The Long Road Festival took place over the August Bank Holiday weekend at Stanford Hall near Lutterworth on the border of Northamptonshire and Leicestershire. In addition to the music on show the event also features a display of American classic cars and motorcycles, a mini fairground and a children’s play area. As a festival focused on country music the outlets also include sellers of shirts, cowboy boots and other western paraphernalia. It’s a very family-friendly event with an interesting crowd of old country fans, newer fans drawn in by the likes of C2C and the impact of acts like Taylor Swift and, very much in the minority, the americana crowd. The music is presented on six stages – the main Rhinestone stage, the Interstate (themed as a western dancehall), the Front Porch (essentially a cabin façade), Buddy’s (Texan juke joint theme) and two smaller showcase stages, the Showground and the Kentucky Tourism stage. The music runs from Friday afternoon to Sunday night and as well as presenting acts familiar to AUK readers, provides a great opportunity to see more mainstream country performers. In 2023 as well, the festival featured more black country acts curated in part through the Colour Me Country organisation.
The first of the big acts to take the stage was Aoife O’Donovan on the Interstate stage. This was a solo acoustic show in quite a large tent but O’Donovan managed to keep it close, warm and intimate as if she was playing in a small room. She said she was happy to be out and about at European festivals as it extended summer (the schools have already gone back in New York) and in the spirit of the rural setting she opened her 45-minute set with ‘Under The Apple Tree’. O’Donovan told us she’d be playing a lot of the songs from her ‘Age of Apathy’ album and proceeded to play ‘Elevators’, ‘Sister Starling’, ‘Prodigal Daughter’ (acknowledging her co-writer Tim O’Brien) and ‘Phoenix’, adjusting her vocal and playing to the mood of each song. Continuing the summer theme, O’Donovan reminisced about her holidays in SW Cork as a child enjoying the beaches and the long evenings. Regarding those long evenings she said as a parent trying to get her daughter off to sleep, the late sunset in the Western end of the time zone wasn’t quite so appealing before singing ‘In The Magic Hour’ her song about those long, warm days. She introduced ‘Hornets’ (co-written with Sarah Jarosz) while chatting about her bandmates in I’m With Her – Sara Watkins was scheduled for Saturday. O’Donovan’s been touring a solo acoustic front-to-back show of Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ recently and next up we got her favourite ‘Open All Night’. She closed her set with a beautiful performance of ‘The Lakes of Pontchartrain’ followed by ‘Passengers’ after which she left to enthusiastic applause.
The next of the major performers was Jim Lauderdale and the Game Changers, also at the Interstate. The contrast between the solo acoustic O’Donovan and the six-piece Lauderdale band was pronounced. Kicking off with ‘It Blows My Mind’ the band sounded great but the vocals were a bit muddy. Happily, they’d fixed the issue for ‘The Road Is A River’ and we got to hear the Game Changers really kick on. Lauderdale explained he had to insist on bringing the full band with him for the tour of the European festival circuit. He enthused about their playing and explained they had backed him on the last 5 or 6 albums. The next song up was ‘Game Changer’ the title song of the new record as well as the name of the band. Lauderdale is as much a team captain as he is a front man and he encouraged the band – especially the two guitarists – to open up, a challenge to which they rose impressively. After a rocking ‘You’re Hoggin’ My Mind’, Lauderdale invited Lili Mae Rische (vocals, fiddle) to take a solo turn which was like getting a showcase within a showcase. Lauderdale also emphasised the positivity in the band’s music as they rolled into ‘The Opportunity To Help Somebody Through It’. He then threw open the choice of the next song to the band who pretty much unanimously went for ‘Friends Again’ a song celebrating renewed and/or resurrected friendships. We were transported to the countryside for Lauderdale’s tribute to George Jones and Gram Parsons, ‘The King of Broken Hearts’, before they rocked out the set closer. Very well received by the crowd and leaving a warm glow as they left the stage and, like O’Donovan headed for the Scandinavian festival circuit.
Caleb Caudle supported by Carl on bass and vocals and Craig on dobro closed out Friday night at the Front Porch. He opened with ‘Tuscaloosa’ (which was a request from someone earlier in the day). The performance radiated a warmth that was welcome for a set starting at 11:00pm. Caudle regaled the pretty substantial crowd with stories behind the songs including ‘Whirligigs’, written for his grandfather to whom he’s close and who makes birdhouses, and ‘Shattered Glass’, preceded by a story of how a tornado and the pandemic led to him moving back to North Carolina from Nashville. We were also treated to ‘Time Is Running Out’ and ‘Call It A Day’. Caudle told us he’d been recording at Muscle Shoals for a new record produced by John Paul White and played us one of the songs, ‘The Garage’ about the small club in his home town through which he learned to love music and graduated from a booth in the corner to being a sell-out headliner. He and the band also pulled out a Keith Whitley cover ‘Great High Mountain’ before finishing the evening and the first day with ‘Monte Carlo’.
