As cultural exchanges go, this was inspired. The world-famous Bluebird Café in Nashville teamed up with the Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool to create a talent development initiative between two of the world's most renowned songwriting cities.
The format was this: the first stage was to select two British songwriters and take them over to Nashville to write songs with established Nashville songwriters and then perform at the Bluebird Café. The second stage was to recreate the Bluebird at the Bluecoat by holding two "in the round" concerts featuring the two British performers together with some of Nashville's greatest, Grammy award-winning songwriters.
Tonight was the second stage. The performance area in the Bluecoat was transformed into a replica of the Bluebird, with the performers sitting in a circle in the centre of the room, while the audience sat at tables surrounding them. The walls were covered with photos of Country music legends, old and new and the "Bluebird" neon sign shone brightly.
There were in fact two shows, early and late. I was fortunate to get tickets for both shows, which, amazingly, were only £5 and £10 respectively, which also included a free cocktail! No wonder tickets were much sought after and as rare as hens' teeth!
The line-up for both shows was fantastic. For the early show we had the two British winners, the wonderful Kirsty McGee from Manchester and a superb young songwriter from Northern Ireland, Karen Turley. Kirsty and Karen were paired with two of Nashville's foremost songwriters, Kim Richey and Don Henry. As well as being a solo artist in her own right, Kim has written for many of Country music's elite, including Brooks and Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless and Suzy Bogguss. Similarly, Don Henry has had his songs recorded by legends such as Ray Charles, Patti Page and Conway Twitty as well as contemporary artists, including Miranda Lambert and Lonestar.
Starting with Don, the four songwriters took it in turns to perform their compositions with the others providing backing vocals, guitar and in Kirsty's case, musical saw and bass flute!
For two hours these four amazing songwriters kept us in rapt attention as they swopped stories and songs. I could write pages about each of the artists' contributions but to keep things [relatively] short, I will pick out some of my favourites.
Don Henry has been compared to Randy Newman and I can see why. His songs are sharp and witty. "BFD" [Big Fat Deal] was recorded by Kathy Mattea ; Miranda Lambert had a hit with "All Kinds Of Kinds" but the highlight was "Garden Of The Dead", a spooky Halloween song which featured Kirsty on ghostly musical saw.
The highlights of Kim's set were, for me, the title track of her most recent album, "Thorn In My Heart" ; "Every River Runs Dry" [which was recorded by Brooks and Dunn] and a new song called "Dear John" about a man who works on a barge on a river. Kim explained that songwriters often go to the Bluebird to try out new songs.
Kirsty McGee is one of my favourite British singer/songwriters. She has a gorgeous voice and is equally at home singing in jazz, blues and folk styles. Her beautiful contributions to the evening included the jazzy "If I Had A Dollar", the haunting "Little Stars" [written in the Mojave Desert] and her best-known song "Sandman" [from the Danny Boyle film "Trance"].
Karen Turley is a really promising young songwriter. In March of this year she went to Nashville [with Kirsty] as part of the Bluebird at the Bluecoat project. She got to sing her songs at the Bluebird Café, including the lovely "It Would Be Nice". She also got to write with Don Henry [in true Nashville style] and tonight sang the result of that collaboration, the superb "I Can't Wait To Never See You Again".
Another product of the Bluebird at the Bluecoat project was a co-write between Karen, Don and Kirsty and this was the "big song" to end this wonderful show. The song describes how the three writers come from different backgrounds but they all "came here on love and speculation" and how there is a "single thread that binds us three together".
This was a stunning show which Kim Richey described as "one of my favourite in-the-rounds-ever". High praise indeed.
The second, or late show, was another in-the-round, which was hosted by "Whispering" Bob Harris. This show featured the incredible line-up of Beth Nielsen Chapman, Jim Lauderdale and an excellent up-and-coming songwriter from Nashville via Kentucky, Andrea Davidson.
Bob Harris conducted a fascinating, informal conversation with these illustrious guests about songwriting, recording and Nashville in general, whilst the artists took it in turns to perform. Again, I will pick out some highlights of what was a sensational session.
Jim Lauderdale opened the show with a touching tribute to Gram Parsons and George Jones, "The King Of Broken Hearts", whilst Beth's first song was "This Kiss", which was, of course, a massive hit for Faith Hill. Beth was joined on harmony vocals by Nashville based [but Liverpool born] Siobhan Kennedy.
Other highlights by Beth included a stunningly beautiful "How We Love"; "Nothin' I Can Do About It Now" [a number one hit for Willie Nelson] and a the jazzy tour-de-force, "Look".
I was hugely impressed by Andrea Davidson, both as songwriter and as a performer. Accompanying herself on guitar and drums [simultaneously] she blew me away with her gorgeous songs "Wait", "Longer"[which featured prominently in the television series "Nashville"] and "Shake". Can't wait for her debut album to be released.
Unfortunately, I had to leave at 11. 30 pm to get my last train home and so missed some of the show. However, I had no reason to complain as I had just enjoyed four hours of brilliant music by some of the best singer/songwriters in the world and, as an added bonus, I got to meet and converse with the wonderful Mr. Bob Harris. It doesn't get much better than this.
Peter Cowley (Pic of Karen Turley)
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