Country curious? How this quintessentially American music took over the UK
With its Stetsons, pick-up trucks and lyrical sob stories set in lonely bars, country music is perhaps the quintessential genre of American music. But give or take a Shania Twain or a Dolly Parton, it has rarely made a dent in the UK charts. Until now.
Over the past two years, streaming of country stars has risen by almost 50 per cent in the UK, according to data released by the Country Music Association, making it the fastest growing genre in the country.
This shift in popularity is echoed by some of the UK’s biggest artists venturing into the genre, including Ed Sheeran, who recently released the track Life Goes On with country star Luke Combs, and performed it with him at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Nashville last week.
“I would love to transition into country,” Sheeran told Billboard backstage at the event: “I love the culture of it – I love the songwriting. It’s just like, brilliant songs.”
Combs’ success has translated here too, with two UK top five albums and a spot headlining the Country 2 Country festival in London, while the US’s biggest country star right now, Morgan Wallen (whose controversy, in 2021, over the use of a racial epithet for which he later apologised, had almost no negative impact on his music sales), has already sold out his December show at the O2 months in advance, and his track Last Night continues to rise in the UK charts after multiple weeks at number one across the pond.
UK fans are not just embracing traditional country but its newer subgenres too, such as country trap, a seemingly unlikely fusion of country music and hip-hop, that was spearheaded by rapper Lil Nas X – his Billy Ray Cyrus collaboration Old Town Road topped the charts in 2019 and went four times platinum.
The genre’s success in Britain is reflected in the growing popularity of country music events here. Some 20,000 fans attended the C2C festival in March this year, and this weekend Highways, hosted by Live Nation, will take over the Royal Albert Hall to showcase some of the genre’s brightest stars from both sides of the Atlantic.
American musician Kip Moore will headline, along with singer-songwriter Morgan Wade. Wade has seen the genre’s increase in popularity first hand since she performed at C2C last year for the first time, after embarking on a headline tour and selling out her London shows.
“It’s really incredible to come over here, to somewhere that you’re not from, a completely different country, and have [the audience] singing my songs right back to me,” she says. “That was just an awesome feeling.”
UK fans have since been clamouring for Wade to return, following her announcement of tour dates in the US. “People were upset that I wasn’t coming back over yet. So we’re finally able to announce those days, but there was a lot of, ‘When are you coming back over here? It’s been too long’, she says. “I’ve definitely seen a lot of growth.”
Though she seems surprised at the increased popularity of country music in the UK, she compliments our listening habits: “You guys have a really good taste in music over here. I will say, the singer songwriter stuff goes over really, really well here,” with the result that American country artists across the board are starting to wake up to the importance of the UK market. Wade tells me that her colleagues in the US encouraged her to perform here, telling her that UK audiences “listen like a sober crowd but react like a drunk crowd,” which sounds about right. “I’d say that that holds up for sure,” she says.
While British fans have embraced the biggest US country stars in the past, an indication that the genre is here to stay is the emergence of homegrown country musicians too, such as duo The Shires, AKA Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes, Megan McKenna (yes you read that right, the The Only Way is Essex star has pivoted and is being taken seriously as an emerging country artist), all-female trio Remember Monday and another duo, Ward Thomas, comprising twin sisters Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas. One of the UK’s most exciting talents is Kezia Gill, a Derby-based singer-songwriter who combines country and Irish music influences.
“There is a massive market for country music here in the UK, both American born but also for our own UK artists,” she says. “I think it’s getting bigger every year and it’s thriving.” Inspired by Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton, Gill fell in love with country music as a child, and started playing guitar around the age of 11. She wasn’t aware of a country scene in the UK until she started playing pubs and bars after turning 18.
“I was sort of experimenting with a sound,” she says, “but those early influences of country have always been very deep rooted. And it wasn’t until about 2017, through a few mutual people on the scene and meeting a few singer songwriters, who said, ‘You know, you should you should apply for some country festivals.’”
Paris Adams is another exciting UK country music talent who has managed to cross over in the opposite direction, to the US. “I expected not to be taken seriously as a UK country artist performing in America but actually, they really embrace it and are super-supportive,” she says.
That hasn’t been entirely the case for all UK artists, however, who can find it hard to be seen as legitimate country stars. “I always feel the stigma that I am British,” says Gill. “I can’t think of any other genre where the Brits can’t either do it on par or do it better.
“You look at some of the music, we’ve produced everyone from Bowie to The Beatles, you know, Queen, we have produced some incredible iconic music. When it comes to country, a lot of people feel like if it’s not American, it’s not authentic.”
