Bob Harris talks country’s 21st Century boom, C2C Festival and new BBC Radio 2 show

Broadcasting legend, ‘Whispering Bob’ Harris, has spoken to Headliner about his brand new BBC Radio 2 show celebrating 21st century country music, the 2022 C2C (Country to Country) Festival and why the genre has broken through in the UK over the past two decades like never before.

Throughout March, Harris and BBC Radio 2 are celebrating country music in all of its guises, but with a key focus on its almost unprecedented breakthrough into the UK mainstream since the turn of the century. Indeed, Harris’s own four-part series 21st Century Country explores the genre through a contemporary, shining a spotlight on some of the artists and records that have helped bring country music to a vast new audience on this side of the pond.

Meanwhile, Radio 2 is also serving as the official broadcast partner of this year’s C2C Festival, which takes place at the O2 in London from March 11-13. The event, which is now the biggest country music festival in the Europe, is emblematic of the huge spike in interest in the genre from mainstream audiences in the UK. Featuring headline acts Miranda Lambert, Darius Rucker and Luke Combs, C2C will also feature a Radio 2 stage, showcasing some of the most exciting new talent coming through this year.

To find out more, we joined Harris from his Oxford studio via Zoom for a chat about all things country…

It’s a big month for country music at Radio 2, what with C2C and the station’s country programming. What will you personally be doing over the next few weeks?

In two words, I’ll be doing a lot! It’s brilliant because Radio 2 are really getting behind country music. It’s such a wonderful, dynamic, growing genre and this year in particular Radio 2 have really embraced the idea of supporting C2C and the events around it. There is the festival itself, but there are the soongwriting meetings, the social events around it, the pop-up stages, and Radio 2 has its own stage at Indigo 2. I’ll be presenting a couple of the artists playing there.

My main role at C2C itself is as the main stage compere, as I have been since day one of the festival. But behind the scenes we’ll be recording interviews and performances with almost all of the artist performing on the main stage, so it’s a complete package. The way that’s being realised on air is with extra programmes on Radio 2. There is my own country show and we have a big live show on Saturday afternoon between 3-6pm, and another huge show on Sunday evening. That’ll be backstage reflecting everything that’s been happening at C2C over the weekend. It’s really exciting.

You recently launched a new four-part series called 21st Century Country. Why do you think the genre has evolved and grown so rapidly in the UK since the turn of the century?

When I first went to Nashville in 1999 it was quite insular. I loved it because the songwriting and the music community there was so vigorous and open and friendly, but it was very insular. The big stars of the time, the Alan Jacksons and George Straits, were selling shedloads of records in America and they didn’t necessarily see the virtue of reaching outside of the States, particularly Britain. But as the new generation began to appear, Brad Paisley was just putting out his first album, Sara Evans was just releasing hers, Lonestar were coming through, Keith Urban was about a year away - all of these artists had a much more liberal idea about reaching out to as wide a fanbase as possible. So, very gradually they started to look to Britain.

By this time, maybe three years on, my country show began to establish a reputation as being a nice docking point for artists when they came to Britain. Very gradually, artists began to come over and that was a big breakthrough. It hadn’t happened previously, where you’d have artists coming over to play the Shepherds Bush Empire, for instance. Some of these artists could sell out stadiums in America, but they were building a new fanbase over here. And more and more started to do this.

The big breakthrough was Taylor Swift. She connected really strongly with the fanbase here. And then you had the Nashville TV show, but then you had Country 2 Country. It became the meeting point for everything. All of these elements began to gel together to create what we have now, which is a really vibrant scene where the Americans absolutely love coming to Britain and acknowledging this huge fanbase they have now.

Also, the past 15-20 years have seen another generation come into country who are happy to bring in other styles to their music. Country music has always been known as a big church and now a lot of the younger artists feel very comfortable pulling other streams of music into it. That’s such an important thing because it’s widening the base and bringing younger people into country music, and that ensures its future.