Aside from the main acts there were new artists to discover. Miko Marks who hails from Oakland, made a couple of records in the noughties, then took a 14-year hiatus before resuming her career with ‘Our Country’ (2021) and last year’s ‘Feel Like Going Home’. Friday night at Buddy’s was her acoustic show accompanied by guitarists /backing vocalists Ryan and Hannah. An emotional Marks told the audience of her personal struggles as she gave us a short set of songs are on the gospel/ soul edge of Americana. Marks had the crowd up from the off, singing, dancing and clapping. She opened with ‘One More Night’ from the new record followed by ‘Ancestors’ about those we have lost. Hard Times’ with a tribute to Mavis Staples’ version led into ‘Hold It Together’ a response to the troubles in Marks’ own life. She said she would try and get through without crying but didn’t quite. You could feel the audience reaching out a collective arm to comfort her. However, Marks is a resilient soul and continued the rise and fall of the mood with ‘Trouble’, ‘Lay Your Burdens Down’ and an up-tempo good time ‘Feel Like Going Home’. She finished by reminding the audience she’d be performing a full band show the following day at the Interstate.
Self-styled “Finnish outlaw woman” Mikaela Finne performed a solo acoustic set at the Front Porch mid-afternoon. She turned in an eight-song set drawn from her two albums of which the openers ‘Outlaw Women’ and ‘Maybe Instead of No’ stood out. Clashes and heavy rain meant I missed most of Roseanne Reid’s unaccompanied set at the Front Porch but I did catch her playing ‘Passing Through’, ‘Made Just For You’, (about Reid and her wife’s son) and her cover of Miranda Lambert’s ‘Bluebird’. All of the songs were performed in an intimate slightly understated way.
The final act on the Interstate stage on Friday was Canadian pop-country act Tenille Townes. She is an emotional performer with a strong emphasis on being yourself, being empathetic and looking after each other. Of her own songs, ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Somebody’s Daughter’, about the impact on a small community of the loss of a young woman, were the highlights. Although she and the band rocked out for most of the set with a pretty committed audience singing along with them, Townes did one solo acoustic number. In addition to her own songs, she delivered covers of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’ and The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’.
The day’s first major performer on my list was Joshua Ray Walker, making his first appearance on a UK stage at the Front Porch. He started early and was just finishing his first song when I got there. He then proceeded to introduce ‘Boat Show Girl’ by explaining to the audience what a Texas boat show was (older readers will remember the extravaganzas at Earl’s Court with scantily clad models lounging around on boats – the Texas version is the same thing). He followed with ‘Cupboards’, introduced as a song about time travel. Walker has a fantastic higher register country voice which accentuates the vulnerability present in his songs. His melodies are similarly memorable and overall, his performance is a modern version of old-school country music. This is also reflected in the Texas soul tinge to some of the tunes such as the following ‘Lot Lizard’ preceded with a tale of how he heard a hooker and a trucker client making arrangements at a truck stop counter of when they’d be both be in the same place again. Walker followed with ‘Working Girl’ a touching song with its plaintive “Doing what she’s got to do to get by” refrain. Walker, who said he’d hope to be back with his band next year, played ‘Cowboy’ and ‘Canyon’ before premiering a new song. He then gave us the humorous ‘Sexy After Dark’ before finishing his set with the pretty dark ‘Voices’ which sees the narrator contemplating suicide by car wreck. Walker’s performance was outstanding and might well qualify as a breakthrough moment. The crowd seemed to have grown exponentially throughout his set and at its conclusion he was given a heartfelt and hearty standing ovation which made me pretty glad I’d already bought a ticket for his London show.
