We often think of the British as being the ones who invaded our country with their loud guitars, cavalier attitudes and tight pants. But it's easy to forget all the times that America has returned the favor. It might surprise you to know that one of our biggest (and most underrated) exports to the UK is country music. Even as far back as the '60s, The Beatles used to request Capitol Records to send them every new Buck Owens record as soon as it was released. Decades later, plenty of Brits are still fascinated with our line dancing, cowboy culture, and the barbecue stains on our white t-shirts.
But for a local outlaw country band The Ponderosa Aces, getting get a chance to do a two week tour and playing to packed crowds in the Old World felt like a bit of a fantasy. Until they actually did it. Recently, the Long Beach four-piece crossed the pond to see just how much the UK loves their "proper honky tonk." At least that's the way they were described by one of their opening acts during one of their first shows there.
"That term ‘proper’ stuck out to me," says Mike Maddux, the lead singer/guitarist/chief beard grower in the band. "That’s probably kinda true. Not really everybody makes the trip over there and if they do it’s not always easy for fans to get to and they figure I’ll go see them next time and next time winds up being seven months down the road."
Even with plenty of country acts like Reba McIntyre and Marty Stuart playing to packed arenas, or UK events like the Country 2 Country festival, the fledging band that's been hustling to get their name out in SoCal since 2012 had no idea what to expect. They knew that UK sales for their latest album Honky Tonkin' My Life Away were strong thanks to some press from a journalist named Chris Smith who wound up being their primary UK hookup. After years of setting aside his old life as a tour manager for glam and metal bands back in the '70s, he decided to reenter the business—this time with country music—and The Aces were to be his guinea pigs. Once they squared away the logistics of booking shows, flying over and renting gear and a van, Maddux, along with guitarist Alex "Hoss" Griggs, drummer Art Rodriguez, and bassist Johnny Bottoms—found themselves touching down in England and almost immediately driving to their first gig.
Here's some of the highlights of the UK tour according to Maddux
Gig 1: Milton Keynes
Mike Maddux: Got off the plane in England and was met by John Cleese looking customs official.... After half hour of bureaucratic handwritten red tape let us through with polite well wishes.
We were picked up at Gatwick Airport by Chris Smith, our promoter and jack of all trades. He's a proper English gent with industry experience dating back to the 70's and a fount of national heritage information dating back to the Roman Empire. Helpful encyclopedic knowledge of pub whereabouts and hilarious reminiscences about his run-ins with Keith Moon.
After fish-n-chip dinner (featuring slabs of cod the size of penny boards) we played our opening gig at Milton Keynes, in an arts complex called The Stables (similar to the Cerritos Performing Arts Center). Awesome band radio interview (with Nutty Nora of UKCountryRadio.com), first show with our opening act (the amazing Ags Connolly) and, most unusual, first time playing to a packed seated audience. The crowd were middle-aged suburbanites curious to see American country music played live. If we were smart enough to make a load of Ponderosa Aces golf sweaters we would have made a fortune. The show was a huge success anyway, and the crowd formed a kind of polite receiving line to meet and greet us. "Come back again, do!"
Gig 2: Manchester
Up the motorway for an on air interview in Bolton with a local Radio DJ (Paddy Johnson) who looked to be about 15 (but proved to know his country music very well), then to Manchester for a show above a 19th century pub named Gullivers. We were met by Scottish music writer Jim Clark, who came down from Glasgow seemingly to buy drinks for our bassist, Johnny. We also met an entire family who flew in Belfast to catch the show (which seemed like a big deal to us but we were told it actually wasn't considered a long trip for them—thanks, Ryanair!). Made a lot of new friends and became even more familiar with English beer.
Day off for sight seeing
Drove further north and stopped at Hadrian's Wall for a little history. Got quite a few curious stares from the locals as we hung out by the Roman ruins in cowboy hats. Met up with Allan Watkiss (also from UKCountry Radio) for an interview in a truck stop. The English have some really clean truck stops. Almost felt like a mall... UKCountry Radio has really got behind us and have asked if they might promote a show on the next tour.
