Ahead of the inaugural Long Road Festival we chatted to the curator Baylen Leonard about The Long Road Festival and Country music.

CL:
Thank you for talking to me today. How did the idea for The Long Road Festival come about?

BL:
The idea has been in my head for some years really, I always wanted to do something that had multiple stages, that brought together the different genres within Country music and Americana and to honour the roots of both those genres. I had it in my head for quite a while to do a festival like that of that size with that many artists. That idea was swimming around in my head and I had talked to different people about it and different organisations, and then eighteen months ago I was introduced to you U-Live who are promoters and producers in live entertainment. They had been wanting to do a country music festival as well. We met up and I said that I had been thinking of doing a country music festival and it looks like this, and it has all these things in it and they really liked my idea and my approach to it so we joined forces.

CL:
It’s a relatively new idea for festivals to have the culture/lifestyle areas e.g. food, vintage clothing, crafts etc? Is that key?

BL:
Lifestyle is so important for this genre of music and certainly for me having grown up in that lifestyle and it is still a big part of me, so the lifestyle part of the festival is very important. Of course, the food is important at every festival, but it is very important with Country and Americana as everyone has a very specific idea of what type of food goes along with that. I think that a lot of Country and Americana fans are really in to the lifestyle so it that was really important to me. It was also really important for me to do it authentically and to get it right and being from where I am from in Tennessee I really know what that stuff is, I’ve lived that life, my family and friends back home still live that life. I didn’t want it to be a pastiche of it or a character of it, or an outsider’s idea of what that lifestyle is. Getting the authenticity right is so important and I think I am well placed to do that.

CL:
Why did you come over to the UK in the first place. You’ve been over here for many years now.You used to work with Danny Baker didn’t you?

BL:
Yes, I have been here for seventeen years now. I moved from Tennessee to New York City and had been there for a little while and I just really wanted to live somewhere outside of America. I didn’t want to be one of those Americans that only knew things about America. I wanted to experience other parts of the world and London seemed like a really great place to do that from. Moving from NYC to London is easier than moving from NYC to Tokyo. I always had a fascination and a love from afar of British culture and British music and all the things that go with that. I decided to come over and see what it was like. I got a visa and came over. I’ve lived all over London but for the last decade I’ve been South London.

CL:
How did you go about choosing the artists for The Long Road?

BL:
I wanted to put together an eclectic line up and I wanted to show all the different sides of Country and Americana music. As you know there are so many different styles and influences and genres. I wanted it to be artists that Country and Americana fans would be excited to see. I wanted it to be a combination of artists that they knew, artists that they didn’t know that well, and artists that they hadn’t seen in a while. I put it together in a similar way to my radio shows. I wanted to show how broad and interesting Country and Americana music is and at the same time I want to keep the die-hard fans that know their stuff inside out. I want to keep them happy, to give them what they want and to also challenge them a little bit… “Have you heard of these guys? Do you know this?” I want to keep it really open, I want more people to come into the genre and to realise how fantastic it is, to come to the festival and listen to my radio shows like the music. I truly believe that there is something for everyone within Country and Americana music. I took that approach to it. I drew up a wish list of who I would have if I had my dream festival and worked from there.

CL:
Then you work on who wants to do it, who is free, who cannot do it this year but would like to play next year etc.

BL:
The great thing about the Long Road is that we are committed to this for many years so there is plenty of time to get all those favourites over. It’s like a giant fun puzzle.

CL:
The good thing is that quite a few of the artists that are playing Long Road are fitting in other gigs around the UK which is great for the artist and fans alike.

BL:
Anything we can do to bring more artists over is good for everyone. It’s good for the fans, it’s good for the musicians, it’s good for the genre and its good for Country and Americana music. You’re right that a lot of the artists are using The Long Road as their flagship date. But there is a difference in going to a solo gig and going to a festival like the Long Road. There is so much more to take in. It’s kind of a one stop shop. You can see all the artists that you’d like to see individually in the one place.

CL:
At a very attractive price.