The main Rhinestone stage opened for business on Saturday and the anchor act for me was Margo Price with a full band behind her. They started 15 minutes late but the band locked into the psychedelic rock groove of ‘Been To The Mountain’ before Ms Price emerged resplendent in red leotard, a fringe dress and cowboy boots and proceeded to own the large stage. The band, led by Jeremy Ivey (acoustic 6 and 12 string, harmonica, backing vocals), were in fine form as they jammed out on the opener. They stepped back in time for ‘Letting Me Down’ and back to the start for ‘Four Years Of Chances’. Next up was ‘Change Of Heart’ which saw Price take up a drum chair as the band jammed, leading into the epic ‘Country Road’ one of the most immediate songs from the ‘Strays’ album. Price told us they were going to pay tribute to the late Robbie Robertson and she and the band dialled down for an emotional ‘Evangeline’ with the crowd joining in on the chorus. She then explained how she’d come to write ‘Light Me Up’ as there were too few songs about the female orgasm. As might be expected the song’s dynamics reflected the subject starting slow, building to a climax before slipping into a calm conclusion. ‘Tennessee Song’ provided a country interlude before the band launched into ‘Paper Cowboy’, another epic jam which ended with Price again on the drums. As befits a generally high energy set, Price and band closed out in style with their ‘Hurtin’ On The Bottle > I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink > Whiskey River’ medley. With ‘Strays’ and its upcoming Version II as well as Farm Aid and the upcoming Leon Russell tribute, Price is on a hot streak right now. Let’s hope it isn’t another 6 years before she makes it back to the UK.
Annoyingly, the organisers had cross-scheduled Price and Nickel Creek, a situation made worse by the 15-minute delay. An Usain Bolt-style sprint got me over to the Interstate in time to catch the last 30 minutes of the Nickel Creek set. On arrival, Chris Thile, flanked by Sean and Sara Watkins had just launched into ‘The Lighthouse’s Tale’ in which Thile’s mandolin was prominent and the swooping melody a joy. Thile then introduced ‘Scotch and Chocolate’ as both the title and the inspiration for the fiery instrumental in which both Thile and Sara Watkins excelled. Sean Watkins stepped up for his rapture song ‘21st Of May’ before the band blitzed through an instrumental with Sara Watkins seemingly on fire. Thile asked the audience in the middle of the English countryside if we had haylofts, before proceeding into that Nickel Creek classic and then the band finished up with an extended ‘The Fox’ with each of the three principals taking the spotlight. A short but very sweet 30 minutes.
Not entirely a new discovery as I was aware of her work, but I had never seen Cat Clyde before. Another solo acoustic performance at the Front Porch and a lunchtime slot saw Clyde delivering a very impressive set. Asking “Am I a fool?”, Clyde started with the jazzy ‘So Heavy’ from ‘Hunter’s Trance’ (2019) before going into the more country-style ‘Mystic Light’ and folky ‘Everywhere I Go’ from new album ‘Down Rounder’. Clyde then rocked it up for older track ‘Man I Loved Blues’, dialling down for the ensuing ‘The Gloom’. Another pair of tracks from the new record, the up-tempo and Gothic ‘Papa Took My Totems’ and the reflection on the ups and downs of life ‘Eternity’ rounded out a fine set.
Unlikely as it may seem, an act that found success through a US TV talent show, Chapel Hart, were a real feel-good hit of Saturday night in the pre-club slot at the Interstate. Originally scheduled for a 30-minute set, the two sisters and first cousin from Mississippi overran by at least that and were brought back for one more song by a crowd that booed off the DJ in what could have turned a tad ugly had the authorities not relented. Working in a country/ R&B space, the band opened the set with ‘Glory Days’ from their recent album, complete with sing-along chorus, before exhorting the crowd to raise their hands to count in the chorus of ‘4 Mississippi’. Frontwoman Danica Hart told the crowd to follow their dreams before leading an extended sing-along of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, good enough to render the song almost tolerable. It was followed by a raucous ‘Welcome To Fist City’ inspired by the Loretta Lynn song and written at the behest of its author. Chapel Hart began life busking acapella on the streets of New Orleans and one of their staples was Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ to which they wrote an answer song ‘You Can Have Him Jolene; they performed both. Under pressure from the organisers to finish they decided to get the crowd ready for the club night with another singalong – this time the Proclaimers’’ ‘500 Miles’. Chapel Hart may not be an act whose albums are a must but they’re a fun night out.
