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Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Radio Two's 'Whispering' Bob Harris: 'Why I'm taking three bands to Nashville'

Lucky old Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo, Blue Rose Code and Eloise Rees (who is such a beginner that she doesn't even have her own website yet). They're off to Nashville next week with Radio Two's Bob Harris, to play the Hard Rock Cafe on Friday as part of the Americana Music Association's festival.

What an opportunity to impress industry people in the largest market for roots music in the English-speaking world: a lot of bands would kill for such a trip. I asked the great man why he's doing it?

"I've got very involved with BBC Introducing," Harris told me over the telephone: you can probably imagine him saying it. "The whole exercise is a fantastic opportunity for young bands to have their music heard. They can upload songs directly on to BBC Introducing's website, where they will get listened to by someone from their local BBC station and from where they can come to the attention of people including myself on the national stations. It's a great way to have your music bounced around.

"Two or three months ago someone from BBC Introducing suggested that I take one or two bands out to Nashville with me when I go this year. It turned into three bands, we'll be out there the better part of a week and then I'll be splashing some of the stuff I hear out there through the shows in the near future."

He mentioned that, as of four months ago, there is a branch of the Americana Association in the UK, which he sees as a natural extension of the US organisation. "It's a community of like-minded people, including an agent called Bob Paterson and another called Paul Fenn, who bring a lot of American acts over here and then return the favour. To my mind this is all a very positive step in the right direction. The more contact British musicians can make with the Americana Association and the festival the better."

I put it to him that there are an awful lot of terrific unsigned bands in the UK and relatively little music management, marketing and PR talent. Since the collapse of the traditional record industry and the rise of the internet a real gap in the national skill set has opened up, which used to be filled by transatlantic record companies. British bands need access to world markets - our creative industries are our crown jewels - but bands are often young, whatever age they are they are rarely well-organised and there's barely anyone with the expertise to usher them out on to a larger stage.

Cue Whispering Bob: for surely what he is doing next week is traditionally the job of an impresario rather than a DJ?

"Maybe. What I know, though, is that British folk and roots music is flowing back across the Atlantic. There's Mumford & Sons, who are the apex of that, and - although I take your point that they haven't pulled many other bands through with them - that wasn't what they signed up for and they have, at least, shown that there is an appetite for what the Americans are beginning to call 'Briticana'. There is also a British band called The Dunwells who have made an appearance in the Americana charts over there recently and Billy Bragg will be receiving an award at the festival this year."

Aha! That's interesting because when I was at the Tonder festival last month Billy Bragg was talking about Americana and had a difference of opinion with the extremely glamorous Pokey LaFarge that was played out over two nights on the main stages about what the term actually means. I understand Bragg is writing a piece about it for the Guardian.

"There's certainly a debate about what Americana is. I'm against categorising music unnecessarily. But in this case the term Americana has provided a kind of mast to which people can nail their flags and which has only been good for folk and roots. There are two new Grammy categories for Americana, so it's a way of bringing folk, bluegrass, blues and country into the mainstream."

Would that there were that kind of marketing nouse over here... Could it be partly the job of the arts council to be doing this, I asked?

"I've spent quite a lot of time in Canada over the years," Harris said, "where there is just an enormous amount of acoustic talent, including a wonderful band called The Great Lake Swimmers. And the thing that I was amazed by was the financial support that Canadian artists could get, as - at least the last time I was there - you could apply for a grant of sorts. If you had a good plan and your music was good they had a budget of around $200,000 a year to underwrite the international tours of young Canadian bands.

"I remember that it funded the Trafalgar Square concert on Canada Day one year, which I helped to compere. And there is an example of another country's government seeing its creative talent as a kind of ambassador for the whole country and using it to create an awareness of who the Canadians are.

"I think there are definitely times when we knock our traditional music over-much in this country. All the cliches about the finger in the ear and the woolly jumpered folk singers just aren't true any more. And it's the same with the cliches about country music: you still hear it referred to over here as country and western, which hasn't really existed as a genre since about 1958. Especially over the last four or five years there has been a huge upsurge of talent and I don't really understand why people - the older generations I suppose I mean - aren't more open minded about it. My daughter really really loves Kacey Musgraves and quite rightly so. She's amazing."

So how did he choose the three bands that he's taking to Nashville next week?

"It was partly a personal choice. It was a question of who do we like, who is ready and who is available? I would have liked to have taken Keston Cobblers Club but they're on a sell-out tour at the moment so that wasn't possible. And BBC Introducing has certain ideas about how far a band can have progressed before they become self-sufficient. But if this goes well, then I hope we can do it again next year and take more: four or maybe five acts."

Would he like to see other people take a cue from him in this respect? Surely it would be in the interest of UK record labels to expose their bands to such a huge market? I can see from looking at the gigs list that Communion Records - founded by, among others, Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons - has its own slot on the Americana festival timetable.

"Absolutely. One of my favourite record labels Six Shooter Records - again, Canadian - are doing exactly that and renting a venue in Nashville for the festival. If British labels began to see the festival as an opportunity, maybe three or four of them could take a venue and each take five or six acts out there." And then the British would definitely be, as they say, coming...

I can think of a couple of bands off the top of my head that would probably go down a storm at Nashville - ahab and Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker who, when left to their own devices, are as likely to write a country song as something resembling English folk.

I enjoyed talking to Bob so much. We chuntered on for over an hour in the end, exchanging anecdotes about the state of the music industry and he left me with this...

"Have you ever heard of a band called Walk Off the Earth?" I had to admit that I hadn't. "They're like the Keston Cobblers in a way. They're very creative with their videos and have built a global following just by putting videos on YouTube. They were over" (again they are Canadian) "for five gigs in April and they did one number for Radio One in the Live Lounge, after which I managed to grab them for a quick interview. But I have never seen that place so packed. It was busy for Robert Plant. But nothing like this. It was just heaving.

"The point is this. Their version of Somebody That I Used to Know has been watched something like 150 million times on YouTube and yet ask a record company executive who they are and nine out of ten of them will have absolutely no idea."

His point, I believe, is that it's all up for grabs. There is a kind of anarchy about the music industry at the moment that will reward risk-takers.

It's all genuinely up for grabs.

* If you enjoyed this post you ay also enjoy this interview with Margo Timmins about The Cowboy Junkies and Townes Van Zandt.

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