MUSIC / It could never happen here . . . could it?: British country. What a concept. But some claim the music works, even in smoky mountain-free Hull. By Jasper Rees

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The Independent Culture
THERE are only two things wrong with British country. One, it's British: two, it's country. Or so public preconception would have it. If there's one brand of music that stands even less chance of local chart success than hat acts from over there, it's hat acts from over here. Just ask Hank Wangford.

From tonight that's all going to change when Radio Two broadcasts the first in a six-part series entitled British Country. British Country is coming. This is the plan anyway. The programme's presenter, Neil Coppendale, a sometime sports reporter in the Brighton area, now concentrates his energies on giving home-grown youngsters a leg-up.

'I think it will make quite a large dent for British country out in the real world,' he says, 'which is where we all want to go. The talent is here: all it needs to do is to develop its own identity and its own originality. In the British country scene, you can go round and round and disappear up your own proverbial.'

Among those performing this difficult contortion are the likes of Kelvin Henderson, Charlie Landsborough, Gerry Hogan and Raymond Froggatt. They may be small names to you and me, but they are huge on the country's county festival circuit. (There's a country festival most weekends somewhere in the British Isles. 'Festival is an overused word,' Coppendale says. 'It's an event which is slightly larger than a club gathering.')

Some of these guys have been around as long as Dylan and the Dead, and some of them are still in search of that first, elusive recording contract. Over the years there have been teasing hints of the big time. Landsborough, who comes from Liverpool, has sold songs to Nashville. Henderson, from Bristol, was presented with the song 'Whiskey Eyes' by the Cricket Sonny Curtis, who wrote 'I Fought the Law' and 'Walk Right Back'. Poacher, from Warrington, took the original version of 'Darling' all the way to number 86 in the US country charts only to see Frankie Miller have a big hit with it over here. Kenny Johnson and his band, Northwind, nearly enticed the Everly Brothers' guitarist, Albert Lee, to guest on a recent album, but at the 11th hour, Phil and Don needed him to tour Australia, and so he wrote the liner notes instead.

Lee is the British country musician who got away, taking the easy route to success in the country where country was born. The songwriter Paul Kennerley, who for a time was married to Emmylou Harris, is another. But Gerry Hogan, Lee's old sparring partner from the 1960s who now fronts Hogan's Heroes as a backing band for Lee whenever he comes home, took the brave decision to stay.

'At one time I did think that, like Albert, I should just emigrate. Hogan's Heroes are lucky that we do session work as well, and I have a music store. I did a session for the Grease theatre show album last Sunday. That sort of thing, and jingles.'

Indigenous country has a small image problem, well encapsulated in John Byrne's BBC drama Your Cheating Heart, which poked fun at Glaswegian cowpokes. Stetsons look corny enough on Dwight Yoakam or Garth Brooks (who only wear them to conceal tonsorial deficiencies) but they only compound the apparent phoniness of the British country singer.

British country acts have to contend with the argument that they are mere impersonators. Sixteen-year-old Amanda Normansell won ITV's 'Stars in their Eyes' talent contest by imitating Patsy Cline. Close your eyes and listen to Kelvin Henderson and you could have sworn Don Williams had walked into the room. 'In your local pub where you've got your Johnny Cash imitators singing songs about the smoky mountains when they've never been there - there is a credibility problem.

'But there are one or two acts who can get away with performing American country music and retaining credibility. Kelvin is one of them. What he does is perfectly natural to him. He just happens to sound American. It's never done any harm to Rod Stewart or Mick Jagger, so why should it do any harm to Kelvin Henderson or Stu Page?'

The alternative is to go native. M G Greaves & Lonesome Too, who have supported fellow Humbersiders the Beautiful South on tour, have just released Diamonds Always Shine. 'If it's not the best British country music album I've ever heard,' says Coppendale, 'it's certainly in the top two or three. While all of the rhythms and instrumentation and melodies are country, all of the songs are British. They don't talk about smoky mountains or trucking down the freeway. They talk about Hull.'

This could be the answer for one band, but for bands like West Virginia, who hail from Liverpool, it might get complicated. Mixing in further geographical diversity, British country's potential saviour is an Irishman called Paul Clerkin, who is the managing director of Ritz Records.

'There's a tendency for people to think that if it's not American country then it's second division,' he says. 'I've never been a believer in that.' This is hardly surprising, given that Daniel O'Donnell, a big- selling Doonican-alike from Donegal, is signed to Ritz. Clerkin has recently signed the youthful Sarah Jory Band and is confident not only of her potential but of British country's in general.

'We started off as an Irish label with Irish acts and then decided there was some good British talent we should look at as well. Sarah was one of those who we have a lot of belief in. I think she's going to be very very big in the mainstream charts. If you want to do real figures you've got to cross over.'

You heard it here first. And possibly last.

British Country begins on Radio 2 tonight at 10.00pm.

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