Last year I could only listen in awe as people regaled stories of how great the likes of Striking Matches were at the CMA Song Writers Series, a now traditional event that takes place the Friday before Country To Country (C2C) kicks off. I say traditional, but now C2C has been announced as a 3 day festival in 2016, starting on the Friday, the future of the CMA Song Writers Series is unknown. I can only hope the sell out crowd last Friday was proof enough that it should be continued, and scheduled for the Thursday before C2C starts next year.
Speculation and uncertainty aside, I wasn’t going to miss such a well regarded night of music this year, and as soon as Brandy Clark was announced I booked tickets. Brandy sat right at the very top of my wish list of artists to come over to the UK so her involvement was a dream come true. Friday March 6th was to be my only flirtation with C2C this year, at least up until that very date when a few plans changed, but that’s another story for another time.
I think coming from a background of rock music, from the 60s through to the 80s and some of the 90s, the concept of song writers, known and utilised by many acts in a genre, is quite alien to me. I’ll be the first to hold my hand up and say I didn’t really know who Jessi Alexander and Jon Randall were, or any of the other big name song writers in country music. I did know of Brandy Clark as a songwriter, but only because I was such a huge Kacey Musgraves fan and Brandy’s co-write credit of Follow Of Your Arrow was well publicised. I came to know much more about Brandy when she released her debut album 12 Stories, and Sam Palladio I knew from the Nashville TV show and seeing him support Striking Matches last year. Kix Brooks was also new to me, knowing of Brooks and Dunn, but not their music.
Kix Brooks was the host of the evening, and within minutes my ignorance of his career melted away as he felt like an old friend, such was his warming personality and engaging delivery of his stories. One such story told of how he’d been chatting with a guy who wanted to propose to his girlfriend on stage at a Brooks and Dunn show and had been chatting back forth with Kix leading up to the concert to get everything organised. When it came time to get them on stage it seemed both the guy and his future fiancee had both changed their minds and were mortified at the mere thought of joining Kix. Being the strong personalty that he is, Kix got them up, got him to propose and the gig continued. It wasn’t until the next day that he got an email from the original guy wondering who it was that Kix got on stage, because it wasn’t him and his girlfriend!
Kix Brooks is a performer through and through, and his voice has moments of tenderness and others where the gravelly tones tell a story of many years on the road. You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone was my particular favourite of the four songs he did, and his songs and stories were enough for me to want to check out more of his work, a familiar trend for the evening.
Brandy Clark was the most familiar to me, having played her 12 Stories album a lot over the last year, and she added another level of charm with her unassuming presence and an aura of someone who feels utterly blessed to be in the position she is. She was softly spoken as she played Mama’s Broken Heart with a minimal introduction, but opened up a lot more when talking about her second song, which we soon realised was to be Follow Your Arrow – the song she co-wrote with Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves, the latter of which went on to record and make it famous. I say famous, but I think it’s more well known in the UK than the US, as Brandy seemed to think it wasn’t a big hit and was pleasantly surprised to see we both knew the song and sung a long with her.
As brilliant as her album is, Brandy Clark is an artist that is even better to see and hear sing live. Her voice is flawless, and though it’s a cliche I no doubt overuse on this website, Brandy does get lost in the music when she is on stage. Though she didn’t play Stripes as I was hoping, I was pleased to hear Get High, which led to Kix joking we were all potheads as well as drunks, as he’d mentioned earlier. I don’t think anyone on that stage was expecting to be playing to an audience of people who like country as much people back in the States.
I already knew from seeing him last year that Sam Palladio was as much a musician in real life as his Gunnar character that he plays on screen in Nashville, so I knew what to expect. He kicked off with Fade In To You and If I Didn’t Know Better, both from the Nashville show, and I still marvel at his ability to get those high lingering notes with such ease and control. As delicate as some of those moments were, he put absolutely everything into Lightning Bones, one of the three of his own songs that he sung. It was a rockier number with a lot of soul that saw Sam play his guitar to within an inch of its life.