There were a couple of repeats from Friday: Caleb Caudle played Buddy’s at lunchtime with a similar set to the previous night while Miko Marks rocked the Interstate with her band and an extended set which was as good if not better than the acoustic version. However much of the Buddy’s stage was given over to acts from the Loose Music stable. Native Harrow in band mode were a feature of the Loose Records takeover of Buddy’s in the afternoon and evening with a number of songs from ‘Old Kind Of Magic’ of which the title song, ‘As It Goes’ and ‘Used To Be Free’ were the peak. They also gave us a fine-sounding new tune. Another Loose act, Carson McHone’s set unfortunately clashed with Margo Price (not being aware of the 15-minute delay) so I was only able to enjoy the first 20 minutes or so but was delighted that included ‘Tried’, ‘Still Life’ and ‘Hawks Don’t Share’. McHone had, we were told, arrived that morning by ship from the US. She was remarkably good considering. Rissi Palmer’s Colour Me Country project had a takeover at the Front Porch stage at which I was able to see three songs from Michael B. Whit with his country / R&B crossover. Up tempo ‘Takin’ The Dog’ had a nice groove to it while ‘Camp Jackson’ is a song about his home town. Whit also got the biggest laugh of the day shouting “Hello London” only to be told by the crowd where he actually was. The next song was called ‘Not In Kansas’ which I guess was obvious. The last of the Loose takeover acts was Danny & The Champions Of The World who drew a pretty chunky crowd made up of enthusiastic fans and refugees from Blackberry Smoke. As might be expected, they delivered a good time set including a chorus free ‘The Weight’ in tribute to Robbie Robertson. ‘That Old Space Rocket’ and ‘Every Beat Of My Heart’ stood out as the Champs challenged Buddy’s curfew. Close-out on Saturday night came from another Loose act, Angelica Rockne. Competing against an adjacent club night and passing drunks, Rockne’s quiet songs struggled to be heard even from quite close to the stage. Nonetheless, what did get through supported the recent buzz around her music. The songs from the ‘Rose Society’ album released in 2023 were impressive especially the title song, ‘Path Of The Rose’ and ‘Ripe To Ruin’. I’ll look forward to seeing her in an indoor venue before too long.
Another anchor act was a first time seeing The War And Treaty. The husband-and-wife team, Michael and Tanya Trotter, backed by a first-class band, wowed the mid-afternoon crowd at the Interstate with a seriously awesome display of performance dynamics and high energy country/soul/gospel mix. The intensity of their on-stage interaction, especially when Michael steps away from his keyboard and the two move in tandem was breathtaking at times. ‘All I Want To Do’ seemed to go on forever (in a good way) as they made the song rise and fall, each time coming back with more energy. ‘Blank Page’ is a love song in the Stax mode with its opening rolling piano and certainly evokes Otis Redding. The following ‘Yesterday’s Burn’ is a straight country song that the Trotters perform as an old-style country duet albeit leaning into a soul vein. They end the song almost entwined. It’s followed by an extended ‘I Put A Spell On You’ which has Michael and especially Tanya belting out the lyric in increasingly distorted form. The final song of the set with its “Trying to make it on my own” chorus is a real R&B belter and a perfect end to a superb set.
An appearance from Sierra Ferrell this side of the pond is always welcome with her old-time string band who all seem to be about two feet taller than their frontwoman. Ferrell’s popularity has grown significantly and she drew quite a crowd to the Interstate. The set begins with ‘Making My Way’ a newer song quickly followed by fan favourite ‘Silver Dollar’. Band and crowd are bouncing by this point. Farrell introduces ‘Bells Of Every Chapel’ and the band comprising fiddle, mandolin and string bass are swinging. Ferrell announces her home state song ‘West Virginia Waltz’ which sounds like it should come with 78rpm noise and AM radio crackle. Ferrell picks up her fiddle for ‘Fox Hunt’, a song which in the tradition of hunting tunes speeds up as it progresses. The theme of hunting as survival is emphasised in the lyric. The band leaves the stage to Ferrell and her acoustic guitar for ‘Rosemary’, a song that evokes a time, centuries rather than decades earlier with its references to witches and murder. The band returns for ‘Jeremiah’ after which Ferrell announces a cover of John Anderson’s ‘Years’ which the crowd laps up. Ferrell and band close with their traditional end of main set tune ‘In Dreams’. The performance was top quality throughout in terms of the playing, singing, song choices and set management and the audience cheers them off.
The Front Porch stage was taken over by Oh Boy Records to showcase their artists. The top act on their roster for me is Kelsey Waldon who has released two albums and a covers EP on the label. She appears with her band – guitar, bass, fiddle, drums – and opens with ‘Black Patch’ which tells how the small tobacco farmers in her native Kentucky struggled with the big tobacco companies. Waldon tells us her luggage got lost on the way over and she has been in the same clothes for 2 weeks and is also why she’s wearing sunglasses. With a great catalogue to choose from, Waldon delivers a showcase set performing in short order, ‘Kentucky 1988’, ‘No Regular Dog’ and ‘Dirty Old Town’. The sound is excellent and Waldon’s vocals were right on the money. It’s easy to see why she was the first act in a long time to sign for John Prine’s Oh Boy label a few years ago. ‘Peace Alone (Reap What You Saw)’ follows a signature ‘Tall & Mighty’ before ‘Season’s Ending’ is enlivened with a top-notch fiddle solo. Waldon follows with the distressing ‘Sweet Little Girl’ but then finishes her set with the independence and assertiveness of ‘All By Myself’ (“Don’t have to make my mind up with anybody else, I can be me all by myself”).
