By Paul Ingrassia
LONDON (Reuters) – American Patty Griffin brought her resonant, mournful, soulful voice to London on Sunday, singing “Meet me on the banks of the Ohio” just a stone’s throw from the Thames in a sign of country music’s growing footprint in Britain.
The scene, seemingly an incongruous one for an American country music star, was the Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre, not far from Buckingham Palace.
But the standing ovation at the end of Griffin’s concert, not to mention the foot-stomping and hand-slapping throughout, testified to her tremendous talent as both singer and song-writer, and to something broader: the surprising popularity of American country music in the United Kingdom.
The genre has had a dedicated following in the British Isles for years but it seems to be growing, especially over the last decade. The evidence is anecdotal but ubiquitous.
This coming weekend London will host the annual British Country Music Awards, first held in 2006. The next year brought the inaugural Towerfest Country Music Festival, now an annual three-day event in north England. Other annual British country fests include the Rock Ridge Roundup, Country to Country and YeeHawUK.
The plethora of British enthusiast publications and websites includes Maverick, the nation’s self-described “Leading Independent Country Music Magazine”. It carries articles on American and British performers as well as British concerts and events.
Homegrown bands include Texarkana, which hails, despite its name, from northwest England, not from the town that straddles the Texas-Arkansas state line. A band called Arizona Flame comes from northeast England, far removed in every respect (especially weather) from the American Southwest.
As an American recently transplanted to London, all this left me gob-smacked, as the locals say. Key country-music totems – cowboys, Bible-belt preachers and pickup trucks – are hard to come by in Britain. The nation’s roads are largely bereft of the iconic Ford F-150 King Ranch pickup, whose seats have more leather than most cows.
Likewise, British country singers seem to lack the hardscrabble upbringing common to American artists. Glenn Campbell was the son of a sharecropper. Johnny Cash picked cotton as a boy. Loretta Lynn was married at age 13. John Denver had it better as the son of an American Air Force officer. But his real name was John Deutschendorf, which probably was suffering enough.
Still, there’s evident logic behind country music’s British boomlet. For better or worse, American popular culture permeates the globe. And American country music traces roots to the Scots-Irish immigrants who settled the hills of Appalachia, like Patty Griffin’s family.
She grew up on the fringe of the northern Appalachians in Old Town, Maine, the youngest of seven children. Her singer-songwriter career didn’t begin until she was 30 (she’s now 49).
Her songs, which tilt toward the folk and Gospel sides of country music, have been recorded by the Dixie Chicks, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and others.
Griffin had a big year in 2010, winning a Grammy for her Gospel-music album “Downtown Church” and then joining Band of Joy, led by former Led Zeppelin star Robert Plant. Besides recording songs together they now live together in the country-music mecca of Austin, Texas.
The London concert, part of Griffin’s current tour of Britain and Ireland, featured songs from two recent albums, including “American Kid”, released last May.
Drawing inspiration from the death of her father, it includes the sardonic title “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida”. The song describes her father’s reaction after travelling to Florida, a retiree mecca that Americans call “God’s waiting room”, for the funeral of his brother.
The provenance of her other recent album, “Silver Bell”, just now being released, is more complex, rather like Griffin’s music. She recorded the “lost album” 13 years ago, but due to the capriciousness of the music business it is only now being released.
One song, “Top of the World”, includes the lyrics:
I think I broke the wings
Off that little songbird
It’s never gonna fly.
The lyrics are poignant, like many of Griffin’s songs. But the audience at Royal Festival Hall – composed mostly of aging baby boomers, from the looks of things – seemed to inhale them.
“This was fantastic,” Koo Constantinou of London, a professed ardent Griffin fan, said after the concert ended.
“I fell in love with her music when I heard ‘Kiss in Time'” – Griffin’s live album recorded in Nashville in 2003 – “and I’ve been in love with it ever since.”