UK country acts that have made that all-important crossover to widespread acceptance outside of the somewhat insular UK country music scene.
Both the Shires and Ward Thomas have taken their albums high on the pop charts and regularly get played on BBC Radio 2, not to mention appearances on mainstream national TV programmes.
Both acts are signed to major record labels. In their wake are other promising UK acts like The Wandering Hearts, Catherine McGrath, Raintown and Holloway Road, all capable of making a similar breakthrough. The Shires, via their contract with UK Decca have been signed to the Nashville-based Big Machine Records – the label responsible for launching Taylor Swift to international super-stardom.
The Nashville connection…
It all sounds very positive and exciting, but how likely is it that a UK country act could actually crack the American market? Well, if we look back down the years, then the answer has to be; very unlikely. Before I explain why, let’s look at the history of UK acts and the Nashville connection.
Firstly, UK country acts recording in Nashville, signing with Nashville-based labels or actually moving there to enhance their career is not a recent phenomenon. It’s been going on for more than 50 years and no UK act has come close to making the big time on the American country music scene.
In 1962, The Springfields, a trio featuring a pre-diva Dusty Springfield, became the first British group to crack the American top 20 with their version of “Silver Threads And Golden Needles”, which also crossed over to the country charts reaching No. 16.
This led to the trio travelling to Nashville to record “FOLK SONGS FROM THE HILLS” album with top Music Row musicians. Their American success was short-lived as Dusty left the Springfields at the end of 1963 to embark upon a highly successful solo career and the group disbanded.
Three years later, Bath-born Pete Sayers, took a holiday to Nashville and landed a dream job as a Grand Ole Opry warm-up act. A gig that was to last four years. He also hosted his own early morning TV show on WSM-TV. Despite this exposure he failed to gain a recording contract, returned to his home in Newmarket and embarked upon a successful career as a UK-based country music singer-entertainer ,with regular appearances on BBC TV.
Coventry-born Frank Ifield, who grew up in Australia, made his initial recordings ‘down-under’ as a yodelling youngster. In 1960 he moved to London and three years later was one of Britain’s biggest pop stars.
But his recordings always had a country-vibe to them as he plundered country songs in his repertoire. In early 1966 he travelled to Nashville and under the supervision of Wesley Rose, he recorded for Hickory Records, an off-shoot of the vast Acuff-Rose publishing company.
Over a two-year period, he chalked up four entries on the American country charts, all Acuff-Rose published songs, the most successful being Call Her Your Sweetheart, which reached No. 28 in 1966. Despite many more Nashville sessions over the next six years, he was unable to build a country music following in America.
The Hillsiders from Liverpool were invited to Nashville by singer Bobby Bare in 1967 to record an album with him, THE ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE, released on RCA. They also made several appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. Three years later they recorded a second Nashville album, this time with George Hamilton IV. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s they were the UK’s top country band. Unlike too many local performers, they never put on a phoney mid-Atlantic accent, but sang with their Liverpudlian accent firmly in place. They could easily have followed in the Beatles footsteps and conquered the States, but they never had the kind of manager to make things happen for them.
Cambridge-born Olivia Newton-John has been the most successful UK-born artist on the American country charts. Between 1973 and 1979 she posted 15 songs on the charts, including seven top 10 entries. In 1974, she was named the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year in the famed ‘burning of the Award notification’ by an inebriated Charlie Rich.
The strange thing is that in the UK she was never considered ‘country’ and was regarded more as a ‘twee’ pop singer. Olivia herself never fully embraced her ‘country’ following and by the end of the 1970s had turned her back on that part of her career.
In contrast, Warrington-based Poacher were very much an integral part of the British country music scene when they were signed to Republic Records in Nashville, and scored on the American country charts with their version of Frankie Miller’s Darling. It was only a minor hit, reaching No. 86, but the UK country media made quite big deal out of it.
Could Jimmy Nail it?
In the mid-1990s it did seem as if Britain had found a singer who could spearhead a British country music breakthrough, in Newcastle’s Jimmy Nail. The well-known actor had always simultaneously pursued a career in music and after he played the role of an aspiring country singer in the TV series Crocodile Shoes, he toured the UK as a country singer. Despite determined efforts to break him in America, he made very little impression.
Over subsequent years there have been several more UK-based acts that have tried to establish a bona fide career on the American country music scene, including Adam Cauldwell who landed a publishing deal with Acuff-Rose, the Cheap Seats, a duo that gained much hi-power publicity that sadly fizzled out and Niki Dean, who landed auditions with both Warner Bros and RCA Records in Nashville with promises of a record deal if she moved to Music City. Again, it was the same old story, loads of potential, but lacking either the finance, management clout or that extra magical ‘something’ to make Nashville sir up and take notice.
