CMA Songwriters Series London Review
CMA Song Writers Night at C2C Festival
The annual C2C Festival now begins on a Thursday night at The Indigo theatre inside the O2 complex with a traditional Country song writers night, brought to you by none other than the CMA’s themselves. (Country Music Association)
The year’s event was hosted by ‘triple threat artist’ (his own record label’s words) Kristian Bush, once of Sugarland but now a song writer, performer and producer in his own right. The evening was the traditional mix of up and coming talent in the form of Drake White and Maren Morris and established Nashville aristocracy in Liz Rose (co-writer of ‘Girl Crush’ and many early Taylor Swift songs) and Mac MacAnally, Country writer of 30+ years.
Taking the stage together, the idea is for all the artists to sit through each other’s songs. To join in if they want, add anecdotes and quips or, in the case of MacAnally, to impress everyone there, performers and audience alike, with tales of days gone by and examples of effortless talent!
Kristian Bush kicked off the first round with the Sugarland song, ‘Stuck Like Glue’. Many in the crowd were hoping for a Sugarland re-union somewhere across the weekend given that Jennifer Nettles was in the same venue at the same time but it was not to be and the more chance you got to hear Kristian play and chat across the weekend the more you come to realise it will probably never happen despite his own feelings on the matter.
Following Kristian was the much anticipated Drake White, making his live UK debut. As soon as he sang opening line of ‘Free’ there was a communal wave of appreciation in the Indigo. His deep, strong vocals are ideally suited to intimate events like song writers evenings and he simple shone all night, singing tracks like ‘I Need Real’, ‘Story’, and ‘Makin’ Me Look Good Again’. White’s rich voice, full of Georgia blues and gospel soul was the highlight of the evening for me and the passion with which he performed seemed incredibly intense at times, indeed, he himself even struggled to stay seated on his stool as he lost himself in what he was doing time and time again.
Maren Morris was next in the line. Large of voice despite being short of stature, in fact she mentioned at one point that her feet couldn’t even reach her guitar pedals. Her song in round 1 was ‘Rich’ and she nailed it. In later rounds she played delux album edition rarity ‘Bumming Cigarettes’, ‘80’s Mercedes’, ‘I Could Use a Love Song’ and ‘My Church’, which received the biggest cheer of any song played. She has a timeless, slightly gravelly quality to her voice which sets her apart from most of the younger female singers in Nashville and an earthy personality that seems to make her ‘one of the boys’. It’s no wonder she has come so far so soon.
Liz Rose introduced herself in a humble and self deprecating manner, telling the crowd she didn’t really know why she had been invited. She then proceeded to play her co-written with Taylor Swift song, ‘White Horse’ and it became obvious why she was there! In a later round she also played ‘You Belong With Me’, although she needed the crowd’s help on the high part of the chorus which was slightly beyond her reach. Mac MacAnally pointed out to the crowd that that song had received 675 million views on YouTube, which was a mind blowing achievement beyond any of the other writers on stage. Rose also got a laugh out of her revelation that she is currently married to husband number 4 before singing a song about it based around the line, “I don’t have ex-boyfriends, just ex-husbands to my name!” Oh, and she co-wrote, “Girl Crush’ and sang that in the final round so it was plainly obvious to all why she was up on the stage.
Mac MacAnally has been producing music in Nashville for decades and he was able to draw on that experience in his song choices. He introduced Kenny Chesney’s ‘Down the Road’ with a lovely story about how it was written on Christmas Day in 1987 after he had given up looking for batteries to put in one of his children’s gifts. The song sat around doing nothing for 21 years until Chesney called him up and asked him to bring some songs over and voila. MacAnally also effortlessly joined in with the other artist’s songs. After a particularly spirited guitar collaboration with Kristian Bush on ‘Trailer Hitch’, Bush looked admiringly down the stage at him, shook his head and said, “What’s it like to be you?”
MacAnally finished the entire evening off with a superb instrumental that had everyone on their feet applauding by the end and I even heard talk about it around the arena as the weekend progressed.
These song writer nights are an excellent way to start the festival and for many fans it is the highlight of the whole four days. To hear people like Kristian Bush play songs like ‘Baby Girl’ in an intimate setting or to see talent like Drake White sing ‘Heartbeat’ with just an acoustic guitar is quite a privilege. The stories behind the songs are just as special. We found out that Liz Rose was cooking eggs when Lori McKenna first played her the idea that would eventually become ‘Girl Crush’ and Rose didn’t rate it at first.
The only slight disappointment this year was the lack of a surprise guest appearance or two. Given that Miranda Lambert showed up last year, a lot of the crowd were expecting a Jennifer Nettles or maybe Brad Paisley fly by but that didn’t happen. The Shires were presented with their first CMA award for ‘International Ambassadors’ but beyond that the night ran as advertised.
A quiet, intimate, charming night with effusive and talented performers. What a great way to start off the festival and give UK fans a taste of what it must be like in Nashville, finding these song writing nights happening in bars, clubs and coffee shops all over the town. Here’s to 2018 and the continuation of the tradition in London.