BBC Radio 2 head of music Jeff Smith has spoken to Headliner about the roaring success of its Piano Room series, the station’s ongoing commitment to new music, and why the country music boom of recent years is showing no signs of slowing down.
Taking place from Monday, January 29 to Friday, February 23 as part of Vernon kay’s mid-morning show (Monday-Friday, 9.30am-12pm), Piano Room features 20 top artists perform live accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra, playing a new song, a classic, and a cover version. Among those performing this year is Bruce Hornsby, Beverley Knight, the Libertines, PP Arnold, Rick Astley, Crowded House, Paloma Faith, Elbow, and more. You can see the full line-up here.
Meanwhile, Radio 2 continues its broadcast partnership with the annual Country 2 Country (C2C) Festival, which returns from March 8-10. In addition to the regular programming from the London and Glasgow events, hosted by Bob Harris and Edith Bowman respectively, and for the first time there will also be coverage of the C2C Belfast event, hosted by Connor Phillips.
Speaking to Headliner about the rise in popularity of country music in the UK in recent years, Harris hailed the willingness of new artists to bring new ideas to the table, citing that as a key driver behind its seemingly ever-growing appeal amongst new audiences.
“The past 15-20 years have seen another generation come into country who are happy to bring in other styles to their music,” he said. “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.”
Here, Smith discusses the history and evolution of Radio 2’s Piano Room, why country is still getting “bigger and bigger”, and how the station is doubling down on its new music focus with New to 2…
Tell us about the history of Piano Room and how it has evolved into its current iteration?
My history goes back to working at Radio 1 in the ‘90s when I set up the Live Lounge. So, I go back a bit with that concept of trying to bring artists’ music to life on the radio above and beyond commercial recordings which is generally what everybody else does.
When Piano Room was first mooted, Elton John had very kindly given us his Steinway piano and it started to be used for what became Piano Room. It was just an intimate performance that would be performing into our mid-morning show. It was popular, but the real breakthrough came when Helen Thomas came in as head of station. Her idea was about getting the best of what we can do at the BBC with a 24-piece BBC Concert Orchestra, using our own Maida Vale Studios with our own presenter, and we deliver this unique experience across all of our platforms. Hence, the Piano Room evolved, and we began delivering it in these big one-month chunks.
We’d seen with Live Lounge Month that that kind of intensity of delivery of content was warmly welcomed by the audience, and there was a great opportunity to juxtapose iconic and well-known artists with newer artists. For me it was great to curate with them on the songs they chose. The other day we had PP Arnold in and it was my thought that as an iconic artist from the ‘60s it would be great for her to do a contemporary song. So we chose Flowers by Miley Cyrus and that’s something we try to do more an more. Tony Hadley just did a cover of Lana Del Rey’s Young And Beautiful inspired by his daughter’s taste. That juxtaposition is not only special to the listener but also defines why the BBC is distinct from anyone else. At the heart of it is a joyful and joyous experience.