A week ago I was on top of a mountain in Switzerland. I was startled when in the cafe the music playing in the background turned to Lady Antebellum’s ‘Need You Now’. I was in fact vaguely aware that the single had been released to pop radio in Europe as part of a serious attempt to break the group outside North America, following in the footsteps of Taylor Swift’s international assault on the ears of the tone-deaf. It was still a surprise for me to hear it. On investigation, I find the song is currently rising up the Swiss charts. Many country artists try to break Europe, some with more commitment than others, and success rates vary, but it seems to be working for Lady A, with their AC/melodious pop-influenced sound. The more solidly country rooted Brad Paisley was touring in Europe the same week and actually sold out his first London show before ticket sales were formally announced – I missed out on that due to having already planned the vacation time.
It reminded me of the most unexpected place I ever came across country music (also on vacation). That was in the lovely medieval city of Bruges in Belgium, which I visited a few years ago (probably around 2002 or 2003). On my way to a bus stop I came across a little shop selling country and blues CDs. It was closed at that time, but I took note of the opening hours and returned later, to find it had a pretty left field selection, including some really obscure independent releases. I ended up spending most of my souvenir budget for that trip on a selection of albums, most bought unheard, although in some cases they were ones I had read reviews of previously.
One I remember buying was Real Thing, a 2001 album by songwriter Monty Holmes under the joky band name Monty And The Pythons, for which I had been looking unsuccessfully for some time, having enjoyed Monty’s previous album All I Ever Wanted, released under his own name a few years earlier. It turned out not to be quite as good, but still worth having. I also picked up Rodney Hayden’s debut, coincidentally also entitled The Real Thing (both albums included covers of Chip Taylor’s song of that title), and No Regrets, an early release by the Texan Jamie Richards, whose most recent effort I reviewed recently. These two are both great records I still listen to quite often, and would recommend to anyone who likes real country music.
Others well worth the purchase included Shawn Camp’s Lucky Silver Dollar, and Jason Allen’s Something I Dreamed, plus a highly entertaining, mostly up-tempo album by a young man named Elbert West. From female artists there was a pretty good record by a Hispanic singer named Lydia Miller including early versions of ‘Singing To The Scarecrow’ (later cut by Sara Evans) and ‘Man With A Memory, Woman With A Past’ (subsequently recorded by Joe Nichols), Lisa O’Kane’s rather good, slightly jazzy-country ‘Am I Too Blue’, and a fine record from Leslie Satcher, one of the best songwriters in Nashville showing she has a lovely voice as well.
Although it isn’t one of my favorites from this haul, recent events have led me to return to Living In Your World, an uncompromisingly hard country/Bakersfield style CD by a then-unknown Arizona singer-songwriter named Troy Olsen which was produced in California by James Intveld, and featuring Jay Dee Maness (late of the Desert Rose Band) on steel. This showed some promise, but I didn’t hear of him again until recently; he’s spent a number of years honing his craft and eventually got signed to a major label deal with EMI. His debut single for the label, ‘Summer Thing’, is a generic and frankly boring summertime-themed number, and to be honest it would probably have passed me by altogether if I hadn’t recognised his name. Based on that early record, acquired by chance, I do at least feel confident that here is an artist who is genuinely a country singer rather than a pop singer in a cowboy hat, albeit one without the most distinctive of voices, and hope that the material improves – and that he hasn’t had to make too many compromises for the sake of a major label deal.
Where have you been most surprised to hear a country song played in public, or found a country record on sale?