Interview: Black Deer Festival’s Gill Tee and Debs Shilling

Deborah Shilling and Gill Tee photographed by Alun Callender

One of the most exciting events this year for the world of Americana in the UK takes place towards the end of next month. Black Deer is basically everything you want from a festival – frighteningly good artists such as Jason Isbell and Iron & Wine that fall just the right side of cool (i.e. they’re probably not going to do moody sets), multiple stages, good food and a part of the country that’s as good a guarantee of decent weather as you’re going to get from somewhere in the UK in June (if the presumptiveness of that angers fate and it now does rain, apologies in advance). Oh and motorbikes too. Mark Whitfield spoke to the co-founders of Black Deer, Gill and Debs, about how the festival came about, who they’re most looking forward to see play and what americana music means to them.

The line-up for Black Deer looks absolutely fantastic. How much work has it involved pulling it together?
Thank you, we’re extremely proud and excited how it’s coming together. It’s been a tremendous amount of work and we’re not afraid to say an ambitious project, but we have an amazing team of people around us who continue to pull out all the stops. Bev Burton, our booker, is a dynamo and has curated a killer line-up for our inaugural festival, one that captures what Black Deer Festival is all about. Tying the music with an authentic set up to encompass the roots of Americana and cultures associated with it, we’ll have an action-packed Live Fire arena of smokehouse cooking, competition and hospitality, the best in classic to contemporary custom motorcycles, talented artisans and craftsmen, open mic campfire sessions and not forgetting our young folk getting hands-on to create their own playground over the whole weekend.

It incorporates Americana and the “good” side of country – have you intentionally tried to ensure it’s a bit leftfield and doesn’t just turn into a line dancing event?
There are some amazing perhaps more traditional country music festivals that are established and well respected in the UK who already have a loyal fan base. Our line-up is testament to the diversity of the genre both internationally and homegrown. We’ve been really conscientious to maintain a genuine authenticity that resonates throughout the whole event and believe that the UK is ready for a larger experience festival with not only the music at the core, but also showcasing references to the lifestyle of America’s heritage that’ll have everyone enjoying themselves over the three days.

I’m delighted personally you’ve got Passenger on the line-up as I’ve been trying to tell people for years, he’s Americana’s Ed Sheeran (in a good way!) Are you fans yourself?
Absolutely, Mike is an incredibly talented musician, he has an honest ability to tell a story, connect with his audience and tap into your emotions which transcends when he’s on stage. The storytelling is a huge part of what Americana and country is all about and each artist featured on our line-up has been picked for their own unique style of communicating through their music. Whether that’s folk driven to bluegrass, cracking Cajun to hardcore honky tonk.

Has Americana been a genre of music you’ve carried a torch for a while or is this a new thing for you?
Gill – I grew up listening to artists who are legends in this genre now. The sound of Country music always filled the house. My eldest brother Chris Haley was an avid guitarist, and several times a week he’d be joined by a group of friends who together would play for hours. Covering tracks by the likes of Jonny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. The music Chris played, became the soundtrack of my youth. Until one day, the music stopped. Chris had been tragically killed. At just 19 years of age.

From that moment on, the music would forever hold a special place in my heart. Made even more special, when years later, I found myself producing Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and the many other acts Chris first introduced me to.  I know he would have loved what we have put together. Haley’s Bar is a tribute to my brother, and a picture of him and his friends playing music together will take pride of place in his bar.

Debs – It was the soundtrack to my youth. My parents loved all sorts of country music and it was Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash that stood out to me as a kid. I moved into different tastes growing up but I’ve always come back to Americana sounds. I love Jack White and his American Epic sessions. When I visited Nashville, I went to the Country Hall of Fame, was so engaged with all the archives of the 1920’s watching the incredible origins of country music, the fiddles, banjo and that stuff that just energises you and makes you want to move your feet. I’m not a fan of the pop-country route, I love the authentic and real side of Americana, the blues, bluegrass, trash grass, punk country…with a dose of vintage western. All the stuff we’re making happy for Black Deer festival.

