Absolute radio country celebrated its one-year anniversary this month, with presenters coming together to share some of their favorite songs and highlights in a special to mark the occasion. Since its evolution from Country hit radio be part of the Absolute family twelve months ago, the station seems to have gained momentum. When we sat down to chat with two of its current presenters, Baylen Leonard and Lou Nash, that growth in popularity appears to be (at least in part) due to its ability to reach new audiences that previously might not have viewed country music as a genre worth listening to. Certainly, Nash thinks there is still a “perception that country music is outdated” and “so we help to break down these barriers” playing more contemporary and modern stuff across the spectrum.
This spectrum is broad, which Baylen Leonard is too keen to celebrate. Anyone who listened to his “Front Porch” show on a Sunday afternoon will know that “one of the joys is being able to play all these different sounds”. He thinks it has been very beneficial in making people realize that in reality “they like country music in a way”. Whether it’s more traditional, pop, blues or roots, this “big church” in Nash’s words, this allows audiences access to the genre, which, in turn, also opens up opportunities for artists to be part of the country music industry. Nash cites Sam Hunt as an example of the extent of boundaries today, incorporating hip-hop into the modern country sound while “collaborations between strong country artists and those from other genres have helped country music gain more attention and wider recognition”.
Baylen Leonard is under no illusions as he admits that “the country is still quite niche [in the UK] but it’s amazing to be able to see him break through”. When asked about his highlights of Absolute radio country, it is this emergence of country music in the national consciousness that strikes a chord. Yes, interviewing Dolly Parton would be a career highlight for anyone, but for him, it was walking into a hair salon and hearing country music on the radio that really made an impact. He also tells “I walked into my dentist and they had Absolute Radio Country because, they said, ‘It’s the only station that plays music we can all agree on'”. That’s when you begin to understand the appeal of country music, and perhaps why it continues to gain new fans with each passing year.
It’s not just the export of country music across the Atlantic that has been notable in recent years. The emergence of Absolute radio country as a station came at a time when the UK was developing its own country music “ecosystem”. Leonard believes the CRA is ” in the heart “alongside C2C which Nash claims to be “not like a festival in many ways”. It was her first time attending the event in 2022, and she found the experience both odd – “It’s the middle of winter, you’re inside at the O2, and you’re surrounded by all these crazy superfans in hats and cowboy boots” – but “so brilliant”. When asked if she’s spotted anyone on the outdoor stages who might be the next breakthrough act, she cites as many British artists as American ones. Twinnie, Jade Helliwell and Jess Thristan all get a mention alongside Brittney Spencer and Breland. This could be taken as evidence that the genre is slowly growing after finding a foothold in the UK thanks to acts like The Shires, Ward Thomas and The Wandering Hearts, which Nash and Leonard mention when asked about the scene. here. Kezia Gill is also a name that immediately pops out of Leonard’s tongue when he talks about the best of the Brits, while Lou Nash suggests Jake Morrell as one of his top picks.
Not only has Absolute radio country has been supporting the UK scene and helping to spread country music to wider society since its launch, it has also showcased fresh new talent coming out of Nashville. Baylen Leonard is particularly excited as he describes the upward trajectory that Morgan Wade embarked on and how the station “has been there since the very beginning of her journey, playing her in the first day one show”. She was then playlisted and featured in a special songwriters round alongside another rising female artist in Callista Clark. Lou Nash, meanwhile, speaks passionately about Tenille Townes, describing her as “a wise old owl” who has “I took everything your grandmother taught you [as a child] and put it in a song”. Aside from Kelsea Ballerini, Townes is the only person Nash would like to sit down with for an in-depth interview.
Interviews played an important role in Absolute radio country, especially in the form of documentaries. Lou Nash’s highlight of the station’s first year was her series on “Women of Country: Through the Decades.” She commends Ashley McBryde for her excellent presentation skills and commends the way all six shows reveal the compelling stories of some of the genre’s pioneers. This contributed, she believes, to “responding to some of the polarity that exists in the United States”than most people here in the UK “do not realize the extent of the problem”. This could also be true for race, which is perhaps why Baylen Leonard felt a deeply personal responsibility to work on “Our Own Country”, a series that will return in the near future, this time focusing on LGBTQ artists. + country music. Documentaries like these, Leonard argues, are important “because it is [part of the] conversations that were taking place in society”.
If this is a taste of what’s to come in the months to come, then Absolute radio country will continue to gain new listeners across the UK. After twelve months, it seems that Baylen Leonard, Lou Nash, et al, have firmly cemented Absolute radio country like a radio station that’s here to stay.
Link to ARC’s “First Anniversary” special episode:
Interviews conducted by Gareth Williams (twitter.com/lostinbluejazz1)