Since the mid-1980s UK country acts have appeared at the international showcases at the CMA’s Fan Fair and Music Festival in Nashville, but all to no avail. UK musicians, songwriters and producers, working behind the scenes in Nashville have seemingly fared much better.
Songwriter Roger Cook, originally from Bristol, has been firmly entrenched on Music Row as a successful and highly respected hit writer with dozens of top ten singles to his credit. Similarly, Merseyside’s Paul Kennerley has written dozens of hit songs for the Judds, Marty Stuart, Don Williams, Tanya Tucker and Emmylou Harris (to whom he was once married) and also proved to be a successful producer.
There have also been several musicians that have moved across the Atlantic to Nashville to earn a better living (and dare I say it, higher regard) these include guitarists Ray Flacke, Terry Slater and Glen Mitchell.
Top of the crop…
So what of today’s crop of hopefuls … is Nashville and the American country music market waiting with open arms to welcome these newcomers on the block, or is it going to be the old story of ‘taking coals to Newcastle?’ If you’re going to take ‘British’ country music to America it has to be either much better than what they already have or it has to be quite different, distinctive and original. Improving on the quality of Nashville produced country music is virtually impossible as they have the best songwriters, musicians and studios in the world.
So we have to look at something that is unique and original. I always quote the Beatles when it comes to taking UK-created American music back to its homeland. Unlike most British pop acts of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Beatles never sang in a mid-Atlantic accent favoured by the likes of Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde and the myriad of other British pop stars. From the moment you played one of the Beatles’ records you knew that they were different, that they came from Merseyside. Secondly, they created great, unique and commercial songs that stood out in a crowd.
Though the Shires probably have the highest profile in the UK and generally are selling most tickets at their gigs, to my ears they are trying way too hard to sound ‘American’ in their vocals, songwriting and general approach to the music. They’ve obviously listened very closely to Nashville’s modern pop-country and absorbed all the best elements into their own style, but seemingly have failed to add any touch of originality. On the surface it all sounds great, but there’s a lack of personality as they fail to impart exactly just who the Shires really are.
Ward Thomas stay on the English country side…
In contrast, there’s a kind of innocent Englishness about Ward Thomas. They might lack the ultra-commercial shine of the Shires, but like the Beatles before them, there’s little doubt when listening to their songs and voices that Ward Thomas are from the UK. That might play against them in some people’s view, as it could be considered that they don’t sound ‘country’. But that certainly didn’t hold Olivia Newton-John back. In many ways it assisted in her in making the grade, as she didn’t sound like any of the then current Nashville-based female country singers. Also, of course, Mary Chapin Carpenter doesn’t have that ‘country’ twang to her vocals, coming as she does from upper-state New York, and look at how successful she was on the country charts.
Though Ward Thomas again are influenced by the Nashville sounds, being huge country music fans since their early teens, they’ve always written songs from their own personal lives in the way that the best country tune-smith do, and have naturally thrown English phrases into their lyrics, which I strongly believe could easily connect with American country music fans ready for a change from trucks, cut-off jeans and gravel roads.
When you listen to Ward Thomas’ music, you have the feeling that you’re eavesdropping on their lives, a trait that they’ve obviously borrowed from Taylor Swift, without in any way being copyists. You feel that you know them as ‘people’ through their music, rather than some anonymous act making music just for the fame and financial rewards.
It’s a great pity that the Music Row movers and shakers didn’t see the potential of Ward Thomas when they first visited Nashville as 17-year-olds. As teenage twin sisters Catherine and Lizzy from Hampshire in the the UK, it could have been a great promotional angle. I’m not suggesting that as twenty-somethings (23) they are past their sell-by-date, far from it. In fact, their maturity as writers, singers and performers is a definite plus.
All that is needed is that one special song that will catch the ears of mainstream American country radio. Guilty Flowers could have worked for them, but despite having a major label deal via Sony Music UK, at the time of writing their recordings are not currently released in America.
If a UK country act is to make a major impact in America, then the timing couldn’t be better with country music currently going through a boom in both sales and exposure in UK. For the first time in almost 40 years, homegrown acts are seemingly sharing in this boom. So now I wait with abated breath, hopeful, but doubtful that it’s going to actually happen.
By Alan Cackett