I’d set myself three rules en route to Harvest Country Music Festival. I was in the world’s smallest hire car with Judi, my gig-buddy turned Belfast-to-Enniskillen chauffeur. They were:
Rule No.1 – Do not fall into the habit of comparing this event to London’s C2C (Country 2 Country) festival.
Rule No.2 – Do not fall into a ditch. (I have a surprising amount of experience of this.)
Rule No.3 – Do not fall for a guy just because he has an Irish accent. (Again, I’ve probably got more experience of this than average.)
I failed on the first one as soon as we pulled up to Enniskillen airport – one of the two locations hosting this new event. As our cabbie (who’d given us an impromptu stand-up comedy routine) dropped us off, I felt a bit underwhelmed. The entrance to the runway essentially still looked like an entrance to a runway bar a few banners, tents and vans. I didn’t get the instant giddiness I was used to when coming out of the tube for C2C festival and seeing huge billboards plastered with my favourite musicians’ faces. We were early and there were less crowds and a longer walk to the signs of life.
But then, my priorities were realigned. Our beeline to the Bulleit whiskey truck was interrupted by a deep, raspy voice coming out of the Bedouin tent labelled “Harvest Café”. We tiptoed into the back where Earl Bud Lee (composer of Friends in Low Places) sat in a line of songwriters, singing a hit most recently made famous by Blake Shelton; Who are You When I’m Not Looking. In this intimate setting I remembered why we’d taken a plane, then driven two hours and even considered camping when local hotels were fully booked. It had never been about hype and giddiness (though that would later come). It had purely been about incredible country music and it was all starting now.
The cosy, carpeted café tent was one of four distinctive stages, each home to a vast and varied lineup which sounded too good to be true for a first-time festival. On each one, the artists spanned the wide spectrum of country music, showing off the genre’s many guises; from the new country main stage acts who’d tempted us across the Irish Sea to the distinctly Country ‘n’ Irish sounds we’d only hear on this side of the water.
Directly opposite, across the runway, was the Vicar Street Stage. This tent felt like the home of roots music, celebrating the folk sounds of acts like Courtney Marie Andrews (who’s currently touring the UK) or Australian quartet All Our Exes Live in Texas. It also hosted a singer who deserves your immediate attention; Mo Pitney whose bass voice and classic, picture-painting songs made him seem about 30 years older than he was.
I only hope the artists on that stage knew that the sparse audience at the front was no reflection of their musical abilities. Only the brave could traverse the muddy path to get closer to the stage but huddled at the back near the door, hoards were indeed listening. We risked the slippery journey to get to the front of a mesmerising Megan O’Neill set and this was thankfully closest I came to breaking rule no.2.
This was also the tent which showed off a few teething problems. There were scheduling lulls where none of the stages had any performances going (so we’d wandered between the surprising variety of chips on offer and the Wacky Hat stand) but then all stages would come back to life simultaneously. Unfortunately, this meant moments like a quiet acoustic set by the pristinely-bearded Jarrod Dickenson competing with the noise bleed of Dan and Shay doing a Bon Jovi cover on the main stage or the raucus party atmosphere of The Roadhouse Stage.
Complete with its dance floor, the Roadhouse Stage reminded us we were definitely not in England anymore. While we hadn’t heard of the acts who playing here, it was these singers that others we’d met had been most excited about. “Barry Kirwan? He’s great” the car rental guy had said after he’d pulled a blank face when I’d mentioned Miranda Lambert. “Ah, Cliona Hagan – I met her once” the hotel receptionist had bragged. They drew crowds bigger than the open-sided gazebo could take once the line dancers took over the floor and gave us our introduction to the Irish country music scene – a mix of story telling ballads, classic covers with added fiddle or accordion and a family affair as whole generations came out together both on and off the stage.
At the other end of the runway the Main Stage stood proud and promising though, I confess, I had cockily questioned its schedule. How was local hero Nathan Carter more of a headliner than billboard chart sensation Kip Moore*? How was Miranda Lambert – who gave a brilliant interactive and personal show despite illness – sharing the same stage as local cover band Hurricane Highway? But the variety – and even the order – worked. The legendary country crooner Charley Pride had as many singing along as populist new country duo Maddie and Tae.
There was no doubt most we met had come out for final headliner Nathan Carter. I’d listened to a few songs in advance and decided he had a nice voice and old-fashioned style. From my distance at the chip van I heard him cover classics like Rhinestone Cowboy and figured my first impression of just “nice” was right. But as we got closer to the crowd I understood why he had to finish the event off.
The audience were completely brought to life by this showman. At moments it was like a giant karaoke flash mob. At other times, it became one huge dance floor as he delivered the catchiest of folk songs (I still have several stuck in my head) and I was flung around by a flat-capped octogenarian called Donal who was appalled I hadn’t been dancing. When he reached his big finish, standing on top of his grand piano, there was no doubt Nathan had earned his place at the top of the bill.
The next morning, after a surreal after party at Mahon’s hotel, Judi and I were both grinning through our hangovers as little moments and performances kept coming back to us. From Sam Palladio to the abundance of fancy dress costumes, despite the festival initially feeling small and understated, on refection there had been so much to take in. I’d also learnt vital life lessons (like remove your fringed waistcoat before using a portaloo) and we’d tackled philosophical questions like ‘do you have to be attractive to become a drummer, or does becoming a drummer make you attractive?’.
And as for rule no.3? Well, it wasn’t just because he had an Irish accent…
*The marvellous antics of Kip’s set will be getting their own separate blog post. In the meantime there are more photos from the festival here.