2018 Country to Country Festival: 10 Best Things We Saw in the U.K.
Country music’s international appeal was reinforced this past weekend as more than 50,000 fans made the annual pilgrimage to the O2 Arena in London, one of three host cities of the annual Country to Country (C2C) festival.
For the past six years, a group of Nashville ambassadors, from veterans to up-and-comers, have picked up and relocated to stages across London, Dublin and Glasgow, for three days of arena shows, club gigs and songwriters’ rounds. It’s the only time of the U.K. year that you’ll ever find cowboy boots, Stetson hats and tour T-shirts in such a concentrated form.
Rolling Stone Country trained its sights on London’s O2 to catch sets by Music City royalty Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, the reunited Sugarland and breakout stars like Ashley McBryde and Lukas Nelson. Here’s the 10 best things we saw.
Tim McGraw & Faith Hill
Fans were shocked to hear of Tim McGraw’s dramatic stage collapse at the Dublin C2C event on Sunday, just days after he and his wife Faith Hill delivered a near-perfect London show on Friday night (they also performed Saturday in Glasgow). Not only did McGraw and Hill perform together on a London stage for the first time, it also served as the inaugural overseas performance of their Soul2Soul Tour. The Grammy-winning stars had the crowd on their feet with an electrifying opening, a high-spirited cover of the 1987 Aretha Franklin and George Michael duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” before running through the showstoppers that make the couple country royalty: Hill’s “The Way You Love Me,” “This Kiss” and “Breathe”; McGraw’s “I Like It, I Love It,” “Shotgun Rider” and the stand-out “Humble and Kind.” McGraw may have given fans a scare on Sunday night, but in London, he and his wife delighted them.
When Kacey Musgraves last played the C2C main stage in 2016, her set was higlighted by a raspberry-suited band, a glitter explosion and a song from Mary Poppins. This year introduced an entirely different Musgraves altogether. Apart from the puffy electric-blue jacket and sparkly jumpsuit, the rhinestoned spectacle of the past was toned way down with the focus solely on vocals and lyrics. Musgraves’ love of her British fanbase is no secret, and as she turned the O2 into the most epic listening party yet for her new album Golden Hour, they didn’t disappoint her, concentrating resolutely as they absorbed new material like “Slow Burn,” “Butterflies” and “Love Is a Wild Thing.” Pausing for a moment to take in the scope of the crowd, she announced, “I’m headlining the fucking O2!” before apologising to any “classy” BBC listeners who were tuning in live. As she ventured through the crowd, from one end of the arena to the other, she sat at a piano to perform “Rainbow,” a touching song she’s waited six years to record,” before singing “Space Cowboy” and bringing the house down with a Technicolor disco version of “Neon Moon” and the Golden Hour disco anthem “High Horse” – complete with the release of a flood of bouncing balls.
Fresh from her arena show the night before, McBryde hit the Bluebird Café Stage for an intimate event on Sunday, reminiscent of the songwriter rounds that started it all. After supporting Walker Hayes through his song “Halloween” (she just learned it half a minute prior in the green room), McBryde launched into “Bible and a .44” with real heart. She’s experiencing a wave of recognition and adulation right now, and the U.K. has certainly caught the bug. “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” – the track that helped ignite her career – was performed fearlessly, while “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” took on an even more profound meaning as she played to a crowd who cheered at the line “I can’t find one empty chair…”. By the time she finished the soaring “American Scandal,” she was breathless as the crowd raised for a standing ovation. One of the most talked about breakthrough acts of the whole weekend, and rightly so.
Possibly the most stylishly dressed band at C2C, Midland’s quality harmonies and vintage country glam provided a stand-out arena performance. The group, hailing from Dripping Springs, Texas, kicked things off with “Check Cashin’ Country,” a tale about touring clubs in the days before the O2 came calling. Vocalist Mark Wystrach, guitarist Jess Carson and bass player Cameron Duddy were a tight-knit unit, offering a sampling of their debut LP On the Rocks. Along with “At Least You Cried,” “More Than a Fever” and their breakthrough hit “Drinkin’ Problem,” the trio also found space to include Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” At one moment, they were even pointing out mustaches on display in the crowd, adding a touch of cowboy humanity to their outsized neon personalities.
