How do you introduce a man who’s done so much in his life? To be honest, he’s someone who I was completely in awe of interviewing, who has dedicated his entire career to his passion for music, a well-respected broadcaster and icon in the UK Country music scene. Of course, I could only be talking about Bob Harris.
Bob has had a huge involvement in the highly anticipated C2C Festival taking place next month, and has been interviewing musicians taking part on his radio show. Before starting Bob Harris Country on BBC Radio 2, he presented the famous Old Grey Whistle Test.
His YouTube channel, WhisperingBobTV, home to the Under The Apple Tree Sessions, has accumulated over a million views, giving budding artists a platform to share their music.
I had the pleasure of speaking to him about his outstanding knowledge of Country music, the Under The Apple Tree Tour, C2C, and who he believes is the “next big thing”.
You’ve been in music journalism for over 40 years so far, which is incredible! One of the shows you’re well known for presenting was The Old Grey Whistle Test, which focused mainly on Rock music. Since then you’ve moved onto Country music. What sparked your love of Country?
Whistle Test was a very eclectic show, we had lots of different styles of music – from Bob Marley to Curtis Mayfield and Freddie King. We were huge supporters of Country-Rock in the Seventies; bands like The Eagles, artists like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, who did a live concert special for us.
By that time, I’d realised how much great music was coming out of Nashville – Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan was recorded there. There was a lot of Country-Rock in the early Seventies and I really latched onto that.
If you draw a straight line from that music in the early Seventies to what I’m playing now, there’s a direct connection. I realised when I got to Nashville, for the first time in 1999, that it was the place I’ve always wanted to be. I absolutely LOVE it there; the people, the community, and the music. I discovered how much depth there is to Country music and how much I love it, It’s really good!
How many times do you think you’ve been to Nashville?
I’ve lost count, It’s over 40 I know that! *laughs*
There’s been quite an evolution in the sound of Country music, and a lot of praise for that, with people saying it’s really grown as a genre. On the other hand, there’s been a bit of negativity I’ve noticed where people have said “oh that’s not Country – it’s Pop!” where it gets mixed in with other genres. In your opinion, what makes a good Country song?
Well, in answer to the first thing you said with Country sounding Pop etc, one of the great figures of Nashville is Chet Atkins; he was the man who invented really, with Owen Bradley, the ‘Nashville Sound’. The Nashville Sound evolved in the late Fifties to early Sixties, and was the answer to the rawness of Rock ‘n’ Roll; they wanted to smooth it out a little bit. Those records by Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline, which Chet Atkins produced at the time, are now revered as being ‘True Country’, but in their day they were dismissed by some of the community as being ‘too Pop’.
I think one of the great things about Country music is its’ ability to evolve. It’s a very, very broad church now. Thomas Rhett for example – Thomas’ dad is a Nashville writer, so he grew up listening to Country radio in the heart of Nashville. Equally, he was hearing a lot of other music on the radio; so was Eric Church and Kacey Musgraves. They’re then blending these other influences that they’ve heard and like into their own music. Country has always done this – It’s had this amazing ability to call in influences from styles outside of it, without those influences corrupting what it is.
I’m a strong supporter of the new generation of Country artists taking Country where they believe it ought to go. We don’t have a right to tell an 18 year old what is or isn’t Country. I support the artists that are broadening the base of Country music, and I think that’s the future.
What really got me into Country was Taylor Swift’s Fearless album, I think that was a pivotal moment for Country music.
I think you are absolutely right – you’ve hit the nail on the head. My 21 year old daughter, Flo, was influenced by Taylor in exactly the same way. Taylor had brought Flo into the idea that Country music was cool.
I’m 19, so the timing was the same really. This then went onto Catherine McGrath, whose main influence was Taylor.
I love Catherine’s music. She’s become a great friend of our family. Catherine has got the fabulous ability to translate her life experiences into the lyrics in her songs. These songs express moments in her life. I Thought It Was Gonna Be Me for example; I think that is a sensational song. You can see her standing there not quite knowing what to do with herself.