BL:
That was important to me. I really wanted to ensure that it was affordable for people because it can be quite expensive to be a country fan in the UK. Not just drinking and all those things that come along when you go to a gig. I wanted to keep it affordable and all in one place. Which is why we made it a camping festival. A lot of people have to stay over when they go to gigs, we may as well make a party out of it.

CL:
You cannot win with us. One day we moan that we do not get enough artists coming over the next we say stop! I cannot afford anymore.

B L:
That’s why it’s one entry price once you’re there you just have to pay for food and drink.

CL:
It is great timing as it’s a great half way house for those of us that go to C2C and the C2C Attendees facebook group. It is nice to have a meet up half way through the year. I know there are fans coming from Scotland, Ireland and further afield to attend.

BL:
That was the idea of it as well. I want to keep this love of country music going throughout the year. We are lucky that there are so many artists coming over but there needs to be these big flagship events throughout the year to keep that vibe going.

CL:
I agree, and it seems to be the way that music is going now. I guess festivals give you a bigger audience, maybe costs are lower for the musicians?

BL:
Anytime we can make it easier for an artist to come over and do stuff in the UK it’s a good thing. Lee Ann Womack hasn’t been over for ages. A lot of these artists haven’t been here for a long time. Some of them are here are lot, which is great. We want to get as many artists over here that we can, so that they can see how fantastic the scene is here.

CL:
Good news for some of the smaller bands like The Brummies. When they were John and Jacob they tried a few times to come back over but just couldn’t make it work. Now they’ve rebranded and are coming to The Long Road which is fantastic.

BL:
That’s a great example of why we were keen to make it easier for them to come over. They’re great and they have a fan base here.

CL:
They are a real crowd pleaser.

BL:
They are a great festival band. They’re the type of band you want to see at a festival. it’s a joy to be able to help them come over.

CL:
If you could bring Midland over. I’d be for ever in your debt.

BL:
Yes Ha, Ha.

CL:
In your opinion, what’s the difference between Country and Americana? Why is Americana so cool?

BL:
Ha ha, well the thing about these genres, a lot of them blur don’t they? There are country artists that are also Americana and Americana artists that also fit into the world of Country. Of course, there are artists that only fit in to one or the other. People are always trying to come up with what’s country and what is not country. What’s Americana and what’s not etc. I think it just boils down to a vibe. I just know it when I hear it. Of course there are definitions; Americana is based on American roots music using string instruments that honours the handful of genres that are classified as roots and taking it off in to a new way making it for a modern audience etc. There are definitions but I always just think it’s a vibe. Growing up we listened to all sorts of types of music and people have always had the argument of what’s country and what’s not country. I’m never really interested in that argument. Being from Tennessee I just grew up with some many different types of country music I just feel it in my bones. I just know it when I hear it. The same with Americana music I sit on the executive board of the Americana Music Association UK. I should be able to give you a one line…’Americana is this….’ but ..

CL:
It is more niche? Where do artists like Cody Jinks sit?

BL:
He’s a good example. He’s also a bit of red dirt country being from Texas. Some people have called him Outlaw, he also fits in to Americana in a lot of ways. Chris Stapleton is another one, he has had huge commercial country success but he’s also easily Americana as well, just because of his approach to it. Sturgill Simpson as well. There are a lot of artists that can sit in both genres. Margo Price is another artist that sits in both. She’s been honoured in Country and Americana. You’re asking about what makes Americana cooler? Before the emergence of the East Nashville country scene, a lot of artists who had a little bit of a different sound and because of what was happening in commercial country at the time felt that they didn’t really belong. They found a home in Americana where at that time it was more open to different styles and types of music and different approaches to music. I don’t think that is the case any longer. With the commercial country success of Chris Stapleton and people like that those doors are further open so I think that it’s a good thing that the lines are getting blurred in some way. But I know that some people need to have genres and in the commercial world you need things like labels. Ultimately that’s why I wanted to do a festival like this. On the one hand you have Carrie Underwood then you have Parker Millsap, Brent Cobb and Lone Bellow. I think that they work together. There are fans that like all of that stuff. I’ve seen you at a Brent Cobb gig and I’ve seen you at commercial country gigs. A lot of people do that. I think that commercially, sometimes the industry doesn’t quite get that. Industry thinks that people that like commercial country don’t like Americana. People that like Carrie Underwood don’t like Margo Price but that’s not necessarily true. I think that people are more open that the industry give them credit for. I certainly see that on the ground at gigs and out and about. I see that with the type of people that listen to my radio shows and I think that it works. That’s what is great about the UK we are a little more open to all of that sort of stuff. It’s not new to us but it’s an emerging scene unlike in America where it’s been going for ever. Their ideas are a little bit more cemented.

