The U.K. Is Poised for a Country Takeover -- But Will the Bands Come?

On its 2014 debut single, british country duo The Shires sing, "We can build our own Nashville underneath these gray skies." The lyric may prove prophetic as the United Kingdom develops its own vibrant country music scene.

According to BPI figures, country's share of the U.K. album market reached 2.3 percent last year, its highest level since 2007. "You do get a sense that things are beginning to change and that interest in Country is taking more of a hold," BPI spokesperson Gennaro Castaldo tells Billboard.

Five years ago, the prospect of exporting twang from the United States would have been laughable. Today, country's share of the U.K. album market is not insignificant, reaching 2.3 percent in 2014, its highest level since 2007. It's why AEG Europe and SJM Concerts -- joint promoters of the 2-year-old Country to Country (C2C) festival -- are banking on growing their event at London's O2 Arena into a multiterritory fest with legs in Glasgow, Stockholm, Oslo and Dublin. Its expansion mirrors the fast-growing popularity of country across the U.K. and Europe, markets traditionally resistant to the genre and until recently rarely visited by country stars.

"The first year, we begged artists to roll the dice," says Nashville-based Ali Harnell, senior vp at AEG Live/The Messina Group, who helps book acts for C2C, including inaugural headliners Carrie Underwood and Tim McGraw. "Now we have a long list of artists asking to play."

In the past, the barriers of entry typically have been financial. "For a long time, a lot of acts didn't pay attention to Europe -- that's primarily an economical, if dumb, decision," offers Jason Owen, who manages Kacey Musgraves and Little Big Town, acts that have spent time touring the United Kingdom. "Now country artists are seeing the success of other acts in the market."

Still, smart budgeting is key: That can mean scaling down production on a live show and planning plenty of promotion to offset travel costs. And promoters are sensitive to the economic realities. "The big festival opportunity that C2C provides is the kind of money that will attract them," says Milly Olykan, festivals and events director at the O2. She credits AEG Live chairman Jay Marciano (then COO) for taking the risk. "No promoters would try it out because they [feared] a loss."

Indeed, the first C2C sold only half of its 30,000 ticket run. In contrast, the 2014 edition was "a few hundred tickets" away from full capacity, adds Olykan. This year's London event, which features Lady Antebellum, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Brantley Gilbert and Jason Aldean (only Lady A and Gilbert previously have performed U.K. shows) is on track to sell out, say organizers.

What's driving interest? Ben Earle, one half of The Shires alongside singer Crissie Rhodes -- -- who, at press time were poised to become the first home-grown country act to score a top 10 album in the U.K. with its debut, Brave -- credits a softening of the traditional Nashville sound. "It's more relatable now," he says. "You don't have as much slide guitar and twang as you used to." (British-bred Mumford & Sons being the exception to all.)

Other contributing factors: Dolly Parton's show-stealing Glastonbury performance and the growing support of mainstream media like BBC Radio 2, which runs a country station for the duration of C2C, and TV. Owen believes the ABC show Nashville, which airs on U.K. channel More4, has had "a huge impact" for Musgraves. "Kacey had a couple songs on the first season that weren't on her record, and when she went over to open for Lady Antebellum, everyone knew the words," he says. "Now, I'm talking to shows like The Voice and X Factor, conversations I never would've had two or three years ago. Those opportunities -- when they are few and far between -- can be life-changing for an artist."  

A version of this article first appeared in the March 14 issue of Billboard