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Why Britain is taking country music to its achy-breaky heart | Country

Country music – with its songs about love and loss, trucks and tequila, beers and bust-ups – has long been the melodic backdrop to rural and small town America. Now it’s booming in Britain too.

One look at the digital streaming numbers tells the story. They’ve shot up almost 50% in the past two years, according to new data from the Country Music Association – making country the fastest growing music genre in Britain.

It’s the “authenticity” of singers such as Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash – and more recently Taylor Swift and Kacey Musgraves – that country music DJ Baylen Leonard believes is at the heart of Britain’s newfound love for all things Nashville.

“People are looking for something that’s a little more grounded, that has a start, that has a finish, that takes you somewhere,” he says. “For some people, it’s nostalgic or escapist – taking you out of the situation you’re in – maybe on some sundrenched holiday to the American south.”

It’s helped by a slew of new specialist radio stations such as Absolute Radio Country, Smooth Country, Downtown Country and Chris Country Radio, each churning out round-the-clock Nashville vibes. Weekly radio listeners are edging close to 1 million – but for Leonard it’s less about the numbers and more about what he’s seeing on the ground.

Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift performs at Wembley Stadium, London, 2018. Photograph: Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

He points out that the roofers next door to his building are tuned into a country music station all day and every day. “They were listening to Luke Combs and singing along to every single word,” he says. “Dentists, taxis, coffee shops – people are tuned into country everywhere. It’s all about the storytelling – I think country music does that better than any genre out there.”

And there’s perhaps no one better at stories than Dolly Parton. Leonard believes her appearance at Glastonbury in 2014 was a huge moment for country music in this country. “I think it was a reminder of just how amazing Dolly Parton is, and opened people’s eyes to how country music has got this real heart to it,” he says.

“You can put on Jolene or 9 to 5 in lany situation with any crowd and you’re going to get people singing along to every single word. People love the glitter and rhinestones too.”

In the past, British audiences often dismissed country music as being conservative or regressive, he says, and while some of those old-school singers are still around, growing numbers of liberal-minded artists “want to make the world a better place”.

He points to voices like Kacey Musgraves – a multi-Grammy winning country star with a reputation for “pushing social barriers”. Her song Follow Your Arrow, for example, is about being free to love who you want.

He thinks British country fans roughly fall into three categories. The loud and proud set – who might have come into the genre via Taylor Swift or the hit TV show Nashville. “They love the lifestyle, they want to go to Nashville, to wear the red, white and blue, and get a cowboy hat,” he says.

Then there are what he calls the “closet country fans” – who keep their passion for country quiet in case they’re made fun of. Last, there are those who wouldn’t classify themselves as country fans but who nonetheless love Johnny Cash.

Fans from all camps will be heading to country music festivals this year, from the south to the Scottish isles. The biggest, Country to Country, opens this week – a three-day multi-venue event that has become Europe’s very own Nashville extravaganza. Tens of thousands are expected to turn out as the festival takes in such unlikely cowboy hotspots as London, Dublin and Glasgow.

Scotty McCreery
Scotty McCreery in Nashville, Tennessee, 2020. Photograph: EMG/REX/Shutterstock

One of the headline acts is 28-year-old Scotty McCreery – who won American Idol in 2011, and part of the new generation of platinum-selling country singers, fusing traditional Nashville sounds with their own modern twist.

Growing up in a small town in North Carolina, McCreery says he spent hours every day in his bedroom, soaking up the ballads of his mother’s favourite country singers, including Conway Twitty, Randy Travis and Merle Haggard.

There wasn’t much else to do, he says. “I grew up in a southern Baptist church – it was Jesus and fried chicken, that’s what life was all about.”

It’s a life that might sound a long way from Essex or the Midlands – where two more of the UK’s new country festivals are taking place, Tennessee Fields in July and The Long Road over the August bank holiday – but the sentiments are universal, he says. “People listen to the songs and see their own life,” he says. “People come up to me all the time and say, ‘man, this song reminds me of my family – or, we walked down the aisle with that song’. It’s real people telling real stories.”

Real stories like his hit, Five More Minutes With You, which he wrote after the unexpected death of his grandfather and which has been streamed 143m times on Spotify alone. “It’s about wanting to spend one more day with him – just to get to tell him a few more things,” McCreery says. “I think that’s a story a lot of us can relate to with loved ones.”

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