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CMA Songwriters Series, O2 Shepherds Bush Empire, London live review

The intimate in-the-round showcase arrived in London for Country Music Week.

Tenille Townes
Credit: Jessica Steddom

Nashville is well-known for its songwriters rounds, where musicians get together to perform a selection of their songs acoustically and tell the stories behind them. They came to many UK fans’ attention when the legendary Bluebird Café was shown on the TV series Nashville, and since 2017 the Country Music Association has brought its Songwriters Series events across the pond. Now they’re a fixture of C2C and Country Music Week, and last night the current tour rolled into London for an intimate show at Shepherds Bush Empire.

Kassi Ashton was one of two artists making her London debut, and she was definitely one I’d been looking forward to after hearing great reviews of her earlier performances. Luckily she didn’t disappoint. Accompanied by guitarist James Black, she kicked off the show with her debut single, California, Missouri, a simple but bittersweet number about standing out in her hometown. The song brought out her smooth, powerful vocals really well and I loved the wordplay in her lyrics too. She continued this throughout her selection of songs, including the swaggering Taxidermy, the heartfelt, detailed Lie To Me and Hope Less, which showed off her soulful side with its slinky groove. I also really liked that she kept the audience laughing throughout with her deadpan, self-deprecating humour. However, for me the highlight of her performance came with her final song, The Straw. The stripped-back, expressive rendition meant her voice really shone and was full of anguish and frustration. It revealed why she’s a star in the making and I can’t wait to see her back in the UK again.

Sitting next to Ashton was her fellow newcomer Tenille Townes, who gave a very different yet equally strong performance. She had some fantastic imagery in her songs such as uptempo opener Where You Are – where she joked about a line about ‘cutting down the trees’ – and rocky empowerment anthem White Horse, which showed off her versatility as an artist. Her rich, vocals soared throughout and she had a truly commanding presence on stage. However, she was also able to convey some huge emotions (and hit some big notes!) in the likes of the moving Jersey On The Wall and When I Meet My Maker, which she dedicated to her great-grandmother. Her final song was current single Somebody’s Daughter, which highlighted her ability to create a character as well as the belt in her voice. She was really fun to watch and great at telling stories – both in her songs and in conversation – and I’m looking forward to seeing more from her soon.

Ashley Campbell, by contrast, is no stranger to UK audiences, having performed at Nashville Meets London and C2C in the past. However, tonight we got to see a different side to her with tunes like the sassy Better Boyfriend and kiss-off song Looks Like Time (which got huge cheers from the audience!). Her sweet, breathy vocals provided a nice contrast to the upbeat melodies, but also worked really well on slower numbers such as the subdued, yearning Wish I Wanted To and her emotional rendition of Remembering, which was full of warmth and affection. I also liked that she brought out her banjo for a cover of her dad Glen Campbell’s classic Gentle On My Mind, which had a nice lightness about it and featured an impressive solo section.

Last night the job of hosting fell to songwriter Chris DeStefano. Whilst his name may be unknown to many, his songs were instantly recognisable as he performed hits like The Champion – where he got to show off his rapping skills! – and a soulful rendition of Dan + Shay’s From The Ground Up which moved me to tears. He was also responsible for many of the most surprising moments of the night, bringing out Chase Rice for a gentle, pop-influenced duet on Eyes On You and introducing Catherine McGrath, who performed her upbeat, fun song just in case. However, my favourite moment of his section was his new single Wide Open, a joyful sunny number which showed off the depth and control in his voice, as well as a rocky growl when he went for the big notes. He finished the set with an impassioned rendition of Something In The Water (which he wrote for Carrie Underwood) mixed with Amazing Grace, which got the whole crowd singing along and a huge cheer at the end!

For me one of the best thing about the CMA Songwriters Series is that each show takes on its own quality and feeling, making it a completely unique experience. This was definitely one full of surprises due to the guest appearances of Rice and McGrath, but also a particularly open and emotional night. I also really enjoyed how supportive all the performers were of each other, with quickfire jokes and banter between the four of them (including a debate about Nashville’s best hot chicken) and Ashley and Chris in particular providing lovely harmonies for each other’s songs. Overall the song was a great showcase for the sheer breadth and depth of songwriting talent in country music today, as well as a great opportunity to discover some incredible new and new-to-me musicians. Chris spoke about it being a bittersweet end to the tour, but frankly it went out on a high and kicked off Country Music Week 2018 in style.

Set list: 1. California, Missouri (Kassi Ashton) 2. Where You Are (Tenille Townes) 3. Better Boyfriend (Ashley Campbell) 4. The Champion (Chris DeStefano) 5. Lie To Me (Kassi Ashton) 6. Jersey On The Wall (Tenille Townes) 7. Wish I Wanted To (Ashley Campbell) 8. Eyes On You (Chris DeStefano and Chase Rice) 9. Hope Less (Kassi Ashton) 10. White Horse (Tenille Townes) 11. Looks Like Time (Ashley Campbell 12. From The Ground Up (Chris DeStefano) 13. Just In Case (Catherine McGrath) 14. Taxidermy (Kassi Ashton) 15. When I Meet My Maker (Tenille Townes) 16. Gentle On My Mind (Ashley Campbell) 17. Wide Open (Chris DeStefano) 18. The Straw (Kassi Ashton) 19. Somebody’s Daughter (Tenille Townes) 20. Remembering (Ashley Campbell) 21. Something In The Water (Chris DeStefano) Performance date: 22nd October 2018

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