As part of the Country to Country festivities in London, England this past weekend, the celebrations of country music kicked off with the CMA Songwriters series, featuring host and legendary songwriter Bob DiPiero, mainstream hitmaker Brett James, artist and crowd-drawer Martina McBride and newcomers Striking Matches, who many could assume were the underdogs in this instance.
However, that turned out very much not to be the case. For anyone who is not familiar with the Songwriters Series, it places all participating writers up on stage together, and the baton to perform is passed along the line and back around until they’ve all played about six or seven songs. This set-up gives, I must say, rather a nice, intimate atmosphere, where all writers are treated equal and a kind of friendly, front porch feel is created. Many would say Martina McBride isn’t a writer; she has begun writing more of her material in recent years but it was evident that her place on the bill was both to help ticket sales and to boost her profile as she goes to launch her next album independently. Naturally her performances got a big reaction, ranging from performances of tracks she had written, such as ‘Teenage Daughters’ and ‘Summer Love’ (both from 2011’s ‘Eleven’), as well as the Brett James-penned hit ‘Blessed’, the Bob DiPiero-authored ‘There You Are’ (which she even seemed nervous to perform), and the Gretchen Peters classic ‘Independence Day’.
Her often-time collaborator Brett James was quick to show off his songwriting credentials, however. Ranging from stories and performances of his Boxing Day drunken stints with Kenny Chesney, that resulted in hits ‘Out Last Night’ and ‘Reality’, to Josh Gracin’s ‘Stay With Me’, to Kelly Clarkson’s pop smash ‘Mr Know It All’ and Carrie Underwood’s tear-jerker ‘Jesus Take The Wheel’, as well as Dierks Bentley’s ‘I Hold On’, what quickly became apparent was that Brett James can sing. I mean not just sing, but saaaaang. His voice has this power and tone that could easily make him a leading man, and I’m just surprised that he has never made it as an artist considering that he looks the part too. He also came across as genuine and a great teller of stories, speaking of how gratifying it is when songs mean something to people, and how when songwriters stop getting cuts, they may not realize they’re retired (!!).
Bob DiPiero was hosting the night, and of course was the king of stories, having done this since the beginning. Much of the songs he chose to showcase were written and recorded in the 1990’s, with renditions of George Strait cuts ‘Blue Clear Sky’ (and how it was inspired by Forrest Gump) and ‘Cowboys Like Us’, as well as the true-to-life ‘You Can’t Take The Honky Tonk Out of The Girl’ (Brooks & Dunn), and a more recent cut with Easton Corbin’s ‘Loving You Is Fun’. Holding the show together, he’s a seasoned pro and despite his voice beginning to waver with age, still gives everything 100%.
But it was Striking Matches who really stood out to everyone in attendance. Many in the audience had not previously heard of them, as they have only just been signed, but afterwards they were the only ones being talked about, for their solid tracks, their effortless but fantastic guitar skills, and their incredibly strong connection as performers. Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmerman have only been playing together for 3 years, but in that time they have become so tightly rehearsed, their guitar duets complex and expertly composed, yet carried out with ease and always performed dynamically and with a smile. They were electric to watch; from Nashville favorites such as ‘When The Right Comes Along’ and ‘I Ain’t Leaving Without Your Love’ as well as their own singles ‘Trouble Is As Trouble Does’ and ‘Make A Liar Out of Me’, they had style and conviction and were just as vocally on form as they were instrumentally. Sarah even excelled on the mandolin and had crazy skills with a slide; all of this prompted constant praise from the other writers on stage, with even Bob DiPiero simply blown away by what he was witnessing. Following Martina McBride, who seemed to be having a little bit of an off night vocally (although still great, she struggled a little on the higher notes), they more than held their own but showed an endearing down-to-earth attitude that had them nervous to perform alongside the greats and blushing with praise.
Overall it was a great night but had everyone sure that Striking Matches are going to break out, and break out big time.