British Country Music Awards 1997

First Published in Country Music International – January 1998

An impressive venue and superb organisation: lacklustre performances and poor sound: these were the twin characteristics of the 1997 British Country Music Awards.

Apart from the Cheap Seats and Adam Couldwell, every act on the show belonged to an earlier era. There's nothing wrong with nostalgia, but it must be more evenly balanced with today’s music. The problem lies with the perception of country music by those so heavily involved with it: Britain’s country music fans, and much of the specialist media, continue to be stuck in a timewarp, which is part of the reason why the music is never taken seriously by the mass media in the UK.

The country music scene in America typifies people of the 1990s; the songs are about today’s concerns and the music is readily accepted by a much younger audience which can easily associate with songs about shopping malls, busy lifestyles and even AIDS. Until country music in Britain is prepared to welcome with open arms the new, young and modern country styles, the music will always continue to languish in an overlooked backwater that is evaporating fast.

The show was opened by comedian Rory McGrath, accompanied by Phil Pope’s Death by Country, and a rather mundane version of Put Another Log On The Fire, a near staple of the British club scene for the past 20 years. McGrath co-hosted with American singer Sara Evans, and the pair complemented each other perfectly. Where it fell down was that too many of the guests performed slow, lifeless songs, and no one had the sense to tell the audience and, more importantly, the millions who will hopefully be viewing the show, the title of the song each singer was performing.

Another area of concern was the apparent lucklustre approach by McGrath’s band, who accompanied several of the performers. They simply played material and remained lifeless while the sound in the auditorium was frequently abysmal. Until the Cheap Seats bounded on stage there was no sense of personality to the programme in the least. Ethan Allan has a style and personality that bounces from the stage and staggers the audience and, while many might argue against the use of backing tracks, at least these guys know how to work an audience. They did that magnificently with just one song.

Adam Couldwell showed great promise, but was let down by singing the wrong song and working with an incompatible band. The lad has great potential—give him a couple more years and he could be huge. Amanda Norman Sell came across as a throwback to 1970s pop singers, a pity as she has a pleasant voice and personality. Dale Watson, the modern master of honky-tonk brought back the honky-tonk sounds of the past, while Kathy Chiavola was nothing short of stupendous with merely her own guitar accompaniment. The sound of Albert Lee was the pits and ruined what should have been the show’s highlight, while Sara Evans demonstrated what a powerful and distinctive voice she possesses. Any one of these acts, mixed in with several contemporary-slanted performers, would have been ideal, but this show will do little to hook new, young fans to country music, and the legions of line dancers were totally ignored. 

Following last year’s superb show, which demonstrated both the modern and traditional strains of the music, this show took a step backwards, and it will not be easy to repair the damage. The awards themselves sprung few surprises, though if the Cheap Seats had kept their album nomination, they surely would have dominated the British section completely. As it was, The Coyotes strode in from left-field to grab the album award, Lee Ann Womack caused a similar upset in the International section, and it may have surprised many that LeAnn Rimes took the International Rising Star award. Finally, George Strait was genuinely amazed to pick up the International Male Vocalist award. Could this lead to a long overdue return to these shores?