This weekend is one of my favourites on offer in our Small City. From Thursday through to Sunday, venues across the city centre come alive with the sound of the Southern Fried Festival. Or should I say, the award-winning sound of the Southern Fried Festival? Because last October, our home-grown weekend of blues, soul and country was officially recognised as Scotland’s Best Small Festival at The Scottish Events Awards. And no-one was more pleased than this month’s Big Personality, Andy Shearer.
Andy is the Creative Director for Horsecross Music and started Southern Fried eight years ago as a few themed gigs at Perth Concert Hall. Since then, the festival has grown organically, with a little extra added each and every year. In 2014 we all lazed around in the sunshine at Horsecross Plaza, soaking up the vibes of the free outdoor stage for the first time, and this year we’re being treated to a Film Festival as Perth Playhouse pulls in some themed movies for the weekend. There are amazing gigs dotted all around town, including Late & Southern Fried in The Salutation Hotel and a big ol’ opening night at The Twa Tams on Thursday with The Red Pine Timber Company and Della Mae. No mean feat I’m sure you’ll agree; it seems Andy’s baby has gotten all grown up…
Andy tells me he has always been into music; for as far back as he can remember he had the skirl of the bagpipes in his ear with his Grandad, Dad and brother all experts on the pipes. He played chanter and was a fan of traditional music from a young age. He grew up near Aberfeldy, on the Strathtay side and then in 1981 moved to Glen Lyon with his Dad’s job as a gamekeeper.
Not the breeding ground you’d expect for a Punk, but nevertheless his first gig was The Clash in the The Caird Hall, Dundee and so his love of music across multiple genres took off. By the time he was at Uni in Edinburgh, studying Accounts and Economics (anyone who knows this man will be amazed that these were his choices) he was in his first band, with Gary West, a piper friend from Pitlochry, doing ceilidhs for weddings and trad nights.
“I enjoyed school, but I hated Uni. I wrote reviews for a student newspaper which was good fun and the ceilidh band was a laugh although I wasn’t actually that good – thankfully the other guys were. But I wanted to do something more with the music and at the time there just weren’t the courses that are on offer now. I was big into Irish Music at the time and when I finished my degree I heard about a one year diploma in Arts Administration at University College Dublin so I headed straight for Ireland.”
It was 1991 and Dublin was the European City of Culture at the time. The diploma was part placement and Andy was selected to work with the City of Culture office which may sound terribly grand but the truth is, they had no money and they were following Glasgow who everyone will remember ‘Smiles Better’!
“It was awful. Glasgow had made this huge impact with a massive campaign and Dublin were following with a tiny budget. It was very difficult to compete with our predecessor! We were under fire throughout the whole thing – we were mostly just branding stuff that would have happened anyway.
But it was a great learning experience, and they gave me these big events to manage myself. You just had to get stuck in. The people were really good, I made friends there that I’m still pals with now.”
Now, if you’ve worked in or around or near the arts you’ll know that it can often be dominated by larger than life personalities and showmen and women of all shapes and sizes. Andy breaks this mould with an unassuming, easy-going manner. In fact, if anything, he’s quite quiet to start with. Friendly, smile to welcome you, happy to answer… but it’s not until you get him going on his subject of choice that you begin to get a real sense of the man who has carved his path through the world of making live music happen.
The placement in Dublin was only ever for one year, so Andy headed back to Scotland to take up post in newly launched Lemon Tree in Aberdeen. Live music stalwarts will know that this is a venue that went on to huge acclaim in Scotland’s live music and comedy scene but at the time, it was just starting out and so Andy was to become part of the team that created that buzz and energy that whipped the Scottish nineties arts media into a frenzy.
“There wasn’t really anywhere else doing what we were doing at the time. It was a new venue and was small to mid-scale. We did contemporary dance and cutting-edge theatre upstairs and right across the board musically downstairs.
At the time my musical interests were everywhere and as I was charged with programming I decided to go out on a limb and do something revolutionary. So we had a programme that pulled in jazz, ballet, rock & roll, traditional and everything in between. The press was incredible and the audiences loved it.
Because I had an input into the brand, and how it was sold, we were able to make it accessible. The arts are often accused of being high-brow but we were mixing tribute bands with World Music and Indie musicians and it all just worked. We had Sunday jazz for an older crowd, rock gigs for students and we were doing about 250 gigs a year over nights and lunchtimes.”
