A stripped-back and intimate evening with five of country music’s finest songwriters was the perfect showcase for their rich talents
As far as appetisers go, a night with some of country music’s finest writers as part of the CMA Songwriters Series seems like a particularly edifying one. Ahead of the weekend’s Country 2 Country Festival, it is the perfect opportunity for the audience to make sure their cowboy hats still fit and, more importantly, get to hear some of the genre’s best loved tracks in the intimate setting of the indigo at The O2. The format is a simple one, five songwriters sat in a line on stage taking it in turns to chat about their music, discussing their craft and performing pared-back renditions of a chosen track before handing over to the next performer.
Tonight’s quintet are Shane McAnally, Ashley Monroe, Charlie Worsham, Charles Esten and Lori McKenna. The names might not be familiar to everyone, but many of the songs are instantly recognisable, including the previous two CMA Song Of The Year winners: McAnally’s Follow Your Arrow and McKenna’s Girl Crush. Esten, a star of the television show Nashville, is the heartthrob of the group and appears genuinely honoured to be appearing as an artist in his own right.
It is immediately apparent that they all share a camaraderie based on mutual respect and healthy competition. McAnally and McKenna may be the undisputed heavyweights who can lift songs they’ve written from the catalogues of stars such as Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and Little Big Town but Monroe and Worsham are hot on their heels. Esten is happy to be playing catch-up, joking at one point “I’d love to sing a song for you now that’s about to be cut by Tim McGraw, but I don’t have one of those.”
Not that his songwriting is lacking at all, Scars in particular is one of the night’s most powerful tracks. McKenna is the final musician to take her turn each round and her writing is continually the most affecting, even McAnally struggles to find his breathe after hearing her play Your Next Lover and Humble And Kind. As well as admiring one another’s work they help each other out with backing vocals and guitar, in the case of Worsham’s lightning-like fingers, picking the tracks up as if he’s been playing them all his life.
Over the course of the 30 songs played tonight, six by each artist, it’s striking how similar themes have inspired each of them. A melancholy nostalgia haunts much of the set, from Monroe’s Like A Rose to McAnally’s Mama’s Broken Heart. Other fertile subjects, such as heartache and the desire to lose one’s inhibitions, frequently appear.
During the final round of songs, Miranda Lambert joins Monroe for a rendition of Heart Like Mine, but the night belongs to McKenna, bringing the event to a close with a crowd singalong of Girl Crush – the emotion all too apparent on her face. It’s a special end to the evening and a fitting tribute to the work of these great writers, who have contributed so much to the country canon. Getting to hear them share their songs and bare their souls, makes it a truly unforgettable occasion.