Wembley 1979

First published in Country Music People, June 1979

Saturday, April 14

Mervyn Conn’s annual Wembley Festival is over and done with for another year and the array of talent amassed this year proved yet again that Wembley isn’t as tired as I thought it would be. But it is still down to a few thousand keen enthusiasts who are keeping the dinosaur alive and kicking, and whether they will tolerate the inclusion of so many ‘below par’ British acts at the expense of longer sets from the American stars remains to be seen. 

The Saturday evening show was littered with acts that had made the transition from pubs and village halls to the Wembley Arena without the standing or the talent to back-up their inclusion. To appear at Wembley is an honour, and I feel that more care should be taken when considering who to include on the bill. 

In no way did Nancy Peppers or Al Doherty deserve a place on the bill. In fact, it was not until Billy Armstrong came on with his trusted fiddle that the Eleventh Festival really got under way. He breezed through an all-too-short spot, working the audience with all his might, and scoring with a beautiful version of Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and a storming finish with the immortal Orange Blossom Special. 

Two British acts proved their inclusion to be justified—Philomena Begley from Ireland and Poacher from Warrington. Surprisingly, the English band opened with Darlin’ and before I knew what was happening, they had finished on the hilarious Hot Rod Lincoln. Philomena had more time to build her act, and began strongly with Queen Of The Silver Dollar. Also featured was a dramatic I’m Gonna Be Your Woman and Justin Tubb’s stirring What’s Wrong With The Way We’re Doing It Now, an anthem for hard-core country, which seemed to go above the heads of most in the audience. 

The main appeal of Wembley is, of course, nostalgia, and it seems odd that Hank Locklin was only making his debut this year. Please Help Me I’m Falling, Send Me The Pillow and Country Hall Of Fame, all played on our memories and it won him an unexpected encore. Hank has always maintained a sort of earthy palatability, never one to indulge in anything fancy or out-of-the-ordinary, but always content to put on a good show. 

If Freddie Hart was more well-known this side of the Atlantic, he could have scored as well as Locklin. Unfortunately, hampered by a poor voice (due to pneumonia) and a programme of songs only known to the dedicated fans, he failed to make much of an impression. Freddie’s engaging personality also became a sore point after a while. An audience can only take so many ‘thank yous’ and ‘you’re beautiful’ until they start to doubt the sincerity of the artist. 

And then we came to the star of the night. He really is something special … Marty Robbins. In an age of mediocrity, the spectacle of an artist who can do his job with total commitment and complete command is still a cause for rejoicing. He took the stage with a mixture of humour, brash confidence and occasional bouts of apparent insecurity. 

He sang Ribbon Of Darkness, Singing The Blues, Don’t Worry and El Paso and thoroughly enjoyed himself bouncing around the stage. For a while he sat at the piano and delighted one and all with a beautifully controlled version of Among My Souvenirs, a rocking Washed My Hands In Muddy Water, a dramatic Love Me and a heartfelt My Woman, My Woman, My Wife. Pure artistry, what more can one say, and the Wembley audience loved every minute of it. 

It was an entirely different story later on in the evening when Billie Jo Spears closed the proceedings. Here we had the country music tragedy in all its glory. Billie Jo has one of the finest and most versatile voices in country music. Her pitch is perfect, and she can lull you seductively or whip you into a frenzy at the drop of a guitar pick. Yet at Wembley she was as tame as my cat and the meeker and milder she became, the more the assembled congregation of country fans applauded. And did they applaud. 

Billie Jo’s voice was rarely stretched and its emotional content was very low indeed. Her band was no more inspired. Their picking was masterful, their taste impeccable, but they trod water throughout. If only they’d cut loose a little, if only, if only… 

Earlier both Boxcar Willie and Irish singer Gloria had whipped the audience up with acts which would have died a death across the Atlantic. Gloria came across as a heavy-handed version of Dolly Parton, vocally, not in looks. A diminutive lady with an enormous voice, she blasted through Coat Of Many Colours losing all sensitivity, yet gaining great appreciation from the crowd. 

Boxcar Willie’s act was full of memories as he takes us back to the skiffle days of the 1950s and wins audience approval with a foot-tapping beat, a gimmicky train whistle and songs that country fans have been demanding in the clubs and pubs up and down the country for the past fifteen years. It’s nothing new, but the British fans lap it up. I guess, like Slim Whitman, Billie Jo Spears and Miki & Griff, Boxcar is made for life as far as Britain is concerned. 

After the foot-stomping, screams and hysteria finally died away it was left to Dottsy to take the stage, and with typical Texas grit, this young lady brought us all back to our senses. Country music is for listening to, and superbly backed by Legend, a Scottish outfit, she glided through her Stateside hits I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose, Here In Love and (After Sweet Memories) Play Born To Lose Again before closing with her latest success Trying To Satisfy You. It was a polished, professional act, and it took guts not to take the easy way out and give the audience the only thing they seem to understand—standards. 

Having done a creditable job as compere, Ronnie Prophet had a spot of his own and put over his numbers well. Ray and Leo, The Duffy Brothers, didn’t fare so well due partly to the microphones not being set right, and also because their acoustic act is not suited to the impersonal environment of Wembley. 

Apart from the disappointing showing of Billie Jo Spears, it was unfortunate that the Drifting Cowboys, who preceded her, failed to light up the audience. Possibly it was because the crowd had become restless, and then again their act was cut back to just over fifteen minutes. That is hardly time to warm up, yet they tried gamely with some beautiful music that run the gamut from Hank Williams to the point that modern country music has reached today.

All in all a fairly predictable opening night. But then after eleven years what more can you expect!
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