When you talk about the festival being focused on a “way of life”, how will it engender that over the course of the weekend?
From the moment you enter Eridge Park, we want everyone to just enjoy stepping into the world of Black Deer. To know something special about to happen and feel free to be spirited away to enjoy everything we have to offer. The whole sensory experience, from the sights, smells, tastes and sounds that take you from the everyday and revel in the experience, meeting like-minded people, sharing stories, listening to your favourite artists and discovering new ones for the first time; all amazing moments that we hope result in everyone just letting loose, having a damn good time and leaving feeling they have to come back next year.

Where does the motorcycle thing come into it?
The story of Americana can’t really be told without referencing motorcycles somewhere along the way.  From the Blues to Rock n Roll, the bay of San Francisco to Chelsea Bridge, motorcycles and music have been intrinsically linked. We met Andrew Almond from Bolt Motorcycles London and felt he was the right person to be bringing together a showcase of the rich counter culture it symbolized. There’ll be rows of classic custom and hand-built bikes in a Roadhouse setting, veranda stage you can listen to some great artists during the day, then later on in the Roadhouse Bar you can let loose and really party.

Tell us a bit about the festival site – it’s a little bit of a beauty apparently?
It really is, it’s breathtaking. Eridge Park is the oldest deer park in Britain, a stunning historical site. It’s the perfect playground for Black Deer Festival, a completely natural outdoor location of ancient woodland just outside Tunbridge Wells, Kent. When you think it’s only 50 mins from London, it’s the perfect excuse to escape urban environments and join us for a great weekend of music and entertainment.

Which artists are you most looking forward to seeing play yourselves? (you’re not allowed to say “them all”…)
We don’t always do as we’re told, so of course we’re going to say all. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit especially as we’re lucky they’ll be joining us in a UK festival exclusive, he’s a living legend and the youngest country hall of fame act to have residency. Eric Bibb, Sonia Leigh, who we met in Nashville and has been a beacon of support for the festival and SupaJam school. Whiskey Shivers who are going to bring the house down along with The Sheepdogs, Steak, The Americans. It’ll be great to see The Wandering Hearts and Stu Larsen again after the little taster they gave us at the Black Deer Launch Party last month. Plus the amazing artists who are championing the UK scene – there’s a hell of a lot to look forward to.

Are there any more line-up surprises to look out for?
We’re going out with our full announcement later this week, so you’ll be able to catch up on who’s new to the bill and start getting excited as the whole site comes to life. Watch out for the SupaJam Kids – their story is a really special part of the festival. They’re so amazing to work with and see how they’ve developed with this project; we can’t wait to see all their hard work come to fruition. There’ll be some special surprises for guests on that stage. The Yard and campsite will be buzzing with loads of fun down at Wild Willy’s Inn. There’s also be some incredible folk art and vintage wares to snap up in Black Deer Mercantile, our carefully curated marketplace. Luke & Maggie from Deverells have been cultivating this area to bring together an awesome group of people and themselves trawling the rag yards of the US to bring back some incredible finds.

Plus we’re going to be showcasing a bunch of homegrown talent through our artists search campaigns with SupaJam, The Tunbridge Wells Forum and AMA UK. With over 150 entries we’ll be revealing the winners this week, come enjoy their show and support them in the deer park this June.

Finally, if Donald Trump sees the word “Americana” and decides to start his UK visit early by attending Black Deer, what will you do?
So glad you could take the time out of your busy schedule.  Unfortunately Mr President we’re sorry to say we’ve just sold out – God bless Americana!

Black Deer Festival takes place June 22nd-June 24th at Eridge Park, Kent.  Tickets and further information are available from the official site here.

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Author: Mark Whitfield

Mark Whitfield has been the Editor of Americana UK for the last 17 years and still feels like this is his pretend job, mainly because it is.

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