Southern Fried Festival - country music comes to Perth
The addition of Perth‘s Southern Fried festival to the musical calendar suggests our appetite for all things Americana is virtually insatiable. Nicola Meighan speaks to a few experienced campaigners and asks: Why do Scots love country music so much?
Glen Lyon, 1982, is as good a place to start as any. That summer Andy Shearer, son of the local deerstalking ghillie, met Will Oldham, a young American holidaying on the estate with his family. They struck up a friendship and began to swap music: Shearer posted tapes of Scots folk, pipe tunes and Burns songs across the Atlantic; Oldham retaliated with Gram Parsons, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Woody Guthrie.
It was to prove a vital alliance. Oldham is now better known as alt-country godhead Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy: one of the most important voices in contemporary American music, and a troubadour whose muse is imbued in the Scottish folk idiom. Shearer, meanwhile – amongst other things – is creator of Perth’s Southern Fried festival: a three-day carnival of American country, gospel, blues, Latino, jazz, soul and bluegrass, (all of which are loosely unified by the ‘Americana’ tag). This year the bill includes Lucinda Williams, Los Lobos, Hayseed Dixie and Booker T.
There are countless versions of this fable. It’s a tale of kinship and mutual discovery – in which history, geography, culture, reciprocity, marketing and alcohol all variously play key roles. It’s the abiding love story of Scots and American country music. And it starts, of course, a long time ago.
When Scottish immigrants took to US shores – from the mid-eighteenth century onwards – they took along their folk conventions, instruments and musical customs. ‘American country and its offshoots are primarily based on our traditional music,’ suggests Shearer. ‘Ballads, story-songs and instrumental dance music were brought over by the people who settled in Appalachia, Tennessee, the Virginias and the Carolinas. And we’ve held onto our musical traditions strongly here which goes a long way to explaining why those [American] styles are popular in Scotland.’
He’s not wrong. Americana’s everywhere. Celtic Connections has staged the likes of US country legends Steve Earle and Alison Krauss, in celebration of our long-standing Trans-Atlantic camaraderie. There’s a nationwide prevalence of American roots music clubs and festivals (not least Perth’s aforementioned Southern Fried, plus Glasgow Americana and its predecessor, Big Big Country). The nation’s airwaves are also rampant with country charms: recent Radio Scotland playlists have included Nancy Griffith, Gretchen Peters, Wilco and The Everly Brothers. Then there’s the station’s dedicated US roots series, Another Country – hosted by a Scottish musician in thrall to the genre: Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross.
Another Scots artist captivated by Americana is Dean Owens, who fronts Scotland’s finest country trailblazers The Felsons. They’ve toured with US luminaries Emmylou Harris and The Mavericks, and have reformed especially to perform at this year’s Southern Fried jamboree. Owens proposes that our Americana love affair is also nurtured by popular culture. ‘I think it’s partly due to our romantic idea of the States – what we’ve all grown up seeing in the movies and hearing on the radio – Elvis, Dylan, the Westerns with the huge John Ford landscapes,’ he muses. ‘And then the more modern blockbuster films, like Cold Mountain and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with their cool soundtracks.’ He also tips his hat to the influence of mainstream US literature on our country-loving collective conscience. ‘John Steinbeck, Richard Yates, Annie Proulx …’
Yet for every pop-cultural rationale a propos our love of roots, Owens reckons there’s an equally pressing physiological stimulant: booze. ‘When you think of places like Kentucky and Tennessee, and the music that came out of those bourbon states,’ he advocates, ‘and then think of the where our good malt comes from and the traditional music that came out of those areas … there’s got to be a whisky connection,’ he ventures.
If starry-eyed notions of landscape, lore and liquor stoke our fondness for Americana, then so too does the rather more cold, hard science of marketing. Francis Macdonald of Teenage Fanclub – one of Scotland’s best-loved bands and themselves no strangers to American country – runs Glasgow folk/roots imprint Spit & Polish. As such, he has released albums from US artists Laura Cantrell, (whose sublime, countrified Not the Tremblin’ Kind was hailed by John Peel as his favourite album of all time), and renegade cow-punk Jason Ringenberg (who also plays this year’s Southern Fried).