Gig 3: Newcastle
On to Newcastle. Only one of our shows where attendance was disappointing. We thought it might be because it was a Monday, but it turns out Newcastle would be promoted to the premier league of English football with a win that night. In the pub before the show, Ags observed that every other patron was wearing the team colors. We loaded our gear up the extremely steep and low stairs... "That'll be our audience going," Ags said as they all filed out to a sports bar 10 minutes before we went on. Chris lightened the mood by backing the van into the glass doors of a hookah bar, knocking a few out of line. After some tense jabbering by a crowd of alarmed men speaking Turkish, me and [guitarist Alex "Hoss" Griggs] managed to get the glass panels back in place and we drove off without leaving our insurance information. Very cold night...
Gig 4: Leicester
Show 4 was a killer in Leicester. Beautiful stage and perfect sound at a venue suitably called The Musician. Good friendly crowd — very knowledgeable about country music and the first show featuring legitimate two-step dancing. Enthusiastic audience participation singalong on our version of Wynn Stewart's "Another Day, Another Dollar." At Leicester we met Duncan Warwick, the editor of Country Music People - the UK's leading country music genre magazine and thanked him for the support they've given the band.
Gig 5: London Soho District
Show 5 was a gig at the prestigious Borderline in London's Soho district. Snaking through the labyrinth of tunnels backstage we had to pause and reflect that we were just a bunch of dudes from SoCal about to play original country songs to strangers in one of the oldest and grandest European capitals in the history of modern civilization. Yet, once again, we were impressed by how interested English people are in country music. Plenty of dancing and lots of applause.
Gig 6: Witney
On to Oxfordshire to Witney for a show in Ags' local venue, Fat Lil's. We were greeted by longtime fan "Outlaw" Steve Tilbury and his family, who had come over from Reading. Ags went down a storm with the whole crowd singing along on every song. We were excited when they did the same for every song we played from our album Honky Tonky My Life Away. Would have liked to hand around the Cotswolds for a while but it was back to London to catch a Eurostar train to Disney Paris early next morning.
Gig 7: Disney Paris
Truth be told, the band were somewhat skeptical about going from the rough and ready plug in and play style we're used to into a full-blown theatrical production at a family-oriented theme park. This concern was heightened somewhat when we sound checked at Billy Bob's Saloon, a three-level western themed venue with an enormous stage. A little army of lighting, sound, video and tech staff set us up with in ear monitors and miked up Art in a plexi-glass drum cage with headphones. Roughly about as much pre-production as a Superbowl half-time show. In the end, the performance turned out to be one of the highlights of the tour (and
probably definitely the biggest show we've ever had). The crowd was immense (200+) and grew as we played. Line dancers took turns with two-steppers depending on the pace of the song. We ended to a huge ovation (but no free beer....).
Gig 8: Brighton
Next up was the Haunt in Brighton. Art and Johnny were excited to find some of the settings from the film Quadrophenia and we took an obligatory but nice band shot on the pier. The Haunt turned out to be aptly named as every single surface was painted black, like the set of a low budget splatter film. But we went over well again despite our gothic surroundings, and were greeted afterwards by a bunch of students who described themselves as country music "converts".
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Last Gig in Dover and More Tourist-y Stuff
After a brief sightseeing stop at medieval Pevensey Castle (don't fall down the oubliette!) we finished the tour at a fine old venue in Dover called the Priory, built in the 19th century. Downstairs was a friendly pub with a great jukebox and darts area. The band stayed upstairs in a kind of cozy Hogwarts-for-traveleing-musicians dorm room.
Maybe the most fun show of the tour, starting with Hoss backing up Ags on several numbers with some fine acoustic picking. The crowd sang along again and we handed the mic to a local gal with a pretty voice for a version of Merle Haggard's 'Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down'. Coming from the super-formal and glitzy production at Eurodisney it was nice to be back on the floor of a bar, right up against the crowd. Free pints for the band and we spent the rest of the night talking with the locals until closing time.
Took a brief time on our day off to do some obligatory London sightseeing... Changing of the guard, Big Ben, and some nice ales in some pubs from the 1600's. A great way to finish off a really fun and successful trip. So far we've been asked to come back to every venue plus a few more.
And now to the real question on everyone's minds...how was the food?
"First thing I ate when he I back was a really nice burger," Maddux says. "he food over there was a culture shock….there was some blood pudding that wasn’t going over too well with the guys...and bubbles and squeak. The guys tried to stay away from that for cholesterol purposes.”