The accent on the other end of the phone is a familiar Tennessee twang diluted with a 17-year stint in London, via a decade in New York. I’ve regularly heard it over the radio or over clubbing crowds at Buck ‘n’ Bull nights.
This time though country DJ Baylen Leonard is not just introducing songs, he’s talking to me about how he discovers these new tracks; the kind of music which will be populating the two festivals he’s curating this summer.
The first is the returning free event Nashville Meets London, 28-29th July. This, its third year, should feel more secure than in 2016 when Baylen recalls the nervous moments before the launch.
“We didn’t know if people would come…
…I remember walking to the site not knowing what would happen, but when I rounded that corner and saw there were already a couple hundred people there, ready with picnics, I thought ‘we’re going to be OK’.”
This year, the festival is expanding beyond the usual two days with a Thames boat party on the Friday night and the promise of another linked evening event still to be announced.
But with each new year’s line up and the Twitterati poised to applaud or to slate, there is risk.
“I’m always trying to show the many sides of what country can be and that there’s a country act for everyone.” That’s the reason you may not have heard of all the acts on a Nashville Meets London billing.
But while the performers (a healthy split of U.K. & U.S. talent) may span the spectrum from Bluegrass to Country Pop, they’ll always have some common ground to get Baylen’s attention from the wealth of music he’s sent.
“I look for acts that have a fresh approach or something important to say…
…As a festival, we book artists we think are going to be the next big thing, or artists who are so good it doesn’t matter whether they’ll be the next big thing.”
The track record is good. The year before Russell Dickerson topped the US Country Airplay chart with Yours, the UK country community saw him for free on a pop up stage in the shadow of London’s Canary wharf towers. Before Nashville was clambering to book Brit Yola Carter for their own Americana festivals, she’d been an unknown opener on that same Nashville Meets London stage.
But, in a time Baylen describes as “a golden era for country music over here”, one festival is clearly not enough to satisfy his passion and the UK’s zealous country community. He’s also part of the team launching a new three-day residential festival, The Long Road (7-9th September 2018), tempting us with more than just the music.
“Country and Americana fans are often also fans of the lifestyle that goes along with it, so I wanted to create a world to enjoy all the things we love.”
With the creation of this ‘world’ it’s as if the DJ is transporting up back to his hometown, Bristol in Tennessee, the official birthplace of country music. “Growing up [in Bristol] it seemed normal; country music was everywhere. When I left I realised how special that was.”
So how is The Long Road bringing that taste of Tennessee to Leicestershire? “I wanted to do camping festival so people could come and really live in that world. We’re building a front porch and a honky-tonk and you can do crafts and workshops…” He fails to mention the festival’s moonshine tastings, but I’m already imagining the effect they will have on me finding my tent at the end of the night.
Baylen’s hope is that the festival will mean more than just three days of fun. “This is a chance to commune with like minded people. I think the community we have as Country and Americana fans in the UK is already special…
…People make friends [at country events] and meet their partners and I wanted to translate that into a festival.”
Unfortunately, finding your life partner is not guaranteed at either of Baylen’s festivals this year, but the odds of discovering your new favourite country artist is a lot higher.
As we chat it’s clear that Baylen is, first and foremost, a country music fan himself. He is continually foraging for new music. He tells me of a rolling list kept on his phone which he constantly updates with new artists to sound out. Maybe he’s heard them mentioned on social media, or maybe they’ve cropped up as a collaborator with a band he likes.
So, while of course he’d love to book “Queen Dolly” for one of his festival stages, he’ll keep taking chances on the new and next. “When I think of all the current big acts we didn’t know of five years ago, like Maren Morris and Brothers Osborne…
…what excites me the most is all the artists coming up that we don’t even know will be a huge deal yet.”
Here’s to discovering the next big thing, be it in Leicestershire or London.