The year could be the most exciting C2C yet. Bob Harris

Do you think the democratisation of music this century via digital platforms has helped open the genre up to a wider audience?

That’s a lot to do with Shuffle. My daughter, who is 24, carries her music with her everywhere. And tracks come out randomly at her. She might be listening to something from the current charts, followed by ELO, followed by Fleetwood Mac - she doesn’t differentiate between styles. Music in the past was very tribal, but this generation doesn’t recognise that as a thing. They like music, whatever it is. It’s the same with things like auto-tune. Sometimes I say to my daughter, Oh my God, this voice sounds exactly like the voice we heard in the previous four tracks. And she doesn’t care. She says if I like the track, I like the track. I get that, I really do. But I say you’re never going to find the next Otis Redding like that [he laughs]. But I understand the mindset of thinking it’s music, I like it, I don’t have to follow your rules. I can see a situation where in about 10 years’ time the terms country, blues etc. will become obsolete. Because the teens and those in their ‘20s won’t recognise them.

The key in any genre - because you do have your protectionists - is to keep an open mind. With country, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when Chet Atkins was propping up country to make it acceptable for the charts, people look back at Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline as real country, which in my eyes they are, but at the time they were seen as commercialising country music, which the aficionados of the time disapproved of.

Spin forward 50 years and we had a similar moment at C2C when the Zac Brown Band was onstage. The audience, as it was in those early days, was full of the old crusties, real die hard country fans from years ago, and the Zack Brown Band did a cover of Metallica’s Enter Sandman and it was too much for them! They got up and left and there was a massive hole in the crowd where they all left! They couldn’t handle it! It was so funny, because you thought could it be that next year the O2 will be half empty? Far from it. It was Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and all of those seats were filled with people 20 or 30 years younger than those who had walked out, and I thought ‘yes’! Because these people are the future.

Who are some of your favourite 21st century country artists?

When I first went out to Nashville, the line-ups of the CMAs hardly changed for years on end. Brooks & Dunn had won Duo Of The Year for 13 of the last 14 years, and that wasn’t unusual. Now, especially the last five years, there has been a huge surge of talent in the mainstream. In more recent times, one of the most encouraging things happening in country is that there is a whole number of great black artists enriching the genre – Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, Brittney Spencer, Mickey Guyton. These are all breaking through and I think that’s fabulous.

I’m also a huge fan of Kacey Musgraves. I feel very connected to Kacey; she did her first radio session on my programme months before Same Trailer Different Park came out. I’m so fond of her and we remain in touch, and I don’t know if I still am, but for several years I was the voice of her answering machine [laughs]!

Ashley McBryde, I think is special. I love her music. It’s a wonderful moment for country music right now. I’m a big fan of Luke Combs, Little Big Town, ditto. It’s hard for me to go for one or two because there are so many whose music I absolutely love.

How excited are you for C2C this year?

Well, this year could be the most exciting C2C yet, as we have been waiting to do this for such a long time after the festival was postponed in 2020. We’ve been waiting since 2019 to get back in that arena, and I think the energy is going to be unbelievable.

As far as the line-ups are concerned, you have the three main headliners - Miranda Lambert, Darius Rucker and Luke Combs - but also in this line-up you have names that three years ago we wouldn’t have thought of on the main stage, such as Russell Dickerson, Scotty McCreery and Tenille Townes, who have really broken through since then. And names like Hailey Whitters, Ashley McBryde, we wouldn’t have known these names three years ago, yet here they all are. I think that’s an amazing demonstration of the strength of country music.

On The Radio 2 Stage, we have a lot of the artists who are just around the edges. It’s a massive line-up, and the atmosphere is going to be amazing. The Indigo 2 is going to be packed and you really feel the love when you go in there. It’s going to be an amazing weekend.

All the programmes in the Radio 2 Celebrates Country season are available to hear on BBC Sounds for 30 days after broadcast

You can listen to an extended version of this interview below.