CL:
Is it because it’s not our heritage? So we are not so emotionally tied?

BL:
It is your heritage actually. All of the folk music from the UK and Ireland, that’s what became country music. Those stories and instrumentations and that style of playing music travelled over with migrants to my neck of the woods and the Appalachian mountains. That’s what became country music. If you go back and listen to The Bristol Sessions which were recorded in my home town in 1927 and officially recognised as the birthplace of country music. They were the first recordings of commercial country music. Listen to that music that they were playing in 1927 and you can really hear that its roots were in the UK. It grew up and became Country music in America and is now very much seen as an American genre with Americana music. It all comes from the UK. People in the UK should claim that and have a sense of ownership of that sort of stuff as its ancestors are very firmly here.

CL:
Who has been your biggest influence? Growing up or in music?

BL:
You know it sounds like a cliché but one of them is certainly going to be Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton never pretended to be anything other than a country hill billy who made good. A supremely talented one and great with jokes etc but ultimately never forgot her roots. For someone like me from the mountains in East Tennessee to see someone with that accent that I had growing up on television and on an international stage and being successful was absolutely amazing. Growing up as a hill billy there aren’t many roles models on television or in the media. She was from near where I was from. She didn’t have to change her accent, or pretend that she wasn’t from the country or that she was rich etc in order to make it. There is a positive in that. Lately I would say that Bob Harris is a great influence on me. He is an absolute legend and has done so much for country music and is so respected in Nashville. He has been so kind to me and I feel really lucky to have worked with him and to count on him as a friend now, that’s just amazing.

CL:
I don’t know where we’d be with Country music without Bob Harris!

BL:
Exactly. He’s been doing it long before it was a cool thing to do. We have to thank him for that.

CL:
You must have been ecstatic when you interviewed Dolly? That must have been a dream?

BL:
That was amazing, it really was amazing. When I got the call to do that I couldn’t believe it. What an absolute privilege to be able to go and talk to someone like that. Frequently when you get to talk to someone of that level of that fame, you get ten minutes if you are lucky, and that’s barely time to get through talking about the stuff that you are there to talk about. I had an hour with Dolly Parton. Just sitting on a sofa Dolly and I. My producer was behind me recording it and her assistant was sitting in the corner in case Dolly needed anything. It was long enough to really talk to each other. It was a privilege to do that and to be able to share the conversation on Radio 2. That was a complete and total highlight. They say don’t meet your heroes but I tell you what if your hero is Dolly Parton, meet her every day because she is amazing.

CL:
It was a great interview, I really enjoyed it.

BL:
Thank you.

CL:
Final questions, have you got any advice for us (www.Countrylowdown) starting out?

BL:
My philosophy is ‘Keep doing it’. You’ve already ticked some major boxes which are you are doing something you love and really believe in and that’s my approach in life. Find things that you really believe in and that you really love and do those things and just keep doing them. If you do that you find out what does work for you and what doesn’t work for you. People who follow you or are listening or reading your work they become familiar with you and your style and learn to look for stuff and you become part of what they do and how they come about things.

So my advice is now that you are doing what you love, keep doing it!

CL:
Thank you for that. See you at The Long Road and Nashville for Americana Fest!

Kate Willis

August 14th 2018

Photo Credit: Colin Jones (Nashville Meets London)

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