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  Country Music in Britain

by Graham Lees



Boot HillbilliesWith the progression of the Second World War, hoards of US GIs came to be stationed in the UK and with them Country Music slowly made its way over to this side of the "Great Pond" during the 1940s. Known as Country & Western at that time, I understand that "Western" actually meant Western Swing and not cowboy songs as most people reason. As part of the entertainment for the troops, major touring artistes performed as part of the USO shows, either in Britain, or on the European mainland, bringing respite during the war. Several Country singers performed in these shows, with many British troops finding themselves being exposed to this new style of indigenous American Hillbilly Banditsmusic and finding it very appealing. After the conflict was over, many US troops were garrisoned at several American bases around Britain. These pioneer years saw American Forces Network Radio being broadcast, with programs such as The Grand Ole Opry, giving the US troops a taste of back home. Many Brit's found the AFN broadcasts on their dials, tuning in especially to listen to this new and invigorating style of music. The growth of Country Music had begun in the UK!

During the 50s, merchant seamen returning home from their voyages to the US brought a wealth of Country Music records back with them, exposing more people to this type of music. Dockland areasFarnk Yonco and The Texas Drifters such as Liverpool would see musicians leaning towards Country when performing around the pub and club scene. Soon Country music found its way onto the folk club scene, with artistes performing numbers from the likes of Jimmy Rogers and the Carter Family. Black Cat Club (1950s-60s) was the first club playing Country Music in Liverpool and in Manchester, the first was the York Club (1956-60), with the MSG (Manchester Sports Guild) following on in 1960. The same thing was probably happening all over Britain, as Country & Western music took hold and clubs started opening up exclusively for Country Music.

British artistes starting to establish themselves in the 50s - 60s were names such as Frank Yonko & the Texas Drifters (later the Everglades), Slim Traynor & the Hillbilly Bandits, Country Cousins (Ian McDowall now lives in Australia and Doug Darby in Country Cousinsthe USA) and Pete Elliott - Hobos, all came from Manchester. Liverpool produced such famous bands as, The Blue Mountain Boys, Hank Walters & his Dusty Road Ramblers (presently Hank Walters & the Arcadian Lady's), Phil Brady & the Ranchers, The Sundowners and the Hillsiders, who finally disbanded a few of years ago. 

Jan Holly now lives in the States, but back in the 60's she sang with the band Jan and The Sutherners who worked with Miki & Griff and also The Hillsiders on the  Jan Holly of Jan and The SuthernersGeorge Hamilton IV show.  Jan recollects; "I started out singing country in a coffee bar in London's Tottenham Court Road and it became a real hangout and meeting place for lovers of C&W. Among others, Dave Peacock (of Chas & Dave) would come and sit in with me after a gig. One time Bill Haley was in town (playing out at the bases) and the whole band came in and ended up taking me back to their hotel to meet Bill and we had a  two-hour Jam session."

One of Britain's biggest names in Country music was Miki & Griff, who met when they both became members of the George Mitchell Choir and were married in 1950. Leaving Mitchell, they developed their own act including comedy and novelty songs. In 1958 they fell in love with the Everly Brother's Country album, "Songs Our DaddyMiki & Griff Taught Us" and various Louvin Brothers albums. Lonnie Donegan heard Miki & Griff singing these songs in their dressing-room and invited them on to his TV show to sing them and also had a hand in producing their Country records. Soon they gained the nickname of "Britain's Mr & Mrs Country Music". In 1958 Miki & Griff made the UK Top 30 with 'Hold Back Tomorrow' and recorded successful EPs with 'Rockin' Alone (In An Old Rockin' Chair)' and 'This Is Miki - This Is Griff'. In 1962 they had a UK Top 20 hit with Burl Ives' 'A Little Bitty Tear' and in 1964 received a standing ovation at the Grand Ole Opry, when they appeared in Roy Acuff's part of the show. Sadly Miki passed away with cancer in April 1989 and Griff died just a year or two ago.

