It’s a sweltering hot Sunday – the kind that causes blindingly pale office workers to peel off their shirts in public parks. Yet here I am stood shoulder-to-shoulder with about 100 country music fans in the back room of the Half Moon in Putney at the sold-out début of Country in the Afternoon.
In the semi-darkness, a rhinestone-trimmed Stetson hat catches the light. The man next to me sports a scraggly beard and his t-shirt slogan, slightly cracked at the edges where it stretches across a hearty beer gut, reads ‘WEED AND WHISKEY’. The woman stood directly in front of me is wearing a dress that could slip inconspicuously into Dolly Parton’s tour wardrobe. But they all look out of place.
“Seven years ago we went to a country music festival in the states called Stagecoach and we were so surprised at how young the crowd was,” organiser Christine Chittick told me.
“It used to be people who were much older but it’s now become a much younger crowd. We’ve seen that over the last six or seven years.”
She pointed to the O2’s C2C festival as a thermometer of the scene’s growing vibrancy in the UK and its appeal to younger audiences.
As self-professed anti-fan of country music, I was dubious about covering a country festival in a Nashville-starved city. I imagined meeting a caravan of honky-tonk zombies yee-hawing its way to Putney for a shot of slide guitar and cowboy covers. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Country in the Afternoon’s sell-out début offered a painstakingly curated line-up of Americana talent, chosen by veteran promoters and long-time Barnes residents Christine Chittick and her husband Gavin.
“We won’t sign anyone unless we’ve actually been to see them. You can listen to a CD and think they’re great but they’ve got no stage presence,” Christine told me.
As a semi-retirement project, the couple founded Millport Country Music Festival in their native Scotland, billed as Scotland’s biggest independent country offering, and decided to test the waters in Putney after noticing younger audiences at country festivals.
Between Cambridge-based Morganway’s electrifying set and the headline slot, I found old-school country fan Geraldine sipping Prosecco in the beer garden.
With her blonde hair in pigtails and a blue horseshoe in each ear, Geraldine looked the part. She said has followed festival headliner Jesse Dayton for 20 years and shared the organisers’ sentiment that the scene is pulling in a younger crowd these days.
“A lot of normal people are into country now. It’s because of the series Nashville. It’s got a bit more of a following,” she said.
“For years Nottingham’s Americana Festival was the only thing that had country acts, it was terrible.”
Q & A WITH JESSE DAYTON
Jesse Dayton is a country guitarist, composer and filmmaker from Austin, Texas. He headlined Putney Half Moon’s Country in the Afternoon and will be playing The Sebright Arms in Hackney on June 7.
You’re primarily a guitarist, and there are lots of country guitarists out there. How did you make a name for yourself?
I was brought up as a guitar player. When I got to Austin, everyone there sounded like Stevie Ray Vaughan, but I was doing this chicken-pickin’ country thing. I felt like a total oddball, but it ended up working for me. It got me really cool gigs and a little bit after that, you started seeing all these punk rock kids with Johnny Cash t-shirts with the picture where he’s flippin’ the bird and all of a sudden they were all into Johnny Cash. Like, country had become cool.
I have a list of people who’ve played here at the Half Moon. I’d like to know you would most want to play a show with. We’ve got: Kate Bush, The Who, The Rolling Stones-
I can tell you who it is already! Obviously it would be The Rolling Stones. I’m a huge Stones fan. In America you’re either a Beatles or a Stones person and I love John Lennon, but…
Have you ever met them?
I actually did. I was dong a session with Waylon (Jennings) in the 90s in L.A. and this friend of mine’s dog that he brought to the studio ran out, so we chased it down the hall. It went into this other studio and we looked inside and there were The Stones. Keith was feeding this little English Terrier filet mignon off their catering, and when we went in there Keith said: “He found his lot!”
Your song Charlottesville got picked up by Associated Press and Rolling Stone, which is interesting because protest songs aren’t really that big a deal these days. Do you think music still has the power to change politics?
I do think that. It makes my skin crawl when I hear people say ‘Oh, I wasn’t into Joe Strummer, he was too political’. Music is politics. Look, think about if Neil Young wouldn’t have wrote Ohio, if Woody Guthrie wouldn’t have wrote This Land is Your Land, if Johnny Cash wouldn’t have done The Ballad of Ira Hayes. It’s not all I’m about, but it’s a component of what I do. I’m not interested in giving you some apathetic retro time bubble that can make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, that’s not my job.
What drove you to write the song?
I wrote Charlottesville because I was raised by an African- American woman who lived with my family and I’m married to a big tall hot Jewish broad from Los Angeles, and we have a son. So I have a duty. But I’ll tell you the truth, if I’d have known that Associated Press was gonna pick it up, I would have wrote one a lot longer ago! Cause I felt that way a long time ago, I just kinda suppressed it.
So, why only after Charlottesville?
Trump. I just basically said to my audience, if you’re with this guy I don’t give a f**k.
And what was the response?
I lost some of my audience but I’ve replaced them…there’s eight billion people on the planet right now. There were 2.7 when I was a little kid. If you can’t replace a few thousand people… just go to Norway, just go play a gig in Japan! You can replace people. I did that and got a more loving, smarter audience out of it. I still have people who support Trump, who still like me, and I don’t talk a bunch of politics at my shows. It’s not a political rally but y’know I’m not gonna be your cover band. I don’t wanna be your monkey.
Kevin, Aaron and Allie are twenty-somethings who travelled from Surrey after hearing about the festival on a country radio station.
They all contended that one of the upsides to country being little-appreciated in the UK is getting to see American stars at the top of their game play intimate gigs, and credited streaming services for the genre’s rise in popularity in the UK.
“It’s so easy to access. You type in country and it’s not just the obvious. It’s so easy to find the right country music that suits you” Allie enthused.
Kevin nodded in agreement. “Yeah,” he said. “When Nokia re-launched with Microsoft about 5 years ago I could stream music on my phone and that’s how I got into country. I got hooked.”
Country in the Afternoon will return to the Half Moon on November 16-17 2019.
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