She adds: “I feel like that’s something I’ve hit my head against a few times. I’ve heard people just downright say, ‘UK artists will never be country,’ that we will do our own style, but it will never be country. So I think there’s a lot of opinions to change.”
Beth Morton, a music agent at UTA London who works closely with country music talent, has also seen the difficulties homegrown country artists experience within the industry. “Because we don’t have such a developed domestic country music scene as America does, the UK audience still naturally look over there first for new artists, and often view artists connected with places like Nashville as the most authentic,” she said.
That said, “country music has always been something that evolves and takes on different forms – with true authenticity being rooted in the artists and their storytelling, more than where they were born,” Morton says.
Adams too says she has seen the reception to country music change in the UK over the past few years. “We’ve heard more country artists being played nationally on radio stations, with artists like Maren Morris and Luke Combs paving the way,” she says.
“I’m hoping it is uphill from here and people who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves country music fans will embrace it; there is such a huge variety of the genre.”
Morton thinks the genre resonates with UK audiences because they appreciate the songwriting and the heart-on-sleeve emotion it embraces, often focusing on love and loss.
“UK audiences love the quality of songwriting and musicianship, but most of all the storytelling, which is such an important part of country music. They love singing along and feeling part of something,” she says.
The UK’s music industry has taken note, with new radio shows and even whole radio stations dedicated to the genre cropping up, alongside the new events and festivals.
“New radio and media outlets like Absolute Radio Country, Countryline, Holler and more have also helped the genre grow,” says Morton. “And the streaming numbers in the UK just continue to grow – country music has seen the fastest growth of any genre over the past five years in the UK.
“Every year we’re seeing more country music artists tour in the UK and Europe,” she continues, “and audiences respond well when American artists make the effort to travel across the Atlantic.”
Some US-born artists have found themselves so warmly embraced by British fans that they feel more at home in the UK than Nashville. US country duo Native Harrow are now based in the UK. They first toured here in 2019 when they met a group of creatives who welcomed them.
“Musically, we do both love classic British rock and British folk rock,” says Stephen Harms, the band’s instrumentalist. “However, it was our involvement with and the support of the UK Americana scene, including early support from The Long Road [festival], Black Deer Festival, Americanafest UK and others that opened their arms to us and allowed us to build a career over here.”
Since then, the band has settled into the music scene here, and describe the American country scene as “congested”, adding that UK country music fans are more welcoming to new artists.
“I think that there are a lot of ’pseudo-scenes’ in the States, made up of people who are ‘in’ and people who are not. In our experience, English audiences are more open to finding new artists they might like, through record labels they support, festivals they frequent, and concert series they attend,” says Native Harrow’s vocalist Devin Tuel.
“We felt a really tangible excitement from folks over here and those same people are still coming to see our gigs, buying records, and tuning in. It’s nice to see how, three records on, the community that started it all is still there, and new press outlets, festivals, and organisations are born each year to support it even more.”
Baylen Leonard, creative director of The Long Road Festival, grew up in Bristol, Tennessee before moving to New York, then eventually settling in London more than 20 years ago.
When he landed a radio job at BBC London shortly after, country music was mostly ignored. “I would always be like, ‘Let me do a country show, let me do a country show.’ They go, ‘You know, nobody's into country, but it's bank holiday weekend, and none of the other presenters want to work. So why don't you do a country show’, you know.
“So, I would get to do a country show on the radio, like four times a year, and it was seen as this kind of filler thing, you know, that that people weren't really interested in,” he says. Fast forward to today, and Leonard points to the strides the scene has made.
“This year’s [The Long Road] event will see a footfall in excess of 24,000 country and Americana fans across the weekend, and this number has grown by over 60 per cent in the last two years,” he says.
“It's not just the core country fans that are coming now. It's music fans. And seeing that audience double kind of year-on-year; seeing that the industry now recognises it as an important event for them to play – it's been amazing.”
Country music in the UK “is here to stay,” says Morton. “This is a loyal and growing audience who love the genre and the music.”
Asked what the music industry needs to do to build on the success, Gill says, “I just think [raising] awareness of the genre, breaking down some stigmas, and giving homegrown talent a platform to present what they've got going on.” And boy do they have it going on.
Highways Festival takes place at the Royal Albert Hall on May 20, tickets are available here; The Long Road Festival takes place at Stamford Hall, Leicestershire from August 25-27, tickets are available here