Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival: It's coals to Newcastle as Belfast's country music is beamed into American heartlands
One of Belfast's most exciting music festivals could have a record-breaking audience of 60 million people as American broadcasters beam a special concert from the city into homes right across the United States.
It's a remarkable breakthrough for the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year by doubling the number of artists and shows.
The popularity of the festival underlines the seemingly unquenchable appetite for country music in Ireland, where American superstar Garth Brooks will play five sold-out concerts in front of 400,000 fans in Croke Park in Dublin in July.
Country, folk and blues artists from across the world will be descending on Belfast for the festival, which runs from February 28 over 10 nights instead of its normal five.
Headliners include Scots-born sixties star Donovan, who's due to be inducted soon into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York, and American Chip Taylor who penned million-selling hits Wild Thing and Angel Of The Morning and who'll be singing at the Empire Music Hall with his long-time collaborator John Plantania, the renowned guitarist who played on Van Morrison's legendary Astral Weeks album.
Other well-known names include Grammy award-winner Midge Ure, who helped Bob Geldof organise the Live Aid concert at Wembley in 1985.
The festival also features local songwriters, four of whom will fly to Nashville to showcase their work at the internationally acclaimed Bluebird café and meet influential figures on the American country music scene.
The four who are being supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and United Airlines are Wilfie Gilbert from Holywood; Peter McVeigh from Belfast; Stephen McCartney from Bangor, and 18-year-old Crossgar girl Triona Carville.
Members of Irish group Bagatelle, who will be marking 35 years on the road at the festival, were at yesterday's launch in a Belfast hotel.
Festival organiser Colin Magee said: "It's just kept growing and growing and now we have lined up 100 singers; 70 concerts and showcases, 17 workshops and music seminars plus an urban cinema.
"And everyone is really excited about the one-hour TV special from the Empire Music Hall. Donovan, Chip Taylor, Jim Lauderdale and our own Gareth Dunlop are taking part in the show for the Music City Roots show, which will be going out on Public Broadcast Television," he said.
Music is the common thread between Belfast and Nashville
By Colin Magee, Panarts director
The links between Belfast and Nashville go right back to the founding of the US city in 1780 by two Co Antrim families, the Robertsons and the Donelsons.
By the time Nashville was settled, 250,000 people had left these shores for the New World, with many making Tennessee their home.
They brought with them their songs, tunes, traditions and stories and when country or Americana music is played here in Belfast, we can hear the link in the great story songs of Nashville.
When we travel over to Nashville in March every year to showcase Belfast songwriters, we're welcomed with open arms. It's amazing just how many Tennesseans are aware of the musical connections and they often comment about the roots of country music being here.
When songwriters from both cities get together, at the festival, it's clear every year that music is the common thread.
Ivan Little's five festival picks
Donovan, February 28 in the Olympic Room, Holiday Inn
A man who talks about his songs as well as he sings them.
Chip Taylor in concert with John Platania, February 28, The Empire
(Sadly the same night as Donovan) I saw these two legends in a tiny Belfast pub a decade ago. Unforgettable.
Gareth Dunlop, March 6, The Empire
His singing was the highlight of my wedding day in 2011. Well, almost. Sensational.
Lee Roy Parnell and Friends, March 8 in the Titanic Room, Holiday Inn
Texan with attitude. Insiders say he's the one not to miss.
Simon McBride Band, March 8 in the Olympic Room, Holiday Inn
Not as well-known in his native Northern Ireland as he should be, but that's only a matter of time.