Back story

What would you do if your daughter called in one day and announced she was going to run a Country Music festival? And before you could catch your breath to begin to wonder about the practicalities, she added that her father was lending her a field, one of her older brothers had offered financial backing and the other said he’d build her a website. You’d probably feel pleased and mildly amused, imagining a few dozen people in check shirts and cowboy hats sitting around the field on hay bales, strumming guitars and saying yee-haw to each other.

You would be wrong. Observing your adult children just weeks away from the Day is not mildly amusing; it is thrilling, terrifying and awe-inspiring, I begin to feel that family life might never be the same again.

My daughter Georgie Thorogood loves Country Music.  It used to be simply singing along to Dolly Parton in the car and making sure she’d always got her Dixie Chicks CDs to pick her up if she was feeling low.  Then she went to stay with one of her brothers, who was working in Grand Rapids, Michigan, hired a car for a couple of days and drove south to Nashville. I thought she’d just spent the time wandering around gazing at celebrity guitars in glass cases but obviously there was something in the air…And she’s not the only one who’s made that particular pilgrimage.

Country Music is the fastest growing music genre in the UK with over 8.7 million fans, dedicated radio stations and an increasing variety of venues. Georgie’s outdoor event, Dixie Fields, will be the first of its kind in our home county of Essex. I’m a new listener but am finding it so much more interesting than either its folksy or its glitzy persona suggests. The longtime expert ‘Whispering Bob’ Harris recently quoted Little Richard describing it as ‘the white man’s blues’. Harris also puts forward the attractive phrase ‘rural soul’.

‘Whispering Bob’ has years of experience – he was presenting an eclectic range of music on the legendary OGWT before any of my children were born. So when he explains that Country music ‘draws from a diversity of roots among them gospel, folk, blues and rock’n’roll’ I can only knuckle my forehead and try not to get more tied up by definitions. When, however, he adds, ‘For some it remains the purest reflection of our emotional selves – a repository for the highs, lows and rock bottoms of everyday life’ (my italics) I begin to get it.

2 ½ years ago Georgie survived a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage. That’s a bleed on the brain: at that time 50% of those affected were expected to die immediately or very soon, 25% would come through with significant disability and only 25% would survive apparently unscathed. Georgie was one of those lucky ones. The experience changed her – how could it not? She didn’t suddenly become a different person but I think she felt more determined to make the most of the life that she has. She went back to the day job, carried on paying her mortgage, devoted herself as much as ever to her dog and her horses (Georgie used to race ride), trained as a reflexologist. She also started going to many more live country music events. Her tastes remained broadly the same but her knowledge deepened. When people say that Dixie Fields is offering ‘the best line up of the 2019 summer’ I think it’s because she’s loved being part of the audience

She still goes for the pop end of Country Music – she’d rather dance than weep and she doesn’t mind a bit of bling — though it’s the singer’s voice and the stage personality that really does it for her. Lauren Alaina, the Dixie Fields headliner has only performed once at a UK festival before but in Georgie’s words she has a ‘tremendous stage presence’ and she’s ‘relatable’. That word sends me back to Bob Harris’s analysis. We can see the ordinary emotions of our everyday lives in this type of music. The majority of the singers are also song-writers, using their music to tell their own stories. Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas, currently the most successful UK country music act (also appearing at Dixie Fields) write that the songs in their latest album, Restless Minds,  ‘explore our lives as twins, as adults, as best friends, as millennials’. Glen Mitchell, the Essex songwriter who is part of the UK / US group Royal South (yes they’re coming too), is happy to post social media photos of himself as a grandfather.

This US based style (#Americana) works fine for us in Essex and UK generally probably because there’s space for individuals to give it their own twist. Jack and Rob – the school friends from Southend-on-Sea who make up the duo Holloway Road – reject the fringed waistcoats and high heeled boots in favour of baseball caps and trainers. They high-five each other around the stage because that’s what comes naturally to them.

The Dixie Fields country music festival offered space for a TOWIE star Megan McKenna to sing in the same arena as a former jump jockey, Stevie O’Connor, both of them moving onwards in their lives and taking the rest of us along too. That all sounds fine and benign, just a scaled-up version of my naïve sit-around- in-a-field idea but with added lights and sound systems, pulled pork and Cajun grilled oysters, whiskey and car parking. So why am I terrified? Essentially it’s that feeling you get before any big party – what if the guests don’t show up, what if something goes hideously wrong, what if it rains…?

Frank, Georgie’s extraordinarily generous brother, has invested in air fares and appearance fees and joined her as a business partner. Their ‘Dixie’ field is grassland next to the site of the former V-festival where they used to spend their summer holiday earnings when they were younger.  Maybe that’s what’s inspired such an ambitious event for a pair of first timers. But Virgin media they ain’t.

I’m sure it’s going to be okay: this type of music should play well in a more home-grown atmosphere. Family and friends are pitching in to help but it doesn’t mean it’s an amateur organisation. They’re all adults now (I remind myself) they have Skills. That’s what I find awe-inspiring. My most recent job (being unskilled but available during the day) was to deliver Georgie’s ‘Event Management Plan’ to the Public Health and Protection Services Manager at Chelmsford City Council. 180 pages of plans, protocols and risk assessments covering everything from crowd control to missing person procedures to mass evacuation routes. ‘And it’s not finished yet’ says Georgie, looking drained.

It’ll be alright on the night, I’m sure. The campers will arrive at teatime on the Friday. They’ll enjoy their BBQ, their open air cinema, their acoustic acts and country karaoke. Then, on Saturday, it’ll be  the day ticket holders and the fairground rides, the Suffolk ice cream, Essex milk shakes, New Orleans street food and line-dancing professional and there’ll be this amazing twelve  hours of live music  as we share the emotional journeys of this rich mix of performers – and dance our little cotton socks off.

Finally, on Sunday, the campers will roll out of their sleeping bags, pull on their denims, eat a brunch, may be sit around on those bales for a little longer, strumming their own guitars until our  great Country Music adventure is finally over – for another year, perhaps?

A version of this article was published in The Lady Magazine 21.6.2019  (Megan McKenna had had to withdraw due to another commitment)