With the established Americana International Festival set to end its long association with the Newark Showground, there was a little end of an era feel to this year’s festival, although the visit on this occasion was limited to Saturday only. Over the last five or six years the Americana has introduced me to the talents of Wayne Hancock and Two Tons of Steel along with bringing to the UK such established artists as Paul Overstreet, Asleep at the Wheel and Gene Watson. Whilst being predominantly a vehicle for straight down the middle high quality country music on its main stage, artists such as Eve Selis and Redlands Palomino Company have stretched boundaries while acts such as Raintown, Brian Hughes and The Diablos show that if you scratch the surface, genuine UK talent does exist.
In what seemed like a little streamlining to the main stage for this year before its re-location to Loughborough for 2014, six acts split evenly between the UK and the US delivered a string of sets that while all of substantial quality, did tend to cover a similar strand of country music. Perhaps the one exception was UK singer-songwriter Kezia Gill who opened up proceedings with a set of both original and cover songs delivered with the support of a solitary guitar and accompanying harmonica player. Despite being a little apologetic about being the only act not to be backed by a full band, her strong voice and good mix of songs came across extremely well to such an extent she could be an artist worth exploring. Although steeped in country music influence, there were glimpses of being prepared to experiment in different strands of the wider Americana movement.
One of the positives of the UK country bands regularly booked to play the main stage is the importance attached to original material and not to fall back on lazy cover versions that while appeasing crowds do not necessarily move the genre forward in this country. The Sonny Walters Band who took to the stage straight after Kezia proudly announced at the start of their set that the focus would be on their songs and it was refreshing to listen to an hour of music without reference to Johnny Cash, George Strait and Garth Brooks. So fair play to this UK band that showed the way forward to a lot of artists plying their trade on the UK country circuit.
Next up was the first of the three US artists and living proof of the power of genetics. There is no mistaking that a lot of Tammy and George’s vocal talent legacy lies within Georgette Jones and while her own recording career has yet to hit such highs, she seems quite content to carry on the family flame. This particular set as you would expect was full of covers but you have to grant permission to Georgette and the genuineness of her ability to re-create the family songbook is something to treasure. For about an hour on this warm and sunny Saturday afternoon there was probably no finer place to be and let a stream of classics drift across your mind, topped with one of the most brilliant, poignant and cutting of any country song ever written ‘Stand by your Man’.
Henry Smith is a much loved figure on the UK country scene and, with his Country Dreams backing band, is thoroughly capable of performing a high quality brand of mainstream country music. Although original material formed part of the set, there was a tendency to reel off a fair proportion of standard covers as the set raced along at a fairly rapid pace. Playing the music was the order of the day for Henry and his fans in the audience lapped up every moment of the performance. The band made a return to the stage to play with headliner Billy Yates as the sun finally dipped and at the conclusion of their two appearances, you couldn’t help but admire their positive contribution to the day.
While much of the material and music was similar, the gender split added to the diversity with Mandy Barnett, all the way from Nashville Tennessee, using this inaugural UK visit to showcase her marvellous vocal talent. There was a small amount of original material from Mandy’s limited back catalogue which does include a record made with legendary producer Owen Bradley and this was referred to on several occasions. Yet Mandy’s forte is her ability to re-construct the traditional and classy style from the pioneering heyday of female talent first being accepted into the conservative world of country music. She rose to fame in the US with her role in a Patsy Cline tribute and this was the central theme for a set that went straight to the adoring heart of many of those present.
While Mandy Barnett was making her first UK trip, headliner Billy Yates is a veteran of many visits and has been a regular at Americana over the years. You only have to listen to Billy for a few songs to understand why he is highly acclaimed back home and the respect he has gained from some of the country music greats. For a songwriter who has had their material cut by Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Willie Nelson and Ronda Vincent, you can excuse the name checking and the indulgence of a little role reversal such as covering tunes like ‘All My Exs Live in Texas’. The link between Billy and Georgette’s father was very strong in George’s final days and he duly paid the ultimate tribute with the plain speaking ‘There’s only One George Jones’.
There were hints in the programme of a slight change in the focus and musical direction for the next phase of Americana International. While it will always be primarily a lifestyle festival, it is still hoped that organiser Chris Jackson intends to offer first rate country music both home grown and imported within the realities of his budget. Americana International has a role to play in raising the standard of live country music at this non-corporate level and it would be a pity if circumstances dictated otherwise.