It’s really quite startling the growth of Country music recently and this festival in particular. It’s always been popular with a loyal audience guaranteeing well filled venues. But recently there’s been a real push forward with artists that would not normally leave their home state, let alone the US, coming over to the UK. And that’s what Country to Country does so well.

The main arena hosts the bigger names but dotted around the venue are various stages with artists from all over playing short sets, to appreciative audiences. It creates a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere which the O2 usually lacks being the corporate money-grabber that it is. There’s no doubt that this is still a business, with plenty of trinket shops and suchlike to lighten the wallet, it just doesn’t feel quite so cynical.

In amongst all this is the wonderfully name Under the Apple Tree stage. This is Bob Harris’s baby and it builds on from his radio shows and sessions recorded in his home studio. It’s an opportunity to see new and established artists, as well as those somewhere in-between.

A short introduction from the host and proceedings kick-off with Robert Vincent. A Liverpudlian he plays a solid set of Country with all the familiar tropes. It’s lively but not much, on this evidence, to distinguish him.

He’s followed by Jess and the Bandits who just tear the place apart with some high octane rock ‘n’ roll. And what a voice Jess has; old school powerhouse that shakes the foundations and as well as stroke the ear.

Following that was going to be difficult but Kimmie Rhodes is a very experienced performer and with Gabriel Rhodes the two set up the acoustic guitars and away they go. It’s an entrancing set that dips into the archives for God’s Anchor and Contrabandistas as well featuring some beautiful guitar playing from Gabriel.

Callaghan follows and is something of curiosity. A UK national she now lives in Nashville and is a successful artist in the states. There’s a certain glossiness to her performance that distances a little but by incorporating the cello some of that gloss is scuffed and so her blend of Country and AOR has the right balance between the folky-roots and over-buffed easy listening.

Possibly the most popular band of the day, are the ultra-smug, JACAMO male models, that are Pauper Kings. They receive a riotous reception but to these ears their music is by numbers, lightweight, flaccid and vacuous: a soundtrack for malls and lifts.

Luckily the Nashville based duo American Young bring some gravitas back to the stage. Unfortunately, by this time the main arena has opened so they face a thinning audience. Which is a shame as they perform a very entertaining set combining virtuoso violin courtesy of Kristy Osmunson, light-hearted banter with guitarist Jon Stone, and a clutch of songs that can both rock out and haunt.

A mixture such as this is never going to please everyone but the main function of this stage and Bob Harris’s intention, which is to introduce people to different artists and music, is completely fulfilled.

Photo of Jess and the Bandits by Paul Chapinal