I couldn’t sleep at all last night. I was far too restless with nervous excitement. I’m up early today, and taking a south-bound train to London for a weekend at the Country2Country music festival. That’s three entire days to fully immerse myself in my very favourite genre of music and reinvigorate my frazzled nerves. Pure heaven.
I’ve spent the past few evenings packing and optioning outfits, asking myself fundamentally important questions such as, ‘Do I really need to take TWO pairs of cowboy boots?’, ‘What time is it acceptable to start drinking whisky?’ and ‘How much denim is TOO much denim??’ (I have been politely informed there’s no such thing by @BBCR2Country thankfully…).
I can’t wait.
There’s something about country music that speaks to me on a spiritual level, creeping into my heart and my very soul. An esoteric connection which defies the constraints of space and time. Country music hears my pleas, my worries, my hopes and dreams; and sends its own back ten-fold in return. Like a favourite grandparent, when I am low, it envelopes me in a reassuring hug, tells me it understands me, and that everything will be ok.
I’m not entirely sure when and where this love affair began, but as a flame to a powder keg, it exploded into my life early on and I’ve never looked back. For me, Taylor Swift had teardrops on her guitar long before she had bad blood.
Perhaps it grew out of my wider love for all things American, a love cemented forevermore following my road-trip last spring across the sprawling Southern States. In fact, I feel so strongly about it, I have a sneaking suspicion that in a former life I must certainly have been driving cattle along the Chisholm Trail in the high Texas heat by day; and singing mournful campfire songs by night.
So here I am, in all my cowgirl clad glory, heading to the O2 with fervent anticipation, ready to embrace my ‘countrification’.
I have arrived early to catch the acts playing on the free pop up stages outside of the main arena, and make the most of my day.
There’s a fair few people here already, as well as a bunch of regular joes most probably off for a quiet night at the cinema, bemused by the plethora of people walking around sporting Stetsons, trucker hats, jeans, and the mandatory checkered shirt.
There’s a ‘Town square’ been set up with a stage and a hotchpotch of little stalls. They are selling jewellery, all manner of leather goods, hats, guitars, and randomly, leaf blowers and chainsaws for logging (as you need to do so very often in London…).
There’s also caravans serving beers and BBQ brisket that’s nearly a patch on Dallas, so I pitch up there and watch the acts as I refuel.
They’re pretty good, really getting me in the mood for the main event, and before I know it it’s nearly time.
I head in to find my seat and I’m pretty pleased that I splashed out on tickets as I’m right at the front, a couple of dozen rows back. In fact, if the artists spit, it could probably hit me. Damn, this is exciting!
I’m joined in my row by an eclectic mix of folk from up and down the country (plus one actual American) who have all headed down for their love of country. No matter our ages, our mutual endeavour makes us all firm friends and we chat excitedly as the arena fills out.
Bob Harris, the legend himself, takes to the stage, greeted with cheers and raucous applause, to introduce the evening.
The first act out is Thomas Rhett. He’s part of the ‘Bro country’ movement-songs about trucks, drinking, partying, and of course, pretty ladies (Think: a One Tree Hill episode set to a country song with a popping R&B vibe).
Thomas is super talented and VERY easy on the eye. He has the crowd putty in his hands in no time, working the stage singing, playing guitar (plus a quick go on the drums!), and flashing a winning smile.
I feel like an extra in a 90210 episode, and I’m singing along as he heads into the crowd to sing a catchy uptempo number whilst greeting his fans. Swoon.
He finishes up, and my heart melts as he tells us he ‘ppreciates ya. DANG.
The energy is electric after his set, and The Shires take to the stage to compère.
We are directed behind us, to where there’s a small stage centre of the arena, behind the sound decks. We all file out into the the walkways and head over for the next act, who does a quick-fire set. It’s Charles Esten, ‘Deacon’ from the hit TV show Nashville, and he’s certainly charismatic, but also extremely talented to boot.
It’s over too soon, then it’s back to our seats as Bob reappears to introduce Dwight Yoakam and tell us we are now broadcasting live on Radio 2! (Hi Dad!).
Dwight may be an older guy, but he’s certainly not past it, with a shake in his knees and hips that Elvis himself would be proud of. In fact, his band could be the king of rock and roll with their sparkly jackets and quiffs.
He runs his songs back-to-back with a stern face, whilst looking effortlessly cool in his button down pressed shirt, and double-denim classic country look.
The harmonicas are out, and perfectly accentuates his Roy Orbison gravelly voice, as notes strum out of his guitar with a weeping twang.
The crowd goes wild for him, then it’s a shuffle back over to the pop up stage, where Ashley Monroe is singing. With her sultry ethereal voice, and soft backlighting, she looks like a lofty lithe angel, stunning in her long blue dress as her clean vocals complement her acoustic playing.
Ashley finishes up and the crowd quickly rushes to buy beers before our headline act. It’s reigning CMA and AMC female vocalist, Miranda Lambert, and it’s her debut European gig.
We’ve been told by Bob she’s pretty nervous, but she needn’t have been.
She takes to the stage simply glowing, and without introduction, launches into her first number, vocals bang on point and full of sweet southern perfection.
The pink guitars are out, and she
thanks us for being here between songs.
She effortlessly works her way through a fair few numbers I don’t know, which gives me a chance to take in some new music, before
I’m bopping and hollering to ‘Mamma’s broken heart’.
I’m welling up as she sings ‘The house that built me’. It’s as if she read my innermost thoughts, then turned it into a beautiful but heart-wrenching ballad. Spectacular.
Overall she’s fantastic, insanely talented and humble with it too, which makes her all the more endearing.
Her set comes to a close and is met with boot-heel stomps and claps of appreciation, which brings her back for an encore.
She adds Ashley to the stage for a song, and it’s lovely to catch a glimpse into their true friendship, as they harmonise perfectly on Carol King’s ‘You got a friend’
One more song from just Miranda, and then it’s over for real as the lights come up.
We head out of the arena and I’m off to the after party at Brooklyn Bowl, where more beer-drinking and dancing takes place before an intimate set from Frankie Ballard.
He’s got a mischievous air about him, with his slicked back hair, and his equally slick one-liners about looking to get him some c2c ladies are delivered with a wink. He’s a regular James Dean.
His set is pretty great too, and I develop a real taste for his high pitched vocals, it’s very Four Seasons and a coincidental nod to his name-sake.
I spend the rest of the evening dancing the night away before taking my old pick-up truck (ok, ok, the night bus) back to where I’m staying. My feet are killing me, as I finally kick my boots off and flop into bed.
It’s been an amazing first day at Country2Country, and most certainly the remedy for my recent achy breaky heart. I fall asleep willing the hours to hurry up and pass, just so I can get up and do it all over again tomorrow.