Macdonald acknowledges that re-branding has worked wonders. ‘I think the moniker “Americana” has helped to update the staid, music-your-auntie-likes associations of country music, and helped younger people to find a way in to the genre,’ he posits. He has a point: in terms of credibility, accessibility, identity and media coverage, the ‘Americana’ label has repositioned, reconciled and rejuvenated US country.
Both Macdonald and Owens also ratify the impact of Americana on their own music. ‘I always liked classic 60s pop and rock, and when you stop and think about it there are a lot of country influences in there,’ suggests Macdonald. ‘Beatles for Sale, Nancy & Lee, The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.’
Owens, meanwhile, says the country blueprint critically shaped his art. ‘I don’t think I’d have started The Felsons and gone on to write the kind of songs I did for the band if I hadn’t heard American roots records,’ he speculates. ‘I found it very inspiring that most of the songs were very simple: three chords and the truth. That really appealed to me as I’ve always written really simple songs.’
Shearer recalls that same aural candour in those formative cassettes from Oldham. ‘While Scottish folk music registered very deeply with me, contemporary songwriters within that scene didn’t seem to address the realities of everyday life in small-town and rural communities the way country music did,’ he remembers. ‘Country music was very easy to relate to in terms of its subject matter as so much of it seemed commonplace: guns, hard physical labour, rural living, off-road vehicles, drinking, dogs – and tangled common-knowledge love lives,’ he laughs.
So it all boils down to our long-held love for simple songs about gossip and graft? ‘I think the common factors across all these strands of music are strong narratives, a sense of struggle and emotional authenticity,’ concludes the Southern Fried boss. ‘These are all traits that are characteristic within our own music, and wider culture, and that we therefore readily embrace in others.’
And what of those dispatches from Bonnie ‘Prince Billy? Do they still inspire? Shearer nods. ‘Those tapes revealed the depth, adventure and possibilities that existed in American roots music. They laid the foundations for a lot of what I listen to now, and sent me on a journey to discover more about the artists, and the music. It’s a journey which I’m still on.’
Southern Fried Festival, various venues, Perth, Fri 31 Jul–Sun 2 Aug. See right for highlights. www.myspace.com/southernfriedfestival
Mark Petrie offers the lowdown on the Southern Fried Festival line-up
Growing up in an adoptive family had a significant impact on this singer-songwriter’s career, forming the basis for much of her music and the agonising emotion behind her voice. In searching for her roots she not only found her family, but also a love for music. Perth Theatre, Fri 31 Jul.
Perth’s own Americano rockers may have recently lost their frontman to family commitments but the band are operating as a four-piece and playing on, in accordance with the band motto: ‘play it loud, play it good and keep it country’. The Salutation Hotel, Sat 1 Aug.
A key part of the alt.country movement with his former band and widely known for an energetic stage presence and his punk rock twist on country music. Now he’s back in the form of a double solo act. Perth Theatre, Sat 1 Aug.
A latecomer to music – writing her first song at 35 – and winning an AMA Award as New/Emerging Artist of the Year some 7 years later. Her first major label release in 2005, Mercy Now was the start of a run of breathtaking storytelling. Perth Theatre, Sat 1 Aug.
The legendary Stax Records’ man is responsible, along with his sidemen, the MGs, for literally hundreds of classic soul grooves and comes here to promote his solo LP. Perth Concert Hall, Sat 1 Aug.
This bunch of eccentrics started out in 2001 with a tribute album to AC/DC, aptly titled A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC and have gone on to tour the globe. Perth Concert Hall, Sun 2 Aug.
Chincano rockers influenced by country, rock and blues. Most commonly associated with 1987 hit ‘La Bamba’, however, during 25 years together have toured heavily all over the world, even opening for Bob Dylan. Perth Theatre, Fri 31 Jul.