Absolute Radio Country has been celebrating its first birthday this month, with presenters coming together to share some of their favourite songs and highlights in a special show to mark the occasion. Since its evolution from Country Hits Radio to become part of the Absolute family twelve months ago, the station seems to have gone from strength-to-strength. When we* sat down to chat to two of its current presenters, Baylen Leonard and Lou Nash, this growth in popularity appears to be (at least in part) down to its ability to reach new audiences that might not have previously considered country music as a genre worth listening to. Certainly, Nash thinks that there is still a “perception that country music is old-fashioned” and “so we’re helping to break down those barriers” by playing more contemporary and modern stuff from across the spectrum.
That spectrum is a wide one, which Baylen Leonard is all too keen to celebrate. For anyone who has 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 that this has been of real benefit in making people realise that actually “they do love country music in some way”. Whether it’s more traditional, pop, blues, or roots, this “broad church” as Nash terms it allows audiences a way into the genre which, in turn, also opens up opportunities for artists to become part of the country music industry. Nash cites Sam Hunt as an example of how wide the borders now are, incorporating hip-hop as part of Country’s modern sound while “collaborations between solid country artists and those of other genres have helped country music gain more attention and wider recognition”.
Baylen Leonard is under no illusion as he admits that “country is still quite niche [in the UK] but it’s amazing to be able to see it break through”. When asked what his highlights from Absolute Radio Country’s first year on air have been, it is this emergence of country music into the national consciousness that strikes a particular chord. Yes, interviewing Dolly Parton would be a highpoint in anyone’s career but, for him, it was walking into a barbershop and hearing country music playing on the radio that really made an impact. He also recounts “walking into my dentist and them having Absolute Radio Country on because, they said, ‘It’s the one station that plays music that we can all agree on’”. This is when you begin to understand country music’s appeal, and perhaps why it continues to gain new fans with each year that passes.
It’s not just the exportation of country music from across the pond that is of note in the last few years. The emergence of Absolute Radio Country as a station has come at a time when the UK has developed its own country music “ecosystem”. Leonard believes that ARC is “right at the heart of it”, alongside C2C which Nash declares is “not like a festival in many ways”. It was her first time attending the event in 2022, and she found the experience both strange – “It’s the middle of winter, you’re indoors at the O2, and your surrounded by all these crazy super-fans in cowboy hats and boots” – but “so brilliant”. When asked whether she’d spotted anyone on the outside stages that might be the next breakthrough act, she cites as many British artists as US ones. Twinnie, Jade Helliwell and Jess Thristan all get a mention alongside Brittney Spencer and Breland. This could be seen as evidence that the genre is slowly expanding after finding a place in the UK through acts like The Shires, Ward Thomas, and The Wandering Hearts, which both Nash and Leonard mention when asked about the scene here. Kezia Gill is also a name that rolls immediately off Leonard’s tongue when talking about the best of British, while Lou Nash suggests Jake Morrell as one of her top picks.
Not only has Absolute Radio Country been supporting the UK scene and helping to push country music out into wider society since its launch, it has also been showcasing the brand-new talent coming out of Nashville. Baylen Leonard gets particularly excited when describing the upward trajectory that Morgan Wade has been on, and how the station “has been there from the very beginning of her journey, playing her on the first show of the first day”. She has subsequently been playlisted and featured in a special Songwriters Round alongside another up-and-coming female artist in Callista Clark. Lou Nash on the other hand speaks passionately about Tenille Townes, describing her as “a wise old owl” who has “taken everything your nan taught you [as a child] and put it into a song”. Apart from Kelsea Ballerini, Townes is the one person Nash would love to sit down with for an in-depth interview.
Interviews have been an important part of Absolute Radio Country’s content, particularly in the form of documentaries. Lou Nash’s highlight of the station’s first year has been its series on ‘Women of Country: Through the Decades’. She compliments Ashley McBryde on her excellent presenting skills, and commends the way the six shows reveal the fascinating stories of some of the female trailblazers in the genre. It went some way, she believes, to “addressing some of the polarity that exists in the US”, which most people here in the UK “don’t realise the extent of the issue”. This could be true of race too, which is perhaps why Baylen Leonard felt it a deeply personal responsibility to work on ‘Our Own Country’, a series which will be returning in the near future, focusing this time on LGBTQ+ artists in country music. Documentaries like these, Leonard argues, are important “because it’s [part of the] conversations that were having in society”.
If this a taste of what’s to come over the coming months, then Absolute Radio Country is going to continue to win new listeners across the UK. After twelve months, it seems that Baylen Leonard, Lou Nash, et al, have firmly cemented Absolute Radio Country as a radio station that is here to stay.
Interviews originally undertaken and article originally written for Belles & Gals (published May 26th 2022)