Britain is preparing for a rhinestone invasion as Nashville’s stars launch a bid to inject country music’s whisky-soaked anthems into the nation’s musical mainstream.
The O2 Arena will stage the UK’s largest gathering of ten gallon hats when Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood and a host of country music’s biggest-sellers perform at the first festival devoted to the sound of America’s heartland.
Until recently the UK has looked askance at cowboy-attired singers paying homage to a life of monster trucks and marital infidelity.
But with the Nashville country-pop queen Taylor Swift finding a willing audience of teenage fans, the two-day event marks a determined attempt by the US industry to spread the country gospel into new territories.
The Country 2 Country festival this weekend will spearhead an “industry education and awareness strategy” launched by the US Country Music Association.
As well as uniting headline artists, who have sold more than 150 million albums, including LeAnn Rimes and Vince Gill, on one showcase bill, the O2 will host a retail zone featuring leading Nashville clothing brands and food outlets.
The first-ever International Country Music Marketing Summit, held at Disneyland Paris this month, discussed plans to expand the genre’s popularity across Europe and into China.
Boosted by crossover artists like Swift, Lady Antebellum and Underwood, an American Idol winner who last year sold out the Royal Albert Hall, country is appealing to a younger generation. Sales of country digital albums soared by 38% last year, Billboard reported.
Social media is helping US stars like McGraw, 45, who has sold 40 million albums, find a new audience overseas. “I’ve never been on the road in the UK before and I’m so happy to be playing this festival,” McGraw told the Independent.
His latest album, Two Lanes Of Freedom, hymns the American freeway but McGraw believes his songs will cross over to anyone stuck on a traffic-clogged M4.
“The themes are universal,” said the singer, who is married to country star Faith Hill. “It’s a rootsy, Americana vibe but the core is about everday life, family, faith and heartbreak. It’s the same themes as Bruce Springsteen.”
CMT, the UK’s only dedicated country music television channel, was taken off air. But YouTube has filled the gap. Steve Moore, head of the Nashville-based Country Music Association, said: “The digital revolution is allowing fans around the world to find these artists without the traditional record company promotion model. We’re encouraging stars to give the US a rest and explore new markets like the UK.”
Chinese broadcasters are screening the US Country Music Awards for the first time. “Nashville is about life experiences and they translate to everybody,” said Mr Moore, who predicts the O2 audience will be “blown away by the quality and integrity of the artists” playing the festival, which will become an annual event.
The perception that country is a platform for “redneck” conservative views, is also challenged by McGraw, who campaigned for President Obama and may one day run for office as a Democrat.
“I was probably drinking when I said that but if it ever came to a situation that felt like I could help and make a difference I wouldn’t turn my back.”
Bob Harris, who gives a platform to the latest country sounds on his late night Radio 2 show, said: “It’s fantastic to see such a great line-up of major Nashville talent performing in the UK. There’s a very vibrant music scene in Nashville at the moment and it feels like a particularly exciting time for country music.”