Saturday was to be our big day, in that we arrived at 10.30 and headed straight into a much quieter Town Square area. It seems early morning is the best time to be there if you want to have stress free browsing of the stalls and watch acts perform on the stage without being in a crowd crush.
Pop Up Stages
First up was Katy Hurt, someone I’d had several people recommend to me and a name I knew, without hearing any of her music. My initial impression was firmly on her voice, which might sound obvious at a gig, but the power and range took me by surprise, wow. She sang with great poise and confidence, engaging the crowd, and showcasing a repertoire of varied songs. From tender ballads to rocking upbeat numbers, she sang her heart out, and backed by a terrific band, the results were fantastic. A combination of modern country and traditional routes, with plenty of twang in her voice, makes Katy Hurt stand out on the UK scene. We met her after her set and she was a pleasure to chat to, signing the already signed CD we bought twice more. Got to be the only thrice signed CD sold at Country to Country that weekend. Katy has a PledgeMusic campaign ongoing for her next EP, and based on what I saw live and have heard on CD, you need to follow my lead and go preorder it, now.
After a look around the stalls, but resisting the temptation to buy a cowboy hat and boots (don’t think cowboy hats suit me and the boots I wanted were £245 ?), it was time for Ryan Hurd, someone I’d heard nothing about. Country rock was on the agenda, and gritty authentic belters at that. It became apparent that Ryan had written songs for lots of stars in Nashville and based on what I saw, his own career should be just as successful as the ones others have using his work. Ryan told us stories in between tracks, and went from unknown (to me) to familiar within a matter of minutes. For a pre-Midday set it had the place rocking, and given that there were no windows to the outside world, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a Saturday night headline set. I went looking, unsuccessfully, for his CD, and you’ll find out why when I write up day 3!
A lunch at TGI Fridays with friends and it was back to Town Square again, only this time we had to queue to get in. There didn’t seem to be any kind of one in one out policy, but given the narrow thoroughfares, I can understand them not wanting throngs of guests entering simultaneously. The reason to be there was to see a ‘surprise special guests’ which had earlier been revealed as Ward Thomas, one of my absolute favourites and the most successful UK country music act in, well, UK Chart history! Before they came on stage I caught a bit of American Young, who sounded pretty good from what I could see and hear. They really shone when they had a guitar / fiddle showdown, which was pretty bloody brilliantly, and brought rapturous applause from the crowds in attendance.
Then it was time for Ward Thomas, who I’d missed being a part of Country to Country until this point, and have arguably outgrown the pop up stages. Never ones to forget their routes they embraced being there, and having them come out on stage at the Town Square felt like a really special moment. I’ve seen Ward Thomas quite a few times now, and every time they are just utterly superb. This time was no different, but we did get to hear some of their new songs, presumably from the as yet unannounced third album. How good are those new songs? Let’s just say the incredible high quality of their first two albums will be sustained with the new one, and their telepathic harmonies are as strong as ever.
Aside from their superb musical ability, it’s their relationship on stage that I love. There’s no fake feeling choreographed movements or dialogue, that I saw elsewhere last weekend, but just the naturally effervescent and warm personalities of two young ladies doing what they love most. When Lizzy gets the guitarists name wrong it’s Catherine who corrects her, but all the most endearing way, that only makes us in the crowd love them more. I always come away from seeing Ward Thomas feeling better about the world – they are a bright light and I am but one of many moths. Cheesy gushfest over, but it does come from the heart.
Main Arena Stages
I realise I’ve already written a fair bit and I haven’t even gotten to the main evening acts, so I’ll try to keep it as a brief as I can, whilst saying everything I need to. You know you are in for a good night when Ashley Campbell is the first performance, as she started Saturday in the Arena with a tribute to her father, featuring a montage of his songs, followed by Remembering, her gorgeous and heart-achingly emotional song written about her father while he was still alive. This was an all too short 10 minute slice of decadence, as we were treated to Ashley’s sweet and silky voice, some of the greatest lyrics ever written, and the banjo skills that have become synonymous with Ms Campbell. I can only begin to imagine how proud Ashley must have been to perform in honour of her father, in front of thousands of people. As one of those in attendance, thank you for the gift you gave us Saturday night. We were denied a third song, though we chanted for it and Ashley seemed willing, but tight deadlines had to be adhered to, I guess.
Saturday’s main stage acts kicked off with Luke Combs, someone I’d heard talked about in a very positive manner, but stupidly never listened to myself. I had it in my mind that he was a Chris Stapleton type singer, but they share a beard and a great voice, but otherwise, they are really quite different. Whilst Chris commands attention and silence, in awe, from the crowds, Luke uses every inch of the stage and brings his wonderful songs to life with much energy and gesticulation. It was a lot rockier than I was expecting, but a perfect contrast to Ashley Campbell, and definitely a set that also finished way too soon. He has two London dates in October but both have sold out, so I’ll have to hope for a second tour, or a return to Country to Country, with a longer set.
