The Brighton Country Music Festival… What Went Wrong?

First published in Country Music People, June 1981

The Centre, Brighton

Here we are, half way through 1981, supposedly in the midst of a world-wide country music boom. British country music should be thriving, yet I’m sorry to report that at the Fourth Brighton Country Music Festival, it virtually curled up on the sea front and all but died right in front of me.

I keep asking myself: What has gone wrong with our home-grown talent? Where are the fans of British country music? Is there such a thing as a British scene? On the evidence of this all-British Festival the answer to the last question is the only one I found easy—the British scene is a myth, it just doesn’t exist on a major scale. The other two questions will always remain unanswered. And reluctantly I have to bow to the British public’s wishes and state that there is not much future for British country music.

For the major show on the Saturday evening the giant Brighton Centre looked like interval time during a Wednesday afternoon matinee show. The normal troupe of frustrated Hopalong Cassidys, living out their suburban hillbilly fantasies were again much in evidence, and that might be where the problem lies. If the vast majority of so-called country fans didn;t divert their money towards such paraphernalia, and instead used their cash to support the music by buying records and going to the shows, the disaster of Brighton may never have happened.

And what of the show itself? Well, sadly I have to say only a few of the acts lived up to expectations. Sounds Country who opened the proceedings were in superb form. The sound was crystal clear and their choice of material, basically MOR country, could not be faulted. I thought that maybe we were in for a feast with such a beginning, but things deteriorated fast. The major problem, I guess, was the sound. It depended on where you stood in the hall as to whether the PA treated you to a wall of mud or reasonable sound.

I felt really sorry for Kevin Henderson and his big band. They were a bit sluggish at the outset and did not play cohesively until the end of the set, and because of the sound balance, just did not communicate with the audience. Miki & Griff, still going strong after centuries on the boards surely elicited the greatest response of the day from the crowd. They epitomise all that’s wrong with British country, a musical form stuck way back in the past. This ageing pair are as smooth as treacle, and after a while all the saccharine proved too much for me, so I retreated to the bar, but not before I saw them going through all the inevitable oldies like A Little Bitty Tear, For The Good Times and the ‘National Anthem’—Crystal Chandeliers.

Frank Ifield proved to be exactly the right choice for the top of the bill, but I was disappointed with Barbary Coast’s brief spot prior to Frank’s entrance. They used to be one of my favourite British bands—one of the very few who achieved that loose, easy-rocking feel that you get from American country bands—but still retained a distinctive stamp of their own. On this occasion they sounded very run o’ the mill, until they backed Ifield, then everything sounded good.

A good man, and perhaps the one saviour of the British scene, Frank proved to be a really fine performer. He mixed new Nashville songs like Eddie Rabbitt’s Heart’s On Fire and Ronnie Milsap hit The Long Way Around The World with some golden oldies and communicated with the audience.

The only other act to come across strongly was Carey Duncan with her band Front Page. She is, without doubt, our most distinctive, emotional and feeling country vocalist, and she deserves to go further than British country music will ever allow her. I can’t honestly offer any enthusiasm for the other acts on the bill.

Brian Golbey and friends might have provided some exhilarating bluegrass had the sound been a little more favourable. John Hutch, though, given a great build-up by Neil Coppendale, was well received, though hardly an essential live performer, and his choice of material was uninspiring. 

Highway Shoes again suffered from the sound, though their version of Beneath Still Waters was one of the evening’s highlights, and Hank Walters and the Dusty Road Ramblers were a typically dated British country act, though I applaud their sense of variety—Hoyt Axton to Allan Taylor, Cajun to western swing.

I’m sorry, Brighton, but this year’s festival turned out to be a let down, and left me a very disillusioned British country music fan.