Andy left The Lemon Tree in 1999 to head back to Dublin to work with MCD as a commercial music promoter. The covered everything from stadium to club gigs and have interests in around 70% of the rock market in the UK. I’m tactfully told it was a great education, but the wrong fit.
“The commercial music world has a different outlook on things; it’s all about money and marketing. I suddenly found myself going from running THE venue that everyone wanted to be in – acts and audience – to a 500 capacity venue on the wrong side of town.
While I was there, The Lemon Tree asked me if I’d help out freelance, so I was flying over a few days a month to work with them. I knew it so well I could stay in Dublin and run things from there. I eventually left MCD in 2002, after three years, and went freelance fulltime. To be honest, it suited me perfectly – I hate being told what to do!”
So, round about spring 2004 Perth is getting ready to open its amazing new Concert Hall. A couple of people from Horsecross contacted Andy and told him what was going on back in his home county. They were looking for someone to take on the reins of the non-classical side of Horsecross and apparently his name kept coming up. He headed down to see Jane Spiers, instantly liked the project and came on stream in late summer 2004 as part of the team that would open Horsecross Perth.
“Almost eleven years ago now. I worked between Horsecross and Lemon Tree to begin with and it was a bit of a culture shock at first, coming from the hustle and bustle of Dublin back to Perth.
It never occurred to me at any point up to then I’d work this close to my home; because where would I have gone? I had built a career opening new buildings, first at The Lemon Tree then in Dublin, but this was very different. Because Perth had never had a big venue before, there were question marks over some of the real fundamentals. Would we get enough events, would the audience come?”
Thankfully, the answer to both of these questions was yes. They pulled together a spring and autumn programme and punched well above their weight on audience figures. They attracted the same touring shows as Edinburgh and Glasgow and with Andy’s role in non-classical music covering a multitude of genres he has enjoyed great success in everything from comedy to Kids’ Ice Shows!
“I had done a bit of comedy in Aberdeen so I started looking at that early on. We do the commercial kids’ stuff like Ice Shows and Singing Kettle because families love it. Calamity Jane was one of mine this year and of course Southern Fried just keeps getting bigger.
For me, the community feel of Horsecross is a great thing. Schools Orchestras and Prize Givings mean that everyone walks through these doors and that’s great thing. It breaks down barriers and lets people see they can be involved.”
So, let’s back track a wee bit because like most people, Andy’s big life milestones all overlapped into his big musical story. Back in March 2004, a few months before he returned to Perth, he headed out to South By South West in Austin.
Now, like all good and true lovers of music Andy’s taste sweeps the board and he loves a traditional tune on a fiddle as much as he does Punk, Indie and Country Americana. He grew up on good Scottish folk music, like The Corries and Silly Wizard and enjoyed soundtracks like Paint Your Wagon.
“When I was growing up I listened to so many sounds. Kind of ‘never the twain shall meet’ type stuff. I was as happy with a Punk band as I was with country. In the seventies and eighties there was a lot of country stuff in the charts and when I was living in Glen Lyon there was a crowd from Kentucky rented the big house for a couple of weeks every summer.
We got to know them; they were all connected to youth theatre in Louisville in Kentucky and their kids were ages with me and my brothers. We bonded over music, swapping tapes and listening to each other’s sounds of home.
Anyway, the kid I became friends with is Will Oldham, who lots of people know as Bonnie Prince Billy. He greatly deepened my knowledge of what we now know as Americana and I showed him the world of Scottish music. I suppose we’d have found these different influences as we grew up but to have each other as guidance at that young age was amazing. Will was quoted in a book about his life in music and in it he says he listened to nothing but these tapes of Scottish traditional music for about six months!”
As a wee aside, I googled Will Oldham. He is a big deal. “not only one of the most distinctive and fascinating musical talents to emerge in the last ten years but a figure as compelling as any in the whole history of rock’n’roll” Mojo. Oldham is known for his "do-it-yourself punk aesthetic and blunt honesty," and his music has been likened to Americana, folk, roots, country, punk and IndieRock. He has been called an "Appalachian post-punk solipsist" with a voice that has been described as "a fragile sort-of warble frittering around haunted melodies in the American folk or country tradition."
