I’m dead chuffed to see more people embracing country music. I feel vindicated. After attending the first Country To Country back in 2013, I found myself backed into a corner, with naysayers telling me the music was “too cheesy” for us mopey Brits.

Ten years on, following its attritional journey into the psyche of UK music lovers, hearing the words “Beer never broke my heart” and “You’re as smooth as Tennessee Whiskey”, belted out with a British twang, is almost as common as hearing some wally with a guitar whining “Today is gonna be the day, I’m gonna throw it back to you”. It’s endemic.

Of course, the question is: Is this a good thing? As anything charts a journey towards mainstream success, authenticity often takes a hit. Appearing to love something becomes as valid as actually loving something. The effect of that is artists / songwriters are then driven by numbers rather than the very thing that makes them them. Some of the soul gets sucked out.

As I exited North Greenwich station, some things were familiar: the sight of the Town Square stage right ahead of me, the sight of the big old arena behind it, and the sound of country music in the distance. But there were a lot more hats and a lot more people for this early in the day. Not a bad thing, but the crowds felt different. For starters, they were a lot bigger.

The queue wrapped around the Town Square was like never before. Everyone had a hat on, and everyone looked dressed to the nines. Not uncommon to see a hat, but for a long time Stetsons, Derbys and West Texas Pinches had been the remit of the hardened country fan. The kind who’d be dressed in triple denim, too. You know who I mean.

Sadly, these crowds were just a taster of what was to come. All the supporting venues - BBC Radio 2 Stage, Saloon Bar (All Bar One) and The Barrelhouse (in the Town Square area) - saw the biggest queues I’ve seen at this festival, to date. And once you’re in, you can’t leave, unless you want to line up all over again. Bit of a problem when nature calls…

Thankfully, on day one, I gave those places a miss and headed straight for the main arena. That, in my experience, always delivers. And once again, it did. First up, there was an “Introducing Nashville” spot, featuring three acts to watch: Tyler Braden, Caylee Hammack and Alana Springsteen. Each had a different take on the genre, with Braden delivering a powerful, whiskey soaked country rock sound; Hammock, an Ashley McBride, old school sound; and Springsteen quite obviously the up-and-coming Nashville sweetheart.
Lainey Wilson, whom I was lucky to watch on the festival’s much smaller stages four or five years ago, and subsequently interview, took to the stage next. Her endearing southern authenticity, and straight-talking songs are both still there, but it’s obvious she’s going through the transition to becoming a stadium-level artist. With that comes the inevitability of polish. Thankfully, her big personality comes through. Here’s hoping that remains.

On day two, I braved the Town Square. The queue moved sharpish and, once in, there was all the usual country and western gear (hats, shirts and lots more), along with some food options and a couple of bars. But then I spotted another queue. This one was to get into The Barrelhouse, where the bands actually played. In previous years, once you were in the Town Square, you were in. No more queuing. This was a disappointment, as it was mobbed inside.

Once in, another disappointment came: the sound. It was quiet, muffled and, at times, unbalanced. 49 Winchester paid the price first, as it was only really possible to hear the guitar and vocals; then Megan McKenna, who was 2023’s answer to Twinnie-Lee Moore (the latest “celebrity” trying to cash in on the genre); and lastly, Nate Smith. We left after that, fed up.

Thankfully, the mainstage had quite the billing, so we got over it real quick. Matt Stell delivered a predictable, but solid set of modern country pop tunes. Morgan Evans charmed the crowds with his easy Aussie disposition and a generally upbeat feel that coursed throughout his material. And Lady A came out and did what they do better than anyone on the scene: churn out banger-after-banger of well crafted pop songs in the vein of country. I loved it.

But what I really loved, and was totally taken aback by, was Midland. Holy moly. What a band. And a band in the old school meaning of the word: they looked cool af, and they looked like the real deal. They played their music for the crowd, and they had fun doing it. Their set was well-rehearsed, with hooky songs, great musicianship and a real bar band vibe underpinning the whole thing. It might have been The O2 arena, but it felt like a honky tonk in Austin, Texas.

I didn’t bother with the supporting stages on the final day. In my opinion, the festival has made things worse with the way it’s “organised” the Town Square now. And the whole event feels a little oversubscribed - teething problems as the genre blows up, I guess. None of that mattered to me after seeing the Old Crow Medicine Show. I thought Midland were the real deal. Jeez.

From the second they took to the stage, dancing and yee-hawing, it was impossible to stop smiling. And I wasn’t alone. The whole place came to life as the band, formed back in 1998, worked through song after song, switching up instruments and taking turns to lead. By the time they hit their classic song ‘Wagon Wheel’, since covered by multiple big-name artists, I was convinced the Zac Brown Band were going to struggle to follow it. And, to be honest, I think they did a little.

However, this wasn’t the Zac Brown Band’s first rodeo. They’d been on the festival some years back and have since found their music crossing the genre threshold, appealing to people of rock persuasions, gospel, soul and more. The band’s set, like Lady A’s, feels like a greatest hits show. But, for me, they didn’t quite strike the same chord as they did the first time on this stage. Perhaps it’s because I knew what was coming, but it felt like the band had been around the block and didn’t have the same urgency to “earn” it. Nevertheless, it was clear why they are where they are and Country To Country fans lapped it up.

So, apparently, the mopey British mindset does have a place for country music. A bigger one than I’d have imagined 10 years ago. And that’s great. However, here’s hoping those bringing us the talent and putting on the shows don’t forget to keep it real. A little more thought to organisation, and perhaps a little more simplicity around layout would go a long way.

Here’s to next year.