Big Country: The Story Sessions

Small Beer Brew Co.

Full-time country music fan, and a part-time alcoholic, the two have always been a match made in heaven for me. But Phoebe Stringer productions prove that the genre has more to it, much much more.

I will explain. Picture the scene: an industrial estate, a clear autumn night, a brewery that specifies in low gluten, calorie AND alcohol tipples, and an evening exploring the UK country scene.

The barn-like space is more skewed on the brewery side than bar, with a (presumably not ornamental) forklift to one side, and gleaming silver barrels surrounding it. Wooden benches clank, Cowboy boots tap, bandanas are tightened around excited throats, and the evening gets swinging.

The female lead and populated evening shows a range of where country music has been, and where it is going. Providing an example of true American talent and a British interpretation. Laura Oakes is up first, pink-booted, fiery ginger hair, denim-clad and charmingly calm. Her Liverpudlian accent bubbling up like a spring. She is an easy talker, chatting us through her musical and personal journey.

“A fan first, and songwriter second” her voice and style has echoes of Kacy Musgraves, still very much within the folk end of country. She may be a fan, but she is a darn good songwriter. “Better In Blue Jeans” has a bouncy, just-heard-on-the-radio vibe and “Old Ghosts” has a soft sadness. “Welcome To The Family” is born from her own loud and lovingly dysfunctional family, and is easily applicable to one’s own. The highlight from her 2021 EP is certainly the title track “How Big Is Your World”. Born from the joy of touring, and expanding your circle of reference, this song rejoices in simple pleasures. The adventure of life, and the wide, wide world around us.

Showcasing her versatility, she makes the brave choice to cover “Natural Woman” made famous by Aretha Franklin. Country does soul? A blinding success. The last vaulting moment is an easy leap, smiling quietly as her vermilion curtain of hair covers half of her face. Download her EP, along with the almost obligatory cover of Dolly Parton. Her country-izing (not a word but hey) of “Groove Is In The Heart” shows she can easily do the bouncy honky tonk, and I look forward to more upbeat offerings in the future.

After a well-chosen but slightly mismatched duet of “Angel Of Montgomery” Savannah Gardner Is left alone on the small stage backgrounded by the bubbling vats of beer. Flowing printed kimono, cowboy boots and almost mathematically calculated rocky roots leading onto dishevelled bleached locks. An LA native, her voice has a lot more character, almost Janis Joplin-like.

Her interest in the Outlaw style of the genre, and interpreting that for the modern age as anyone who lives authentically is a novel take. “Kicking the patriarch’s ass” her songs are energetic, and conjure up the expanse of Missouri where she spent some time, but are a touch backwards looking. However she can whip up a crowd, with covers of “9-5” to finish, we are clapping, boot stamping and yehawwing ourselves silly, low ABV beers or no. “City Of Cowboys” has a nice swing to it, and her cover of Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” is a warming treat. A born performer she leaves us wanting more. Give the people what they want, and what we want as always is Dolly Parton.

Despite my revulsion with the idea of low-alcohol beer, the ability to remember the whole of the evening, and focus on some truly talented artists without obliterating the next day has merit to it. I dip my cowboy hat to Small Brewery, but most importantly to Oakes, Gardner and Stringer for an evening of such delight. Who needs Nashville when we have South Bermondsey!