LONDON– The Common Linnets were the surprise hit of this year’s Eurovision song contest, a competition usually swept by pop tunes. With viewers from all over Europe texting and phoning to cast their vote, Dutch country artists Ilse DeLange and Waylon brought the house down and came in second with “Calm After the Storm.” Their duet, with its slide guitars and heart-tugging harmonies, has since become a top-10 hit across the continent, and the band is in negotiations with a major U.S. country-music label. “In Europe, when you say you do country music, it used to not be cool,” says Ms. DeLange, who sports very Dolly Parton-like dimples, “but it is becoming much more mainstream.”
Ilse DeLange of the Dutch band the Common Linnets European Pressphoto Agency
While country artists from the U.S. have long made the European charts and played at big venues across the Atlantic, homegrown country music hasn’t seen much success locally. A new flock of artists, however, are proving that European country acts can in fact be honky-tonk heroes in their own towns.
The single from the Common Linnets (a type of songbird) was No. 1 in the Netherlands and was a hit in countries as disparate as Germany, Spain and Ireland. The group—who records in English, as do most European country bands—hopes to release their first U.S.-produced album in 2015.
“We are finding there is a steady increase in the numbers of European and British talent,” says Rob Fielder, a DJ and co-founder of British internet-radio station 2Country.net. “With European talent, the quality has really picked up over the last few years.”
“Hey Brother,” a country-flavored dance track co-written and produced by Swedish DJ Avicii reached No. 1 at home and No. 1 on the U.K. dance charts. The tune, which features uncredited lead vocals by American bluegrass singer Dan Tyminski, went double platinum in Sweden and quadruple platinum in Australia, and reached No. 19 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in March. “There is something cool and very credible about bluegrass,” Avicii (born Tim Bergling) says. “It’s so musical, with all the harmonies, and it’s always captured my attention.”
Country influences can be heard in the sounds of U.K. musicians as well. Rising star Hannah Jane Lewis’s youthful delivery of “Seventeen Again” recalls Taylor Swift. George Ezra’s “Budapest,” complete with plucky rhythm guitar and high-lonesome vocal, is currently at No. 4 on the U.K. charts. British country-pop duo The Shires, which formed only last year, were recently signed to Decca Records, the label of American acts Sugarland, Willie Nelson, and Allison Krauss. Their debut album, recorded mostly in Nashville and tentatively titled “Made in England,” will appear in the U.S. and U.K. early 2015.
Irish singer-songwriter Gary Quinn Anthony D’Angio
Country music has been a niche genre in Europe since the 1950s, when American GIs stationed in Europe brought it with them. (It didn’t hurt that Elvis Presley was stationed in Germany from 1958-1960). During the Cold War, in countries such as Czechoslovakia, a bluegrass scene developed as a form of rebellion against communism. The subculture is still thriving today, thanks to bands such as Druhá Travá, who have released over 20 albums internationally and have been touring the U.S. nearly every year since 1993.
“Bluegrass festivals in the Czech Republic are among the best in the world,” says Ruth Ellen Gruber, an American journalist and writer based in Italy who runs the European blog “Sauerkraut Cowboys.” The Czech town of Kopidlno has been hosting an annual bluegrass festival since 1973.
A plethora of country music festivals have been held across Europe for many years. They range from small local festivals to large annual events. For example, France’s La Roche Bluegrass Festival draws 12,000 people, and London’s Country to Country Festival drew 18,000 fans last year and 30,000 this, its second, year. Lately, however, many events are moving away from exclusively featuring big-name American acts, opening their stages to local talent.
“Going back three years ago, I thought I was on my own lone personal crusade trying to bring original country to the masses,” says Gary Quinn, an Irish singer-songwriter who has performed in a few Country Music Association (CMA) showcases in both Nashville and Europe. “But at Country to Country this year, they really were incorporating British talent onto the pop-up [side] stages.”
Crissie Rhodes and Ben Earle of British country-pop duo The Shires Redferns via Getty Images Films such as Belgium’s “Broken Circle Breakdown” have helped propel the scene forward. Nominated this year for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, it features a bluegrass soundtrack. The band that appeared in the film, now called the Broken Circle Breakdown Bluegrass Band, has sold over 80,000 records in Belgium (platinum) and regularly plays to crowds of 10,000 people, says the film’s director, Felix van Groeningen. “The music became the unique selling point of the movie and made it really part of its success,” he says.
One sign European country music has reached critical mass is a splintering of opinion within the movement about what the style is and why it is gaining traction. “You are starting to see a shift in [local artists’] being willing to spend money on production, and ultimately that is having a great effect on the marketability of their music,” says Mr. Fielder, the Britain-based DJ. “It sounds as good as anything coming out of Nashville.”
Ms. DeLange notes that as a judge on the Dutch version of “The Voice” she is seeing more singer-songwriters infusing their music with the storytelling genre. But unlike Mr. Fielder, she believes the European version is unique. “There is not that pristine and polished sound that is on country radio a lot of times in Nashville,” she says. “It is a bit more gritty in its production, and I think Europeans are more interested in that kind of sound.”
Whether it’s slick or rough around the edges, locally produced country music is starting to take off. “Country to Country felt like a zeitgeist,” says Ben Earle, one half of The Shires duo, who played on a pop-up stage at the festival. “I think five years ago, Europe was not ready as a continent for this kind of homegrown music. I think we are just now ready for it to take hold.”
This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal in August 2014.
Top photo: Common Linnets; Middle photo: from “Broken Circle Breakdown”; bottom photo: The Shires