I could proudly stand up to my bank manager – or, more likely, my mother – and defend spending so much of my income this year on gigs. I’d explain it was more than just FOMO driving me to persevere to venues ignoring the threat of tube strikes and the reality of broken heels. Each show has felt unmissable for its own reason, like Little Big Town singing Girl Crush in the splendour of the Royal Albert Hall or Judi accidentally catching the Brothers Osborne’s plectrum in a Camden basement.
In my closing argument I’d point out the undeniable value for money achieved thanks to the calibre of the music I didn’t technically pay to see. Because, for me, this year has been all about the bonus opening acts. I have been awed by these lesser known musicians trying to make one song pierce through the cacophony of coat check chatter and first bar orders; the artists who have been incidentally nudged into my world and scrambled their way onto my playlists, often without a radio chart to fight for them or even an album to sell yet.
So I will continue to turn up early and not take their short sets for granted; after all, I first saw Kip Moore and The Cadillac Three as unknown openers on other country artists’ tours. Here’s to the little names on the bottoms of the posters, the support stars who have shone for me this year:
1. Jake Morrell (Country Music Week)
This guitar-toting young songwriter wasn’t the act I’d come to see at the Borderline daytime showcase but luckily I arrived earlier than planned. I adore it when a British artist doesn’t get lost in American affectations simply because it’s the home of this music we love, so I was chuffed to hear Jake’s song Englishman. The hook – “I don’t need to go to Nashville” – had me and others quickly singing along, although of course it’s a lie. I always need to go to Nashville.
Jake is next playing in London on 20th December and his EP, The Greenline, is out now.
2. Jillian Jacqueline (Supporting Kip Moore)
Thanks to a queuing debacle at the crushingly crowded Shepherd’s Bush Empire, I only heard the final song of Jillian Jacqueline’s set. That one song, delivered by a clear, emotive voice, was enough to make me look her up. I discovered a mix of stripped-back songs with acerbic lyrics like Holier Than Thou and well-conceived poppier tracks like Hate Me (which yields the best merchandise) or the recognisable God Bless This Mess.
Jillian [pictured above] will be playing the CMA songwriters session and the spotlight stage at London’s C2C festival 2018.
3. The Black Feathers (Supporting Yola Carter)
Couple duos usually make me cringe, though this probably says more about the state of my soul than their musical quality. This husband and wife folk duo from the South West bypassed my prejudice with warm chat, non-sickly chemistry and haunting harmonies. It takes a lot to still be remembered when you’re followed by the huge voice that is Yola Carter’s, but with memorable lyrics like “I’ll take holy water over whiskey any time”, this pair of achieved it.
The Black Feathers have UK tour dates in January 2018.
4. Walker McGuire (supporting Randy Houser)
Texan Jordan Walker and Kansas City’s Johnny McGuire were charming and genuinely funny when they took to the stage, which first got my attention. But their songs stayed with me as well as their personalities. Despite their penchant for baseball caps and their “truck and pretty girl” forthcoming single Lost, there’s more to the duo than I first expected. They’ve also got a bank of solid concepts like romantic / terrifying offering I’m On It and some Brad Paisley level humour such as the “pretty sure I’m betraying the sisterhood by laughing but I can’t help it” song Ol’ What’s Her Name.
Walker McGuire’s debut EP is out in January.
5. Charlie Worsham (Supporting Lucy Silvas)
There is a high chance you’ve already encountered this class act as he spent a suspicious amount of time on the British Isles during 2017 (what’s her name Charlie?). He popped up seemingly everywhere, from the Lucy Silvas tour to London’s Texas Music Week or intimate sets above a pub and even in a bakery. I’m not complaining. Each time felt a fresh revelation of craftsmanship and credibility and fresh sense of injustice that his latest album Beginning of Things – a curated menagerie of the human experience – is not yet in every country fan’s home. At every performance I’ve been rapt by his songs and deft guitar work and also by the fact he is not yet the main name.
Charlie’s second album Beginning of Things is out now, as is his book Follow Your Heart.
6. The Wandering Hearts (Supporting Brothers Osborne)
I’ve been raving about this group for a while now but March this year was the first time I experienced a full live set and they were outstanding. A band of Brits offering polished, upbeat folk – memorable in both the songs themselves and their performance of them. I’d bet a fiver on them being the band your indie-loving friend will soon claim they discovered, listing them alongside Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers, but remember you heard about them here first. Actually, no, you probably heard about them from Bob Harris first.
The Wandering Hearts have UK tour dates scheduled in Feb/March 2018.
7. Lindsay Ell (Country Music Week)
I am incredibly disappointed in myself for how surprised I was by Lindsay Ell’s performance. She was opening for Randy Houser before she went on to headline her own show later in Country Music Week. I’d not researched her before the night and when she walked on stage – all gorgeous hair and cheekbones – the back of my brain must have made a split second judgement because when she began she was anything but what I didn’t realise I’d been expecting. She’s an incredible musician. I could write a long separate blog post about how that shouldn’t have surprised me and why it did. But not now. For now, I’ll just apologise for unwittingly being part of the problem with how fellow females are perceived in country music and say that seeing Lindsay live – looping and shredding her guitars with raspy vocals and frenetic energy – goes a long way to challenging those deep-seated perceptions. It turns out one guitar solo is worth a thousand words.
Lindsay Ell will be playing the spotlight stage at London’s C2C festival 2018.
8. Foreign Affairs (Supporting Frankie Ballard & Morgan Evans)
If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll know I’ve spoken about these lads before, but that’s what happens when I get genuinely excited about an act. These Bristol brothers are real grafters who I saw opening for two different artists this year, while they’re currently on the road as support for Worry Dolls. They’ve got instantly addictive songs and an infectious passion on stage. It feels as though their brand of roots music belongs to a much older act, but they’ve grown up with classic Americana influences and it shows.
Foreign Affairs will shortly be announcing 2018 dates and are releasing a single in March, while their three-track Ep The First is out now.
9. Ryan Hurd (Supporting Maren Morris)
I’d just met Ryan for an interview before he opened for Maren and was worried my own judgement might be impaired by how likeable he’d been then. So, I deferred to the wisdom of the Bristol crowd around me that night, who were sporting a healthy mix of Maren Morris t-shirts and C2C 2016 merch. My eavesdropping confirmed what I thought. He was good. He wasn’t necessarily what most had been expecting, looking more like an indie band frontman than a country boy. But, as the older lady to my right put it, “oooh, I like him, I do”. Ryan wasn’t particularly chatty on stage but let his largely autobiographical songs talk for him and, on the strength of his song writing, left us wanting to hear more.
Ryan Hurd will be taking part in the CMA Songwriter Series at London’s C2C festival 2018.
10. Old Dominion (Supporting Thomas Rhett)
It’s hard to think of this country chart-topping group as an opening act; they’ve previously packed UK venues in their own right. Perhaps that’s why they completely owned the stage at Camden’s Roundhouse. They gave a performance worthy of any headliner and – as we mentioned in the review of that show – left many fans fully satisfied before main man Thomas Rhett had even started his energetic but decidedly less country set.
Old Dominion are playing C2C Festival 2018 in Dublin, Glasgow and London.
Were you at any of these shows? What did you think?
(Featured Photo courtesy of Andy Webb)