The country stars stood in the tiny basement bar in Camden: two shining Gibsons, one Stetson, immaculate jeans and a Union Jack guitar strap. From the start, there was something wrong about the scene – these dazzling cowboys in such a small space, with velvet curtains and Victorian flocking. They were of average height, but as is often the case with Americans, they felt bigger. One glowed brown from under his hat; the other had a cleft in his chin. You could see them rounding up steers on a quad bike before driving to a breakfast meeting in a Toyota Tundra. Their smiles and outstretched hands spoke of bigger venues – of bobbled arena flooring, foam fingers and Coors Light. My friend and I took two stools, trying not to sit too close to them. They grinned, and cast their eyes up the stairs, to see if anyone else was coming.
At home, Blue County are famous. One of them acts in Nashville and wrote a number one hit for Toby Keith. Glen Campbell was a cousin of sorts, from Arkansas. They divide their time between Hollywood and the country music Mecca, where they regularly play the Bluebird Cafe. But the previous afternoon, they’d left their wives and five children and flown to England with no publicity or PR representation, and a red wheelie-case full of CDs. They’d picked up a hire car at Heathrow, and would be staying at a Premier Inn in Potters Bar before moving round the country. They were in their forties, and had been “like brothers” for 20 years. I think they’d simply come to see what would happen. One glanced up the stairs again, while the other took a mouthful of the venue’s IPA.
What to do, if playing a show where no one comes? In the next half hour, the four of us – audience and band – adjusted to the idea without discussion. We’d already had a nice chat, they’d plugged in… there was nothing else for it. And so, defiantly, Blue County broke into their set, and the unmistakable sound of American musicians – slicker, louder, better than English ones – filled the empty basement. This was big budget, radio-friendly, Nashville songwriting – tales of lost love, nostalgia and Little League games.
The hardest thing about being sung to at such close range is knowing what to do with your face. One of the duo fixed his eyes far away, as if on the back of a large stadium. But the other, the guy from Nashville, made twinkly, disarming eye contact from beneath dark lashes. When Glen Campbell went on Wogan in the Eighties, he’d sing right to his host’s face, too.
The applause etiquette in a “private” gig is interesting. Solitary whoops are OK; clapping sounds a bit sarcastic. “You’ve got no choice but to clap, right?” they said, apologetically. Then they played a naughty song called “Nothin’ But Cowboy Boots”.
After an hour, two men stumbled down the stairs. They were older than the band, and stoned – and they broke the fourth wall immediately. One worked in TV (“How do you write?” he asked). The other was from Northern Ireland (“There’s just no good country music now. Why is it so bad?”). Blue County blinked graciously, and twiddled their guitar knobs. Finally they gave up, and pulled up chairs, instruments in lap, for a bit of cultural exchange.
Yes, London is woeful for spontaneous live music attendance compared with their home town, we told them. But country does have a following – they just need a PR! Nashville is changing, they told us – getting traditional again; that crappy modern “baseball cap” country is falling out of favour.
Did we like Meghan Markle? Yes, very much, I said. American girls fantasise about English princes – but I always dreamed of pick-up trucks and “trips to the lake”. Then they said: was Brexit your Trump? And we found our point of connection – in vast stretches of land and life ignored by the big cities (but all to be heard in country music).
Could they play “Made In America”, the song written for Toby Keith? They hesitated, but did so. “It’s very patriotic,” one explained – “but really, it’s about my grandfather.” A while later, jet-lag hit them, and they went off to the Premier Inn.
This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis