Decidedly British he may be, but Olly Mann finds he has a strange affinity with country music. Here's how the Western stylings stole his heart.
I enjoy Country music. It feels embarrassing to admit this: I’m British, I’m liberal, I’m a Jew. Country music, frankly, is not meant for me. To listen to Country, one should, ideally, be American, Republican, gentile. It should soundtrack your drive, as you gulp back home brew in the summer sun, windows down, somewhere in Tennessee. You should be on your way to a rodeo, or a hog roast, or a screening of Donald Trump’s most inflammatory speeches. At a drive-in.
Yet, as I cruise the suburbs of north-west London (windows firmly up to protect me from sideways rain, en route to score bagels and a copy of The Guardian), there’s little else blasting from my stereo. It may be that the only cowboys in my vicinity are estate agents, that the only barbecue is Nando’s. Yet, the allure of Country remains.
I’m not alone. I’d always supposed it was a sizeable niche—a sample listen to Radio 2’s Bob Harris Country, with its evangelistic audience interaction, reveals that much—but I hadn’t realised quite how many fellow Brits are closet Country fans until I attended Country 2 Country, a mini-festival at London’s O2 (which also stops by Glasgow and Dublin), and was shocked to see that the event not only fills the main arena at the venue, but spills out onto the throughways and shopping areas.
"I’m British, I’m liberal, I’m a Jew. Country music, frankly, is not meant for me."
Pop-up stages line the piazza; market stalls sell boots, belts and hats; and after-show parties (complete with line-dancing) take over the bars. It’s Nashville, Greenwich.
Who’s the average punter? Tricky to say. Certainly, I spotted plenty of grey hairs in the crowd, and few people of colour. I observed a few more Americans than you’d typically spot in a British audience. And a surprising proportion of lesbians (I asked a gay friend why this is. She said it’s the boots). But, as far as I could deduce, there was no bog-standard British Country fan: just as many members of the audience were dressed in full Western tassel outfits as those who appeared to be besuited bank managers.
I suspect, if a common link did unite us, it’s that we’ve all visited the US on holiday. In North America, Country isn’t considered weird or quaint; it’s super-mainstream—as ubiquitous as Taylor Swift, who, of course, was a Country crooner before she became the world’s biggest pop star.
Every town has its own Country station, even if located thousands of miles from a honky-tonk (the first I discovered, GoCountry105, is in Orange County, California). Every talent show has a Country contestant (Carrie Underwood rose through the ranks of American Idol). Visit the States, and Country surrounds you; piped through speakers at the petrol stations, supermarkets, and hotel foyers. So then, when you get home, it’s natural to seek it out.
That makes it quite different, in my view, from returning from a week in Magaluf and downloading the Las Ketchup song. Getting into Country after a spell in the States isn’t merely about sustaining the fun you had on holiday. Nostalgia may be a huge component of Country music—witness the many references to Hank, Johnny and June—but the best Country compositions tell contemporary stories, with timeless themes: tunes about ordinary people, falling in love, questioning their existence on Earth, and, yes, working 9-to-5.
Take brad paisley’s “Anything Like Me”, in which a prospective father imagines his unborn son echoing his own flawed character traits (“It’s safe to say that / I’m going to get my payback / If he’s anything like me”).
"For a genre so rooted in small-town America, there’s something very inclusive about it."
That always leaves a lump in my throat—particularly because the last word of the song is sung by Paisley’s real-life toddler, Huck. Or then there’s Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me”, a deceptively simple ditty about a grown woman returning to her childhood home to reclaim her roots (“I thought if I could touch this place or feel it / This brokenness inside me might start healing”). The melancholy tone of the melody tells us that happiness will continue to elude her, however revived she is by revisiting those bricks and mortar.
Country also makes me laugh out loud, something that rarely happens in pop. Kacey Musgraves’ “Family is Family”, for example, hilariously depicts the disconnect between the strong family ties we feel for our nearest and dearest, and the alienation we experience as we question how we can possibly be related to them (“They own too much wicker, and drink too much liquor / You’d wash your hands of them, but blood’s always thicker”).
For a genre so rooted in small-town America, there’s something very inclusive about it. I don’t feel—as I did when I was into indie, college rock or even movie soundtracks—that this music will somehow be ruined if it becomes more popular. Rather, I feel compelled to tell as many people as possible to give it a go.
So, if you’re not already a Country fan, why not try it out, y’all? Bet I see you next year at The O2.