Liverpool band Kenny Johnson and Northwind decided to disband at the end of Kenny Johnson2002, but up to that date they were one of the top outfits on the British Country scene. Kenny was a promising soccer player with the Liverpool school boys, but found that music took over and started in the music business as a semi-pro over 40 years ago, playing Skiffle, Country and Rock 'n' Roll. 1958 saw Kenny Johnson forming Sonny Web and the Country Two, which then became the Country Four and then Sony Web and the Cascades in 1961 (a name he has used until this date for his Rock 'n' Roll shows), with Joe Butler on bass and Frank Wan on lead guitarist. In 1964 Kenny formed the Hillsiders, who were recognised as one of Britain's top Country bands for over 3 decades, playing major venues and touring the GI bases both at home and in Germany. They opened for many of Country Music's major artistes such as Marty Robbins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Watson and Glen Campbell. Not only did the Hillsiders tour with Bobby Bare; they also recorded an album "The English Countryside" with him on the RCA Nashville label, produced by the renowned Chet Atkins. "The English Countryside" made #17 on the US Billboard Country Charts and received a silver disk for sales. Pete Elliott, Derek Clegg and Dougy DarbyAnother major Country artiste that the Hillsiders recorded with was George Hamilton IV.

Due to their great popularity the Hillsiders were invited on to the Grand Ole Opry in 1967, when it was held at the famous Ryman Auditorium and Kenny still has the program that includes the bands name. Johnson is proud to say that the Hillsiders are probably the only British band to be invited to play on the hallowed stage of the Ryman, where such great names has Hank Williams has stood before. Kenny left the band in 1974-75, forming his current band Northwind, which has had several changes in the line-up over the years. Both Kenny Johnson and the Hillsiders have written and recorded a large number of songs and have won numerous major Country Music awards. Kenny now has a regular Country program on BBC Merseyside radio every Saturday.

The mid 60s Country saw the growth of British Country artistes, such as fiddle player Brian Golby, who joined Pete Stanley to form the highly acclaimed duo. Brian gained the admiration of many American artistes and has worked with Patsy Montana, Mac Jack & Mavis LeeWiseman and appeared on Ernest Tubb's "Midnight Jamboree" and Nashville's WSM Early Morning Show. He was awarded CMA (GB) Male Vocalist of The Year in 1971. Brian Chalker was brought up on Country Music from an early age and started out as a solo artiste in the late 60s. In 1970 he formed the Frontier Band, starting as an acoustic 3 piece and expanding to an electric 5 piece, and would go on stage with 15 different instruments. Brian's first album was the "The Hanging Of Samuel Hall" on the Avenue label, which sold very well through the 'supermarkets'. He had several minor hits in Europe with 'Help Me Make It Through the Night', 'Me and Bobby McGee' and 'The Eskimo Song'. Brian has received seven awards including two from the US Billboard Magazine and won Top British Country Vocalist award in 1973. He has been a policeman and a detective with the famous Pinkerton's in Canada and more recently Brian has worked as a radio presenter on satellite radio with CMR and is at present with Merlin Steel Player Rod KingRadio. He has released three special compilation albums of his music on the CMR label, which are available by mail order and are selling very well.

In 1968, promoter Mervyn Conn took a great gamble to start the first International Country Music Festival, which was later to be commonly known as The Wembley Festival. Practically every International and British Country artiste of the day played Wembley, which was always held over the Easter period. This was the premier event of the British Country Music calendar and those fans that were not able to go to Wembley, waited in anticipation for the BBC TV to broadcast edited highlights.

As Country Music moved into the 70s and 80s several Country music clubs were opening up and several Country festivals came into existence around Britain. Festivals such as Peterborough and Morecambe ran for several years and included many popular international artistes, but unfortunately these festivals ended some years ago. Cambridge Folk Festival, which started in 1964, has included several Country Artistes in their line-up, such as Kathy Mattea and singer/songwriter Towns Van Zandt. 1999 saw the inclusion of Suzy Bogguss, Hal Ketchum and Stacey Earle (Steve's sister) over the festival weekend.