Even though Sam was a musician before his acting break on Nashville, he still seems quite unsure of his own songwriting talents, something he has absolutely nothing to worry about. Jessi Alexander said what we were all thinking, in telling him to cut an album so that we could all buy it. Well, she actually said download it, but I still physical copies where possible, so I’ll take a CD thanks Sam, or even Vinyl if you’re feeling adventurous. It was the second time I’d heard Wake Me Up In Nashville and the story that inspires it tugs at your heartstrings, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who’s yet to hear it – just go see him live when the opportunity arises.
Jessi Alexander was the one person I came out of this show marveling at the most, and she’s every bit as good as any artist making waves in the charts today, and then some. The voice, the poise, the guitar playing and the undeniably world class writing ability – that’s the important part, but she’s also a pretty lady too, so absolutely no reason for her not to be played hourly by country radio and TV stations the world over. She sang a couple of songs she’d written for Blake Shelton, Drink On It and Mine Would Be You, both of which went to number 1 in America, but it was her Lee Brice track that had me welling up.
I Drive Your Truck is the song inspired by of a guy who was on the radio talking about his son who had died overseas fighting in the services. The interview was on Memorial Day and the interviewer asked what he was going to do that day, to which the father said he was gonna ‘drive his truck’. It was one of the co-writers, Connie Harrington, that heard the radio interview and immediately pulled over and phoned Jessi. They actually went one step further and when the record went to number 1 then tracked him down to tell him ‘we wrote this song about you’ and invited him to the number 1 party, which he attended. It’s obvious just from the way she tells stories, why she’s such an amazing songwriter.
Jessi’s last song was one she said was was recorded by Joe McElderry, and being that we are Miley Cyrus fans in our house, I immediately connected the dots and worked out it was The Climb she was talking about. I’m a big fan of this song anyway, but to see it sung by its creator, and with such passion, well it just took my breath away.
Jon Randall was the last to play each time, and he said that it was tough having to go after Jessi and her number 1 hits every time. However, being one of Dierks Bentley’s buddies and song writing partner meant he was no stranger to successful songs himself. Because I was sat on the left and Jon was sat far right on the stage, and with him wearing a cap, the lighting I meant I never saw his face all night (the camera had a better zoom than my eyes!). I didn’t need to though, as the emotion in his voice and the passion in his playing shone through on their own, and like Jessi I am sat there wondering why he’s not a huge star in his own right.
One secret weapon Jon does have in his arsenal is that of being the co-writer of Whiskey Lullaby, with songwriting legend Bill Anderson. It’s a song that was cut by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss and won CMA Song of the Year in 2005. Jon’s singing of this was the highlight of his participation for me, being that it’s an incredible song and he along with wife Jessi Alexander sung it effortlessly and sublimely. Jessi and Jon accompanied each other throughout each others sets and added an extra layer of depth to the performances.
You may remember I mentioned Striking Matches earlier? Well I’d heard a whisper that they may turn up, and they did just that, singing one of the songs from their new album, namely Make a Liar Out Of Me. As much as I like the lyrics and vocals that they provide, it’s always the guitar wizardry I look forward to most in their performances and they didn’t disappoint. I saw them play 3 times last year but I think they’ve actually managed to take things to an even higher level. I get visibly excited watching them do things with a guitar I have never seen before, grinning from ear to ear as they seemingly grew extra arms to do what they almost impossibly appear to do. They played just the one song, but I have their London gig in May to look forward to seeing more. This video of their performance is from Nashville Over Here who has lots more videos on his YouTube channel.
The whole evening was breathtakingly good from start to finish, and the combination of acoustic music with superb singer / songwriters is unparalleled. I think, even more than the big arena performances, it’s become my favourite part of Country To Country, and live music in general, and I dearly hope it returns again next year.