Sunday saw two new discoveries – one of which again was more a first time seeing. In this case Jill Andrews. Backed by a three-piece band, Andrews leant heavily on her new album, ‘Modern Age’, released a week earlier. Indeed, the first two songs in the set were tracks 1 and 2 from the record. Pop rocker ‘80s Baby’ leading into the indie americana of ‘Connection’. She then reached back to previous album ‘Thirties’ (2020) for its lead-off ‘Sorry Now’. Next up was the country-tinged single ‘Drive Away With You’ before returning to the new album for the next four songs of which ‘Dark Days’ was a highlight. Told she was almost out of time and with requests for ‘Tell That Devil’ and ‘Sanctuary’ she tried a medley of both but only managed half the former. Ever the trouper, she offered to play it for the requester at the merch table after the show.
The real new discovery as well as being a surprise was Megan Moroney. Moroney is a 22-year-old Georgian now based in Nashville with a self-penned EP and album to her name. The album ‘Lucky’ was released in May 2023 but a lot of the songs were well known to the crowd who sang along with gusto. Moroney was accompanied by an acoustic guitarist and a percussionist of the sitting-on-a-box variety. Moroney came on with her long blonde wavy hair, white dress and pink acoustic guitar and proceeded to turn in a stunning set of closely-written well-observed country songs reflecting real-life concerns of her 21st century generation. Having expected to stay for three songs I ended up staying for the whole set and could have gladly seen another half hour. All the songs were originals with the exception of a mid-set Taylor Swift cover (‘Picture To Burn’). She’s planning to return with full band at some point. I’m tracking her on Songkick.
With a preponderance of American acts on show (well, it is Americana after all), it was good to see the Sunday morning at Buddy’s hosting UK americana acts. A lot of UK country or americana acts are seen briefly on support slots with touring acts from North America that the audience paid to see. So, their performances can be quickly overshadowed by the headliner. The Round Up at Buddy’s was a good opportunity to see four of these acts co-headlining. Two Ways Home were co-curators. Katy Hurt opened sounding none the worse for her early start from the North West. Matt Stubbs has a deep gravelly voice which may not be unrelated to his Jack Daniels tattoo and was the most country-styled of the acts. Paris Adams, formerly of the Adelaides, opened her account with a song called ‘Psychopath’ before Two Ways Home closed out Round 1 with ‘Don’t Give Up On Me Tonight’ featuring their distinctive harmonies.
After a 20-minute break, Hannah White and band, featuring Kieron Marshall on guitar and Michele Stoddart on bass, opened their set with a very nice ‘Broken Bird’. The band were especially good and White was a commanding but relaxed front person clearly at ease with her surroundings, fellow musicians and material. She joked that performing early morning with only water on hand was a bit unusual and confessed to having not done a set list – Stoddart had taken responsibility for that in the end. White and band played ‘One Night Stand’ before she told the story of how she came to have Tim O’Brien and other big names guesting on the impressive ‘Walk Beside Me’. The deeply personal ‘Car Crash’ followed and no one with a trace of humanity could fail to be moved by it. I’ve seen White solo before but seeing her with the band and its resources at her disposal was something else.
The Sunday Oh Boy takeover at the Front Porch reaches its climax with a John Prine tribute show featuring the Oh Boy roster and friends. Kelsey Waldon was the MC and opened the proceedings with a moving ‘Sam Stone’ backed by her band, before introducing Emily Scott Robinson who gives us ‘Spanish Pipedream’. Waldon returns with Tre Burt for a hammed up ‘In Spite of Ourselves’ following which we get a surprise appearance from The War And Treaty covering ‘Knocking On Your Screen Door‘ in their inimitable style. Further contributions come from Gabe Lee (‘Speed Of the Sound Of Loneliness’), Rissi Palmer (‘Angel From Montgomery’ with a special mention for Bonnie Raitt), Will Hoge (‘Picture Show’) before Tommy Prine brings the individual contributions to an end with ‘Souvenirs’. All parties then return to the stage for a finale of ‘Paradise’ with everyone taking a verse. A huge ovation ensues with more than the odd eye being dabbed in memory of the country legend.
It seemed like a perfect close to what had been a hugely enjoyable weekend – not just of music but enjoying the atmosphere, catching up with friends and generally feeling part of the Long Road community.
All pictures by Richard Parkinson aside from the feature pic of Aoife O’Donovan gratefully lent to us by Nick Barber.