The last weekend of May 2023 brought about somewhat of a rarity in the United Kingdom as we experienced a bank holiday weekend that was baked in glorious sunshine. What made this even more unheard of to London natives like ourselves, was that it was the north west of England that was graced by the mythical golden orb in the sky that was shining down on the 7th running of Buckle & Boots at Whitebottom Farm in Greater Manchester. Buckle has become a staple in the calendar of country and Americana in the UK as since it’s move to late May has marked the start of the outdoor festival season for many of us. Since it’s inception in 2016, Etherow Country Park and the small village of Compstall have been treated to performers from across the country music world including the likes of: Morgan Evans, Phil Vassar, Filmore, Alyssa Bonagura, Tebey, William Michael Morgan, Jenn Bostic, American Young, Lewis Brice, Ashley Campbell and Brett Kissel.
The array of multinational talent on display continued in 2023 and was spearheaded by the coolest guys to come out of Kentucky, Everette. Artists from the United States, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands shared the stage with the finest that our own country has to offer to deliver four magnificent days of music across a pair of wonderful stages surrounded by incredible theming in a wonderful setting. Every time you visit the farm, you always notice the attention to detail that the team put in and create such a unique aesthetic that really adds to the vibe of the whole event. Every time you walk between the stages, you notice something new, and these things all add value to enhance the setting. Laura enjoyed Tortuga as a festival, so they built a beach which was particularly enjoyed by a lot of the younger guests over the weekend and the flowers with the solar lights which lit up in the evening were a really pretty sight (and also helpful to light the way after an afternoon of ciders in the sun) were great additions in addition to all the artwork around the site which just gets better and better each time you visit.
On stage, one of the most pleasing things to see was the festival giving a real platform to songwriting and storytelling with a large amount of rounds taking place across the weekend. Both the Paddock and Main stages opened with a writers round and across the weekend, all of the main stage artists that had travelled from overseas participated in a writers round in addition to their own main stage performance.
What you really notice about when you get guys from Nashville performing in a round (and actually this also applies to the festivals curator Gary Quinn too) is their ability to engage with each other and deliver humour amongst themselves whilst really captivating the audience and highlighting the importance of the backstory behind the song as much as the song and lyrics themselves. Blue Foley gave a pair of full blown masterclasses in hosting a round and showing how something that doesn’t have all the big noise and flashing lights can still be full of energy. Then you couple in the fact that he has written a bunch of hit songs along with him sitting on stage with D. Vincent Williams who can casually pull the Rascal Flatts performed ACM Song of the Year “I’m Moving On” out of his pocket and Trick Savage who wrote with Ashley McBryde on her absolutely stunning song about her father “Bible and a .44”. In hearing a song in it’s rawest and most stripped back form, the songs that are in that very unique place of not just being great but being truly special which every artist strives for, really are able to stand out for this and Trick showed this perfectly with a new song called “Cool Little Bars” which is destined for Ashley McBryde’s forthcoming album (titled “The Devil I Know” set for release on September 8th via Warner Music Nashville) that he wrote with Ashley and Lainey Wilson. The sentiment is around changes in Nashville and was one of the songs that you hear lyrically and think to yourself “Dang, that is next level stuff!”
Photo: Art of Noise
The increase in songwriter sessions was something I really appreciated and given the glorious weather worked perfectly during the daytime yet when the evenings came round the tempo on stage increased and the fuller band sounds brought the intensity across all four days. The scheduling of how they put the line-up together really has been perfected and the other thing that they do at Buckle so well is having the stages alternate across the change overs so there is always music going on which allows all performers the opportunity to have a substantial audience.
Beyond the scheduling of the acts and theming of the site, the other thing I really want to applaud the festival on is their attempt to reduce chairs in front of the stage! This is my big thing which I write about in every festival review that I have ever put together and I would like a world where chairs in festival arenas do not exist. I will leave the full blown TED talk out and actually with the writers rounds that took place, people sitting down is the vibe that fits this BUT chairs have no place at all directly in front of a big stage when an act is trying to feed off the crowds energy. This year at Buckle there was a conscious effort to have people not sitting down directly front and centre as there were signs saying that chairs had to be at the side which I see as a baby step but is clearly a positive change. When these full band sets kicked in, we witnessed the best that the UK had to offer in the form of: Katy Hurt, Eric and Jensen, Gasoline & Matches, Eddy Smith & The 507, Matt Hodges and Backwoods Creek really sit on par with all of the international acts. Then to demonstrate this further, Eddy and his guys along with (how we are now affectionally referring to them as) Them Creek Boys really showed their professionalism and craft by backing the big overseas acts predominantly in cases where they had never actually met, let alone played with before but this was something you would never have guessed from watching these sets.
Photo: Art of Noise
The acts from overseas however remain the biggest pull for the festival with Brent and Anthony (Everette) making their third trip to the UK in 15 months where Buckle was another festival to tick off over here as they continue to gain more and more fans on each visit. Their style of intertwining contemporary and traditional country is what so many artists are striving for yet the Kentucky boys are one the the only, if not the only act that manage to do it successfully and naturally were the standout performance of the weekend.
The smooth vocals of Austin Jenckes who was playing with a full band for the first time that I can remember in the UK, the energy of Gretchen Wilson’s protégé Jessie G, a long overdue first British appearance from Canadian hitmaker Aaron Goodvin, the welcome return of 2022 festival favourite Jeremy McComb and an introduction to Josh Setterfield who brought the party all the way from Brisbane in Australia all played their part too in making the festival a multinational event of the highest calibre and allowed fans here to discover some of their new favourite artists.
One of the things that Gary has always wanted to ensure about the festival is not just booking artists because they are the right performers but also that they are the right people for the event. The festival’s biggest selling point is the community feel of the event where people don’t just play, they want to stay! Whilst Gasoline & Matches played on Friday, Sally and Stephen were around the whole weekend, Jade (Helliwell) and Kezia (Gill) didn’t have sets of their own but again struggled to prize themselves away from the farm over the bank holiday weekend and even Morganway’s SJ and Kieran couldn’t resist a trip over for a day where they had been playing another festival over the weekend. This is the same with the guys that travelled from overseas and how they all bought into the atmosphere and also weren’t scared to share a shot (or five) with their new friends. Buckle & Boots 2023 really set the tone for the summer and the rest of the country music calendar here in the UK. It is one of our favourite weekends of the year (that is not just because we are such fans of afternoons watching the main stage from the roof terrace of Karl’s converted bus which is one of the most unique things that you will encounter at any festival) that combines community, great opportunity to discover new artists (and also talk to them) in really well themed surroundings and the event that puts the UK artists in a level playing field with their overseas counterparts. It is a welcoming and inclusive family friendly event that gets better year on year which we are already looking forward to next year’s edition in 2024.
Buckle & Boots Country Festival will return to Whitebottom Farm, near Manchester in 2024, starting on Thursday 23rd May and concluding on Sunday 26th May. Early bird weekend tickets are on sale now and available HERE and you can learn more about the festival by visiting the WEBSITE or checking out their socials (INSTAGRAMTWITTER & FACEBOOK)
True country music is honesty, sincerity, and real life to the hilt. Garth Brooks