Country-soul sister Rachel Harrington put it rather more effusively, reporting after a 2010 visit that she had “recovered, just barely, from the fabulous wonderment that is Perth’s Southern Fried Festival”.
The venerable burgh may seem an unlikely home for a major annual celebration of American roots music, but, now in its sixth year, the Southern Fried Festival, based around Perth’s Horsecross theatre and concert hall complex, repeatedly attracts top-notch performers in genres ranging from nu-country to gospel blues, old-time to Tex-Mex. Bill-toppers for this year’s event, which runs from 19-21 July, include the Latin-inflected country rock of the Mavericks, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, soul singer Bettye LaVette and gospel quartet the McCrary Sisters.
What is it about “Americana” that makes it so currently popular here? “I think folk relate to the authenticity and honesty and rawness of a lot of it, as opposed to some of the more commercial country, or what passes for country these days,” is the response of Andy Shearer, Southern Fried’s director. “Also because a lot of it, certainly at the country end, came from here originally.”
Perth’s history as a venue for US roots music goes as far back as the early 1980s with visits from “nu-country” luminaries such as Guy Clark and Lyle Lovett, with John and Barclay Thomson of the late lamented Goldrush record shop key figures in organising the gigs.
Launched six years ago, Southern Fried has become an established date on an international circuit. “I’m over in the States reasonably often,” says Shearer, “and people know the festival now and are keen to play at it.”
Making a rapid return following last year’s appearance is singer-songwriter Darrell Scott, well known here through the Transatlantic Sessions. He’ll join forces with the UK bassist Danny Thompson. Meanwhile, another formidable instrumentalist, guitarist Bill Kirchen, brings his band and the gravel-voiced troubadour Tom Russell also appears.
Shearer is particularly excited about the festival debut of the McCrary Sisters. Two, Regina and Ann, are the gospel singers of choice for everyone from Elvis and Bob Dylan to today’s Patti Griffin and the Mavericks. Making a rare quartet excursion outside the States with sisters Deborah and Alfreda, before playing Perth they appear in Shetland next Thursday, which should prove quite a culture shock for all concerned.