In The Spotlight

Taggart’s towering talent lights up Blackpool’s 4th Annual British Country Music Festival

Taggart’s towering talent lights up Blackpool’s 4th Annual British Country Music Festival

I ONLY GOT to attend day one of this year’s British Country Music Festival in Blackpool but what a day it was!

A festival’s opening day is often just a taster for what’s to come. If that was the case with this year’s BCMF, I’m kicking myself that circumstance preventing me from attending the whole three days.

From start to finish it was outstanding featuring top-draw performances from some of the rising stars of UK country music. From the ‘pop’ country of Jade Helliwell and Robyn Red to the more traditional country of The Often Herd and Phil Hooley and everything in between, the festival delivered. But best of all, in Donna Taggart it had a headliner that proved there’s so much more to her than the master song interpreter we know she is: she is also a songwriter of the highest calibre – and then some.  More on that later. 

Let’s start with the impressive half-hour set that kicked off the festival from Scottish songstress Robyn Red who only got into country music two years ago after hearing her best friend’s dad playing Luke Combs songs in his car.

Every tune played by the Glaswegian girl with the guitar was either self or co-penned by Robyn who not only sounded the part but looked the part in her red cowboy hat. To date, only two of Robyn’s tracks have been released but boy are we in for a treat when her others see the light of day. Keep an ear out in particular for her murder song ‘Luke Jackson’.

As a big fan of U.S. country music, the second act in the festival’s ‘Making Waves’ Arena took me back to the time I visited the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, a night that always begins with a handful of songs from a Bluegrass band.

Whether it was by accident or design, the BCMF’s own tip of its hat to country music’s founding genre was a solid set of Tyne-and-Wear tinged Bluegrass from The Often Herd. 

The band refer to their music as “Newgrass from Newcastle” but let’s not split hairs, it was a solid rip-roaring set inspired by the North East backgrounds of the band’s guitarist Rupert Hughes and mandolin player Evan Davies. 

A continuing tradition

When I interviewed folk music legend Jez Lowe recently he spoke about the “continuing” folk tradition that exists in the North East. Although influenced by a lot of U.S. bluegrass players, The Often Herd, who also comprise Niles Krieger on fiddle and Sam Quintana on double bass, draw on that local folk tradition but also add to it, with harmonies inspired by four groups beginning with the letter B – The Byrds, The Band, The Beach Boys and The Beatles! They’re definitely an act to look out for in the months and years to come. 

The term rising star doesn’t just apply to younger performers and it’s a testament to Martin and Marina, the festival’s organisers, that any artist that falls into the broad umbrella categories of country or Americana who is being spoken about in positive terms is on their radar. The BCMF is a festival that is open to all, both from an audience and a performer point of view. 

Phil Hooley will admit he’s no spring chicken. He’s a journeyman musician with a lot of life experience to draw upon. Hailing from Scarborough he’s been performing country music for decades as a member of The Woolgatherers.  

So what’s the score with his solo work? “After the pandemic some of the band no longer wanted to travel” said Phil. This coincided with a time when he was writing more and more of his own material. Phil decided that as well as keeping his hand in with The Woolgatherers he’d strike out on his own. Two solo albums later, playing his songs to a receptive audience at the BCMF was clearly a career highlight. 

Impressing in the Empress

The final act to appear on the Arena stage before the audience headed to the iconic Empress Ballroom for the evening performances was Liverpool’s Simon Howard and his band. Unfortunately I missed much of their set as I was interviewing other artists but what I did catch was impressive. Sadly I totally missed Isabella Coulstock, the opening act on the Empress stage who will soon be supporting Jools Holland on tour. However the lady I was sat alongside said she was excellent and her teenage daughter added that Isabella and Robyn Red had been her favourite artists of the day so far. And that’s the thing about this festival, you’re bound to discover some new musical talent that you’ll go on to love and in the process you’ll get to chat to lots of lovely like-minded people along the way.

The first act I saw perform on the Empress stage was Leeds-based duo The Dunwells whose wonderful harmonies, stage presence and synergy brought to mind, to me at least, the Everly Brothers.

It helps when you are brothers of course (which Joe and Dave are) but great harmonies and catchy tunes don’t arrive by accident. The two have spent many years honing their skills which led to them delivering an impeccable driving set of guitar-based indie folk rock.