Some of the major British Country music festivals of today include the Great North C&W Festival at Witton Castle Co Durham, Hemsby, Scapcote, Yorkshire Dales C&W Festival and the North Wales Country Music Festival. The North Wales festival, which is held in March, includes several international artistes and always opens with a full night of Country Chuck Mead & Chris Scruggs (BR549)Music sang in the Welsh language on the Thursday. The biggest event of the British Country Calendar has to be Notts, Americana International Festival, which is held at Newark Showgrounds in July. Americana started over 20 years ago as a show for American car enthusiasts. Now it includes everything connected with Americana, with several stages playing Country Music and Rock 'n' Roll, including both British & International artistes on stage. The Bellamy Brothers drew a massive crowd for 1999 and came back in 2001. Over the years George Hamilton IV has seen Hells Angels rubbing shoulders with Rock 'n' Rollers and Country fans of all ages, for his morning Country Gospel Show. In 2002 George Hamilton IV was unable to perform and singer songwriter Paul Overstreet presented the gospel show on the Sunday along with his country performance on the Saturday. Also on the bill in 2002 was BR549 and rockabilly singers Nick Willett and Janis Martin from the USA along with Britain's king of skiffle Lonnie Donegan who was the closing at for the festival on the Sunday.Paul Overstreet

During the 90s several small promoters have been staging shows with many of the lesser-known touring artistes, such as singer/songwriters who are perhaps seen to be more on the fringe of Country Music. Artistes such as Chip Taylor, Kate Jacobs, Tom Pacheco, are gaining a foothold on the British scene, alongside the more popular Country songwriters such as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Tom Russell and Alison Moorer who came to prominence with 'A Soft Place To Fall' from Robert Redford's movie, The Horse Sarah JoryWhisperer.

Of the top British artistes who are making bigger inroads with their music, we have seen Sarah Jory, and songwriters such as Charlie Landsborough and Raymond Froggatt, playing theatre shows. Charlie's was a Merseyside schoolteacher who wrote a number of songs for Foster & Allen and performing as a semi-pro on the local club and festival scene for many years. When his own recording of his song 'What Colour Is The Wind' was a smash hit and made #1 on the Irish charts, he turned fully professional and now plays to sell-out audiences.

Raymond Froggatt

Raymond Froggatt is a major British songwriter, who has become a kind of cult figure on the British Country scene. His songwriting is so profound that I've seen many strapping men brush the odd tear from their eye. As far back as the 60s Froggatt was writing hits such as 'Red Balloon' #7 for Dave Clark Five in 1968 and 'Big Ship' #8 in 69, for Cliff Richards. Promoter Mervyn Conn encouraged Froggatt to switch to Country and cut his first Country album "Southern Fried Frog" in Nashville during 1978 with top producer Larry Butler. Raymond Froggatt is one of very few musicians to be granted the Freedom of the City of Birmingham, his hometown.

The British club scene has seen great changes over the Lynette Morgan past few years; many well established clubs having to close because of a lack of support from Country fans. At present I only know of three listening clubs in the North West area, still striving to offer good Country Music on a regular weekly bases, which is a sad state of affairs. Many of today's bands seem to have followed the Line Dance scene, which exploded out of all proportion 3-4 years ago. I personally feel that many of the bands are coming back to traditional Country music and hopefully the wheel is turning once again. Young bands are coming onto the scene, writing and playing their own material in true traditional style. Though the Nashville pop-orientated drivel is being forced on us in the name of Country Music, traditional bands such as BR549 show us what Country Music really is. Britain's Rimshots and Rusti Steel & The Tin Tax received the British Country Music Award for their tribute album to Hank Williams in March 1999. Another highly praised band is Lynette Morgan & Her Tennessee Rhythm Riders, who had a successful tour of the USA in September 99, playing Hillbilly and Western Swing music in the 40s style of The Maddox Brothers & Rose. After two of the members left the band the name was changed to Lynette Morgan and The Blackwater valley Boys. Hopefully young bands such as these will keep Traditional Country Music alive for future generations of British fans.