So, back to Andy and his trip to the American heart of the world. From the early days of Horsecross there was talk of doing festivals and the team knew they’d have to do something big, that would attract audiences from further afield. Andy tells me about the history of Americana and the folky left field in Perth, with John and Barclay Thomson from Goldrush Records bringing big names like Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark over in the seventies and eighties.
“These guys were emerging songwriters at the time but they’d all come to Perth and it was often their only Scottish gig on an almost underground circuit for uncategorisable artists that pre-dated labels like Americana and even “new country” as it was termed in the 80’s.”
Andy headed back out to South By South West the following year – 2005 – which was to become one of those life-changing trips for many reasons.
“Well, most people go out to South By South West for the latest indie bands but because Austin is a centre for more left-field Americana, that was the real draw for me. They had this great slogan that read ‘Keep Austin Weird’ as it was a bohemian liberal oasis in the otherwise red neck State Of Texas Anyhow, I knew I’d be able to build contacts and we had pretty much decided that our Festival would be broadly based around Americana.
So I picked up a few good contacts that I did indeed use when we started Southern Fried in 2008, and of course, I met Peggy.”
Ahhhhh Peggy! Regular readers should cast their mind back to this time last year when I interviewed a gorgeous American Archaeological Chef. Peggy Brunache caught the eye of our Andy and after a few months long distance, and several transatlantic plane journeys, she came to Scotland to settle down with her Scotsman.
“It was maybe about a year after we met Peggy came over. We just didn’t want to do the long distance thing. I met Peggy in spring 2005, the Concert Hall opened in September 2005 and she moved here in March 2006, we were married in the December and then Ruben came along in May 2007. By 2008 we were launching Southern Fried and I was rolling out the Americana influence I had found at South By South West (SXSW) when I met Peggy.”
Southern Fried is eight years old and as I said in my intro, won its first award last Autumn. They opened that year in 2008 with three concerts and a late night at Perth Theatre. Andy tells me he knew right away they’d nailed it.
“We did good business, people enjoyed it. I knew it was right. It has grown organically since then although we’re still a slave to the headline acts; people want to book something they know. The outdoor stage was great for this last year – it’s a bit like a gateway drug. We get you hooked in country and Americana and then pull you in for a weekend pass the following year!
I’m only joking – I like the fact we can put something on for free as part of this festival. It means people that can’t usually afford to go out to live music can come and enjoy Southern Fried. Or maybe people who can’t get out at night can sit and enjoy a few hours during the day. Grab a plate of soul food from the buffet and just relax into it.”
And as the Festival goes from strength to strength Andy has broadened his freelance career once more. A few years ago the McCreary Sisters would only fly to Scotland for Southern Fried if it was worth their while. They needed another few gigs to justify the air fare and the time out. Andy set them up and started thinking of other musicians Stateside that might do the same. He has now lined up a songwriters’ festival in Paisley and has been enjoying this new found string to his bow.
I want to know, before we finish up, what his highlights of Southern Fried 2015 will be.
“Oh that’s tough – it’s an incredible year. I’m looking forward to the Dolly Parton Night and the McCrary Sisters. Della Mae are kicking things off in the Tams with Red Pine Timber Co and that’ll be amazing. Yola Carter will be great, Amythyst Kiah I came across by accident and she’s fantastic. I don’t think I can choose one thing.
But I’m going to have to mention the food. Peggy and Martin do an amazing job of bringing us authentic Soul Food and it makes the weekend complete. Soul, R&B, country and jazz celebrate food in a way we just don’t do here and it helps make Southern Fried unique as a festival.”
In case you didn’t catch the link, Peggy, his wife is the woman behind the Soul Food and as Andy chats to me easily and passionately now, about his Festival, his family and his life back in Perth, he is smiling as if he can’t quite believe this is in fact his own music filled life he’s describing. His very own the-boy-done-good country sing-a-long.
To find out more about Southern Fried Festival and to book the last few tickets, click over to the Horsecross Website now!
Find out a bit more about the amazing talents of Bonny Prince Billy who deepened Andy's love of Americana, have a read of this great piece on The Herald site.
Southern Fried Festival has been a hit since the beginning! Find out the history here in The List!