A few songs into their performance someone close to me questioned if they were “country”. It was noticeable however that at the end of The Dunwells’ set, as the brothers ventured into the middle of the hall to deliver their final song without amplification, that person was up on his feet singing along as a circle formed around the duo to create an iconic festival moment. 

Friday night’s festival headliner was Donna Taggart whose meteoric rise in the country world followed the 2016 release of her majestic cover of Jenn Bostic’s soaring ballad of loss and reflection, Jealous of the Angels. 

Although she’s been popular on the Emerald Isle since 2011, the millions of online and social media listens that followed the release of the song and its accompanying video led to what felt like instant international recognition for the County Tyrone songstress. 

So unexpected was this attention that as her profile rose, Donna continued to work for the NHS as a child services/refuge coordinator – even when the song became one of America’s top 50 most downloaded songs in a list that included the likes of Beyonce, Adele and Katy Perry. She didn’t use the phrase “imposter syndrome” during our interview, but clearly the attention Donna received at this time was hard to get her head around. 

The song itself is about the tragic loss of Bostic’s father in a car accident when she was just 10 years old. I spoke to Jenn about this back in 2021 and she said she had been surprised that such a personal song would go on to have such a universal appeal. But, said Donna, that’s the key to the song connecting with so many people – everyone experiences grief and by articulating it so well, the lyrics and melody Jenn and her co-writers created resonated far and wide.  

Helping to raise the profile of the song is clearly one of Donna’s proudest achievements, not just because it helped boost her and Jenn’s career but because it helped her too as she experienced the loss of her second baby, Michael, who arrived stillborn in 2014.

I didn’t dwell on this during my interview with Donna – she’d only just spoken about it movingly in an interview she’d conducted on the festival’s Horseshoe Pavilion with Sally Nader – but it was obvious the song held a special place in her heart for multiple reasons. 

A festival highlight

Jealous of the Angels was, as expected, a highlight of Donna’s set, indeed the festival, but equally as special was the combined impact of the eight or nine songs Donna performed that she has co-written over the past few years. Before Friday only snippets of these songs had been teased to us on Donna’s social media platforms but to hear them performed live for the very first time anywhere in the world was a delight. 

Outside the Winter Gardens, Blackpool’s illuminations – switched on for the first time this year only hours earlier – shone bright but in the Empress Ballroom someone shone brighter. That someone was Donna Taggart.

If you enjoyed Donna’s first two albums, Celtic Woman Volumes 1 and 2, her next release, which will feature her new compositions, will undoubtedly see even more praise heaped upon her. And this genuinely nice Northern Irish lady deserves all of the additional plaudits that are sure to come her way. 

To hear my interview with Donna click on the link at the bottom of this page or here.

After Donna Taggart’s wonderful set, the festival was treated to a rousing opening day finale.

I first saw Jade Helliwell at the Country-to-Country festival in London in March where she brightened up an overcast Sunday afternoon on one of the O2 Arena’s outside stages. 

Jade performs a feisty, sassy, upbeat singalong style of country with catchy melodies and rousing vocals that never fails to entertain. Supported on stage by four stellar musicians including guitarists Luke Thomas and Laura Oakes, she had the Empress Ballroom on its feet, singing along to fan favourites such as Drive, Stormchaser and If I Were You.

Heroes and Heroines

Jade also unveiled a new song, Heroes and Heroines, which shares its name with the title of her upcoming UK tour, and it’s a song that builds nicely on her already impressive body of work as both a songwriter and performer. 

Yorkshire-born Jade has hit upon a winning formula and is a breath a fresh air in the country world. I challenge anyone to watch her live and not be impressed.

You can hear my interviews with many of the performers from day one of the British Country Music Festival and some of their songs by clicking on the listen again for the Radio Warrington Country & Folk Show BCMF Special below.

By all accounts days two and three of the festival were just as impressive as day one with some saying Graham Nash delivered one of the greatest festival performances ever so hats off to all concerned. And roll on 2024!

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Donna Taggart I Isabella Coulstock I Jade Helliwell I Phil Hooley I Robyn Red I Simon Howard I The Often Herd I The Dunwells

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