Tim Rice is a good friend of ours. I played him the song, and was telling him about Catherine. I said “listen to this!” and he listened right through. At the end, he said “that’s a fantastic song!”.
You’ve been presenting Bob Harris Country on BBC Radio 2 for almost 20 years now!
Yes, April 6th 1999 was the date of my first show.
That’s amazing! What are some of the most memorable moments you’ve had on the show?
Oh my gosh! How long have you got? *laughs*. The first trip to Nashville was just fantastic, having never been to Nashville before. I was with my producer at the time, the late Dave Shannon. He took me over there to show me the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman, and The Country Music Hall of Fame.
We started compiling sessions and interviews for my show. One of the first places we went was to visit Emmylou Harris at her home, where we recorded an interview. I did a session with Gretchen Peters as well, and we went to The Bluebird Café.
That breakthrough trip I realised how much I loved the place; that really was an incredible moment. I’d go so far as to say it was life-changing. All I wanted to do afterwards was to get back to Nashville, see my friends there, and link into the community that exists there. A person who has been very important in helping me do that is Beth Nielsen-Chapman. Beth has been a friend of ours since 1999, I was playing her music on the radio before I first went out to Nashville. She introduced me to everyone which was fantastic.
Every year since, I’ve been covering the CMA Awards, meeting all the winners, doing interviews; every one of those has been an outstanding moment. I just think I’m very blessed to be part of that community.
Speaking of community, I’ve noticed that’s grown immensely over here. There’s a group on Facebook called C2C Attendees, which has over 7,000 members. One phrase they’ve really made their own is “One Big Country Family”. They’re currently printing this on T-shirts, wristbands and some are wearing these to C2C this year. Would you say that the community of fans is as close-knit in America?
You talk to American stars that come over here and they are absolutely amazed by the level of enthusiasm that greets them. In America, you go to a show and the audience go mad for the singles in the set but they’re much quieter when the band are playing what they call the “deep cuts”. In Britain, they say the fans will go deeper than that, and listen to all the tracks on the album. The artists, to their surprise, are looking out from the stage on one of those songs and everyone is singing. This gives them the fantastic feeling that we explore music in a really deep way, and they absolutely love that. The word of mouth in Nashville about C2C and the British fans is so positive.
That’s just incredible, especially with C2C 2019, which has got the most publicity yet! The line-up this year is fantastic and you’ve been interviewing artists like Ashley McBryde and Jimmie Allen who are performing on Bob Harris Country. Could you tell us a little bit more about your involvement in the festival?
I introduced the very first act that walked out on stage at the first C2C in 2013, Kristian Bush. The first session we recorded at Under The Apple Tree was with Kristian. He was over here for a songwriters round and he came down to the studio. My son Miles recorded an interview with him. This was the start of the idea of us getting these Under The Apple Tree sessions underway. There we were, on stage together, at C2C with me introducing him. It felt to me like Kristian was an important building block in it all. We’ve become good friends, and he presented me with my CMA International Broadcaster Award a few years ago; he’s been there at the key moments.
Looking out from the stage, seeing the festival grow year by year, has just been an incredible experience. That first weekend in 2013 had quite a nice vibe to it, but the turning point really was I think was the Zac Brown Band set a few years later. The traditionalists didn’t like the idea of them doing a cover of Kashmir by Led Zeppelin.
The following year it was Florida Georgia Line, and all the seats that had been vacated had been taken up by an entirely new generation who brought in a new energy with them.
The festival is so dynamic and really exciting. The main auditorium is packed. It’s a triumph seeing it grow from the stage; a fantastic experience. This year is going to be the biggest yet!!
How does it feel going from presenting in a radio studio to then standing in front of 20,000 people?
Walking out on stage to that number of people feels incredible – it’s a buzz like you wouldn’t believe!