If a star was born – or discovered – over the weekend, it was Lukas Nelson. Playing the Spotlight Stage in between a Sugarland-Kacey Musgraves’ sandwich was never going to be easy, but judging by the audible gasp shortly into his performance, the son of Willie Nelson won over the audience handily. Forming his band the Promise of the Real 10 years ago, Nelson and his bandmates are no newcomers to such festivals, but a push into the U.K. market is clearly a big step. Featuring traditional country and rock & roll stories that bleed with emotion and raw honesty, Nelson’s voice channels Neil Young, Chris Stapleton and his dad, but it remains completely his own. As he sung the emotive “Just Outside of Austin,” the crowd was stunned, silenced and then transformed into new fans. The following night, Nelson joined Margo Price’s incredible main stage set for a few songs, including a take on “Proud Mary” that spotlighted Price’s own enormous vocals.
After a five-year hiatus, country’s musically progressive duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush apeared on a Dublin stage for their first full concert since reuniting in November. A night later in London, they did it all over again. One of the most highly-anticipated shows of the weekend, the performance launched what will become the full-blown Sugarland Still the Same 2018 Tour. Kicking off with the aptly-named “Find the Beat Again,” they exuded a force that didn’t let up until the curtain closed. Nettles’ vocals were electrifying, full of energy and pure joy that could be felt throughout the crowd. Bush, who played guitar and mandolin, revealed that he had held his first solo gig at the O2, making it a doubly special occasion. “All I Want to Do,” “Stuck Like Glue” and “Already Gone” were early highlights, with new single “Still the Same” capturing the dynamic quality of Sugarland’s past hits. They also touched on solo tracks, from Bush’s marvelous “Trailer Hitch” to Nettles’ stunning “Unlove You.” Closing with the Simple Minds’ cover “Alive and Kicking,” Sugarland received a standing ovation. Welcome back.
As the biggest-selling U.K. country act of all time, there was understandably a lot of buzz surrounding the Shires’ upcoming third album. At an exclusive listening party, introduced by Bob Harris, fans and media were treated to tunes from the new release, Accidentally on Purpose. Popping new single “Guilty” seems destined for continual radio airplay on the BBC, while the love ballad “Sleepwalk” features gorgeous harmonies. A chance meeting with Ed Sheeran led to him sending a demo for his song “Stay the Night,” which also appears on the record. Years of writing and recording trips to Nashville has helped evolve and mold the sound of Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes, and the duo’s third album is bigger, bolder and showcases some vital production. If only American fans knew what they were missing.
“Let’s hear it for me!” Walker Hayes’ response to his introduction was unique, but it’s exactly why U.K. audiences are drawn to the utterly relatable singer-songwriter. It’s true, two songs on the Spotlight Stage were barely enough to whet the crowd’s appetite, but in that snapshot, we saw more of Walker’s personality than any star to set foot on the same platform over the weekend. Performing his Top 10 “life-changing” hit “You Broke Up With Me” with pure enthusiasm, the loveable singer fist-pumped the air throughout, before playing “Beautiful,” a song he built on loop pedal that incorporates all the wordplay juggling he’s becoming known for. A hit at the 2018 C2C, it’s only time before Walker Hayes returns to play a main stage.
A London audience has always welcomed Emmylou Harris with open arms, and Sunday night featured more love than ever. In 1975, when the young country performer toured the U.K., she returned to the States with a newfound credibility, and the following year, she was releasing music that would cement her as a star. Harris was introduced by BBC Radio 2’s Whispering Bob Harris, a lontime friend, as “a force of good in the world,” and the singer set to work captivating the crowd. With an innate ability to inject every song with wisdom, grace and a portal back in time, Harris’s performance was measured and engrossing, with her slick and talented band, the Red Dirt Boys, supporting her through classics like “Making Believe,” “Michelangelo” and “Green Pastures.” The kicker: an outstanding “Boulder to Birmingham” that elicited much love from the London audience.
Hometown Heroes: Catherine McGrath, Twinnie
It’s not C2C without discovering new music and a number of U.K. acts are creating their own special version of country music. Among them: the sweet, Irish-raised but London-based Catherine McGrath, who has a hint of early Taylor Swift and a country-pop sound strengthened by serious songwriting chops. Working with Liz Rose and Jimmy Robbins, she has an album on the way this spring, featuring the new single “Talk of This Town.” Elsewhere, Twinnie, already a household name in the U.K., thanks to an early acting career, is establishing herself as a future country star. Sassy, sultry and commanding attention with a big voice, the York-raised artist possesses a sound that takes in country, R&B, pop and rock. Along with tracks off her upcoming LP, it was her mesmerizing rendition of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” that stopped C2C fans in their tracks.