Next on the spotlight stage was another Ashley, in the form of Ashley McBryde, another that I’d been told great things about. Well she lived up to the hype, giving us 2 very different songs, one upbeat and full of vigour, the other a heartfelt ballad about being told she’d never get anywhere as a kid. The latter she introduced with a story of being that child and what her classmates said to her. In just 2 songs and a few minutes of dialogue in between, we got an insight into what makes Ashley tick, and its someone I know I want to see more of. She has such a fantastic attitude, and a voice that demands attention, for all the right reasons. Her debut album is out later this month and whilst Amazon doesn’t list the CD in the UK, her website does – phew!
Kip Moore was the second main stage act, and wasn’t really for me. I couldn’t make out his lyrics very well at all, to the point that we started to play a game of guess the lyrics, and guessed one to be about an 8 foot girl? He seemed popular enough though, so it’s just a case of different people with different tastes, and it wasn’t so bad that I hated it, just didn’t particularly like it. By complete contrast, Kip was followed by Jillian Jacqueline on the spotlight stage, who was like the summer sun to his winter rain. Such a sweet and honest voice and a personality that makes you want to give her a hug. She oh so very nearly held it together on that stage, but honestly, who wouldn’t forgive her little emotional wobble coming all this way and singing to so many people. I made the mistake of not getting her CD when I had the chance, something I’m regretting now.
Next on the main stage was the recently reformed Sugarland, and it only took a few songs for them to sing the one song of theirs I know, Stuck Like Glue. It sounded great and I loved finally being able to see a song performed live that was on the first country CD I bought some years ago which saw me really start to get into country music. Jennifer Nettles was a ball of energy on stage, and nobody can deny she has a great voice, but there are two Sugarlands, and I much prefer one to the other. I love when they focus on the songs, and less so when it’s fun time Sugarland, which reared it’s head just a few too many times for my liking, feeling at times like Country Eurovision. They finished off their set in style though, with some stunning vocals from Jennifer and a promise of a new album on the way.
The fourth and final spotlight stage act was Lukas Nelson, son of the legendary Willie Nelson. Lukas hit the high bar set by the previous mini stage acts with some achingly good vocals and guitar prowess that saw him play that 6 string to within an inch of its life. It can’t be easy being the son of Willie Nelson, but Lukas has carved out his own identity and it suits him perfectly, and is someone I really need to see more of. Holding such long notes with that gravel toned voice can’t be easy, and the effort is palpable, but the results are stunning. His album is on order, it’s just not getting here soon enough for my liking.
Last to grace the stage, and I use the word grace intentionally, was the one person I was most looking forward to seeing at Country to Country this year, and up there as my absolute favourite of the last 5 years – the incomparable Kacey Musgraves. I’ve loved Kacey’s music since the very first time I heard her debut album, Same Trailer Different Park, and this was my 5th or 6th time seeing her live. She glided on stage, looking every bit the superstar she is, and delivered those silky vocals that give me shivers down my spine when I hear them. Kacey sings with such an effortless and smooth style, that it’s like being covered in a cool cotton sheet on a warm summer’s day, and yes, I’m aware I’ve used the summer simile twice in one article, bad Steve.
With her third album, Golden Hour, coming out on March 30th, Kacey treated us to a bunch of new songs, with Space Cowboy being one that I had already heard, and sounded just absolutely sublime live. She has described her new sound as Space Country, and I’m in, all in. At one point she took a stroll to the spotlight stage, where accompanied by a pianist, she sung a song she wrote six years ago but has never released. Rainbow will feature on Golden Hour and is just gorgeous. I had wondered if any of the main stage acts would use the spotlight stage, as I saw Talor Swift do on her Red tour, and was glad to see Kacey do just that. It’s always nice for us people at the back of the arena to see these people just a little closer.
It had been an incredible day already, and seeing Kacey deliver her usual dose of perfection was the only way to end it. Her three song encore even had giant inflatable light up balls bobbing around the audience, as she finished her set with a very fitting cover of the Brooks And Dunn song Neon Moon. Kacey Musgraves is an absolute class act, and while she seems to be the consummate pro on stage, there’s that little hint of vulnerability that just adds to her charm. She was kind enough to reveal, exclusively, that she is going on a world tour later this year, including Wembley Arena, for which I got a ticket for just this morning. Kacey Musgraves just gets better and better, as a singer, songwriter and as a performer, she’s absolutely top notch.
Day 2 at Country to Country 2018 was a packed and ultimately very tiring day, but one that allowed to see some of my favourites and find new favourites along the way. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many great performances in such a short period of time in my life – what a day.
Day 1 Review
Day 3 Review