In the seventies, when I was doing Old Grey Whistle Test, I used to compere shows by people like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. I compered Queen at Hyde Park in front of 125,000 people. I got such a buzz like I can’t even tell you, you get lifted by the crowd when you hear them cheering! It is an amazing feeling.
What advice would you give to someone, perhaps a country fan going to C2C for the first time, so that they can get the most out of the festival?
Wow! That’s a good question! I think to approach it with a totally open mind, be prepared to have your senses bombarded! There’s lots of little rooms, venues and pop-up stages. It’s almost like a cacophony of sound. There’s music coming out of a doorway over there, or from a stage you can see in the distance. It’s packed with people. It’s kind of like going to a football match – everyone’s there because they love that team!
Everyone’s a fan of the same team!
Absolutely! It’s a fantastic feeling of camaraderie. Go with a smile, go with an open mind, and go prepared to experience as much of that excitement as you can.
You’ve accumulated over a million views on the Under The Apple Tree YouTube channel – congratulations! UTAT is going on tour in April across 12 cities, what can fans expect?
Our Headliner is Wildwood Kin, who were my emerging artist at the Americana Awards a couple of years ago. We’ve just added Ferris and Sylvester. In each of the towns we play, the opening act will be a local act from that town. For example, the act starting the evening in Bristol is going to be Foreign Affairs, who are produced by Miles. Then you go to Norwich and it’s a band called Morganway.
Wherever we are, there will be a local act joining us. I’ll be doing a bit of chatting on stage here and there, but mainly it’s about promoting the music from these fantastic bands.
We love the whole ethic of promoting artists too, giving them an opportunity that they might not have had before to share their music. Some of these artists might not have had a chance to gig to that many people, so it’s really good that you’re promoting artists like this.
That’s really the thing about Under The Apple Tree. It’s a platform we are so proud to offer to young artists and give them a helping hand right in the early stages. The fact that Under The Apple Tree has now had a million views means it’s establishing a reputation. We’re so proud of this because we feel what we’re doing is helpful, supporting the young artists we believe in.
That’s very similar to Belles and Gals, we promote female artists by conducting reviews, interviews, putting on and going to shows. We just love that we can support these artists.
I really love what you’re doing. I think it’s important what we’re all doing. We’re a network and we link together as a community. We’re all here for the same reason – on the side of the music. I applaud what you’re doing, that’s why I wanted to do this interview with you.
On behalf of all of the team at Belles and Gals, thank you so much for saying that. For my final question, What artists do you believe are the next big thing in Country music?
There’s an American Country-Rock band called Grand Canyon. I’ve just started playing them and they’re absolutely brilliant, in a sort of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers type of way. Their album is fantastic.
Caleb Cordell has an album called Crushed Coins that I’m playing a lot which I absolutely love.
Michaela Anne – she’s fabulous.
My Bob Harris Americana Emerging Artist this year was Curse of Lono – their new record is very good as well.
I think your input in the Country music scene is vital, with your presence on BBC Radio pushing Country music onto mainstream media, which is just fantastic. Our aim is to promote equality for both genders in Country, especially on the radio, so we thank you for playing both equally. There’s been a lot of conversation about this topic recently, with Kacey winning Album of The Year and not receiving much airplay beforehand.
A final thought about that, Kacey and I recorded our first session for the show together a few months before Same Trailer, Different Park came out and have been friends ever since. In fact, I’m still the voicemail on her answer machine!
That’s so cool!
I’m so proud of Kacey, and 4 Grammy’s! It’s just spectacular and she deserves it.
She’s absolutely incredible, from the elements of humour in her debut album to the more serious take in Golden Hour, her evolution is just fantastic. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us at Belles and Gals, we really appreciate it!
You can listen in to Bob Harris Country Thursdays at 9 on BBC Radio 2. Click here to listen to previous shows.
Watch Under The Apple Tree sessions here.
Tickets for The Under The Apple Tree Tour can be found here.
Interview conducted by Megan Roberts (https://twitter.com/megwritesalot)