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.