4 Decades of Country Music Journalism

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CAPITAL NEWS, DEC 1985: Bob Howe spent considerable time in Sydney and Melbourne as musician and recording artist. Before joining Frank Ifield as MD he was a member of Hotspur, the Johnny Chester support group. Already in October's Capital News, Bob surveyed the American CM scene from a visit he made over 12 months ago. Now from his British headquarters he makes a home base comment on UK CM before returning to Australia January 1986 for a 12 week tour with Frank.

Indigenous or Imported?

British Country Music? No matter how much of a paradox this may appear, Britain does indeed have a thriving CM scene. In fact last year the Country Music Association commissioned the Market Opinion Research International (MORI) organisation to institute a study into the 'Image and Appeal of Country Music in Great Britain'. One of the conclusions of the MORI report was that some 49% of the British population 'enjoy' country music. Whereas this percentage of the people (which translates to approximately 29.5 million) is largely untapped in terms of the commercial market, CM is still a visible and highly popular form of music. Britons, apart from the more enthusiastic fans, are particularly fond of middle-of-the-road style country (which they tend to describe, not always accurately, as Country and Western), with top favours going to Don Williams, Jim Reeves, and more recently Boxcar Willie.

The 'fans' can be more discerning and knowledgeable about CM, but not always. The CM Clubs, of which there are dozens across the land, form the backbone of the scene. Populating these is the fan, sometimes an inconspicuous music lover, but often tirnes an enthusiast whose passion for certain aspects of the action approach fanaticism. Seemingly normal Clark Kents change at night into fully outfitted cowboys, their wives into bawdy satin-dressed saloon girls. 'Harmless escapist fun', you might reply. Possibly, but for two strange habits. One is the firing of blank-shooting pistols in a dangerous and irresponsible manner, and with an irritating frequency. The other is an odd ritual that requires bands visiting the clubs to include near the climax of their performance the 'American Trilogy'.

This is the cue for the costumed fans to line up in front of the stage with their heads lowered in reverence and their hands held over their hearts. This is sometimes also accompanied by various ceremonies with the Confederate flag, all of which would be touching performed by expatriated dixielanders, but is rather incongruous to a collection of Brits.

On the more positive side, many of the clubs encourage family participation (where is the future of CM without nuturing the interest of the young?), and the other is the support that they give to their local bands attendance-wise, often in excess of overseas acts, particularly the lesser known ones trading on the direct from-the-USA tag.

Britain has though, produced a number of world class CM identities, many of whom have taken on the American scene on its own terms with great success such as songwriters Roger Cook (I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing), and Paul Kennerley (White Mansions and The Ballad of Sally Rose, the latter co written with Emmylou Harris) and ace guitar pickers Albert Lee and Ray Flacke. Soon to become as well known is Sarah Jory, a young lady who has represented Britain for the past three years at Scotty's International Steel Guitar Convention in St Louis.

At home, Sarah, 'Britain's Princess of the Pedal-Steel Guitar' was awarded the title British Steel Player of the Year for 1983 and 1984, a feat made even more remarkable as she only now approaches her sixteenth birthday! Since her first BBC radio broadcast at the age of nine, she has developed her technique to an outstanding level and is now much in demand as a solo cabaret artiste and as a session musician. In 1985 Sarah will become the youngest musician to appear on the main stage of the prestigious Wembley Festival.

Every Easter thousands of fans crowd Wembley for the three-day Silk Cut Festival, named after its cigarette brand sponsors. A wide variety of international acts are presented each year with the emphasis on entertainment. Regular favourites appearing this year included Boxcar Willie, Freddy Fender, Tammy Wynette, Conway and Loretta, and Moe & Joe.

While several British, European, Canadian and even a Japanese act (fiddler Tokyo Matsu with her show stopping number Rocky Top) were mixed with the American stars on the main stage, a separate Best of British section is presented in the adjacent conference centre. Promoter Mervyn Conn is always the target for complaints such as this year's repeat appearance of the controversial Osmond Brothers, whose claim to being country has divided the fans here, and for the first time several local acts have spoken out publicly about the lower-than-union rate payments they are offered for their appearances. Problems aside, the Wembley show remains the biggest of its kind and the only one with consistent high quality national television coverage.

The second is the Peterborough Festival also renamed, as the Mercedes Benz Festival of CM for its sponsor, which is held each year over the August Bank Holiday weekend. This four-day spectacular included this year 60 acts, over a dozen from the US, several from Europe, and the remainder from the home territories. The music was divided into seven separate concerts staged beneath a big top, with the foyer being an auxiliary tent containing licensed bars and catering.

Outside, nearly 200 stalls made a giant marketing area for CM paraphernalia and general interest items, and a ten acre caravan and camp site proves a popular resting place between the excitement. Add to this a city-centre carnival parade, a children's fairground on-site, and a firework fantasy by night, and you will have some indication of the size of the event. Headliners this year included Bobby Bare, Billie Jo Spears, and The Whites, and although the amount of television coverage was down and there were some complaints about security, the Peterborough Festival seems set for many more successful years to come.

Clashing in more ways than one with Peterborough, is the Worthing Festival. Staged the very same weekend at venues in and around the Worthing Pavilion, this All British festival is touted as an alternative to its competitors' treatment of the local acts, i.e. playing short support spots to has been or little known American artists. However bold it's patriotic banner though, it sports no automatic guarantee of originality. British bands are generally overly influenced by their Stateside Counterparts, and a glance through the CM club diaries will reveal names like Tulsa, West Virginia, Desperado, Dixie Fried, and Prairie Moon.

Whereas America and Australia can lay claim to an indigenous strain of CM (old-timey, hillbilly, etc.), the more traditional aspects of British music, which ironically were a major contributing factor to the existence of the Australian bush-ballad form, are regarded squarely as the domain of folk music.

The market is then, clearly being ruled by the American product, live and on record. Despite good media exposure that includes frequent television broadcasts, a weekly CM show on every local BBC radio station as well as a national show, three national monthly publications (two tabloid and one magazine), and countless independent and local presentations, few British acts hold major recording deals.

Will the scene here develop to it's full potential through the original and neglected talent that does exist, or will it 'remain forever a transatlantic reflection of a larger and brighter light?



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