Casahless, Stashless and Care-less in the Deep South

Festival Crowd Header
black deer review 2019

In its triumphant second year the Black Deer festival has successfully rebranded the leafy afternoon-tea-addicted Sussex/Kent borderlands as the Deep South. Spittoon sales are rocketing in the area and there’s a run on chewing tobacco and Jack D; even disgusted of Tunbridge Wells is wearing a ten-gallon hat (a hideous sight admittedly). It’s official though: there’s some corner of a Sussex field that is forever Tennessee.

It’s a guilty pleasure, it shouldn’t be my thing, I’ve a mixed attitude to the States for starters, but – whisper it quietly – this Americana festival has got right under my skin. I can’t quite fathom why, it’s not exactly cool, it’s far from alternative, there’s not a spliff to be smelled let alone inhaled, nor a whiff of petunia oil, but there’s something in its wholesomeness, friendliness and simple good spirit that’s utterly irresistible. And most importantly the music – country, folk, bluegrass, roots and blues – is consistently good and sometimes great. That’s not to say that I liked every act, there was a bit too much seventies-style soft rock – soft country? – for my taste, but hey, there’s something for everyone.

I’m no expert in the genre, but going by this festival live country music – not country and western btw – is at its best raw, authentic, heartfelt and often profoundly moving, both emotionally and physically. Indeed there were many moments when I was so present with a performance that my all my cares simply dissolved away. Hush now, I’m sounding like a fan…this is getting embarrassing! I better ride my steed out of town while I still have a modicum of indie credibility left. Hi-yo Silver, away!

Oh but there’s more. Another impressive thing about country music (hmm, perhaps I am an expert?) is the humility, emotional honesty and lack of pretension and hubris of the artists. This was evidenced each afternoon in the wonderful songwriter sessions, where four to six artists came together in the intimate Supajam tent, my favourite venue, and took turns to sing songs – three or four ‘rounds’ – without any of the back up they had for their performances on the main stages. They were all mesmerising, but I feel compelled to mention in dispatches the astonishing Larkin Poe, Jessie Buckley (of Wild Rose fame), Roseanne Reid, Ryan Bingham, and the Worry Dolls.  

I might well be wrong, but my impression is that many USA country fans are part of redneck Trump-supporting ultra conservative America. It seems though that most country artists aren’t; there were numerous excellent protest songs to be heard at Black Deer, along with a total acceptance of LGBTQ colleagues (well colleague, but nonetheless the inclusion was notable in this context), a smattering of performers of colour (there could be many more of course), and a high percentage of women artists  - something near a 50:50 split and, for me, they included the best performers of the weekend. It feels like there is something important going on: in the heart of so much extreme conservatism country music is a Trojan Horse voice for positive change, liberalism and compassion. I certainly hope so.

Stetsons off to the organisers as this year they provided plenty of vegetarian, vegan and gluton free options as well as the meat-only carnivore heaven/hell that was more or less all there was last year. On a less positive note, I decidedly did not like the barbecue-sales corner. It felt like wandering into a garden centre, horror of horrors, and while I can understand it might bring in a bit of money I’d strongly advise against any more of this sort of thing. Perhaps it could turn into a dedicated healing area next year instead, albeit I’m unsure if the Black Deer crowd is ready for something as relatively left field.

Another mistake for me was this year’s cashless experiment where, instead of using credit cards and cash, we all had to queue up to put money on our chipped wristbands and then only use these across the whole festival site. It felt somewhat controlling, irritating, and mean spirited – very much in contrast to the festival vibe in general. Indeed, as I arrived on Friday evening some old bloke was having a total meltdown as he wanted his cash back from the wristband and it couldn’t be done. Please, not again next year – or at least give us the option of credit cards too.

Let’s return to the positive; Black Deer is truly excellent for kids, there’s loads for them to do, from drawing and dancing and building a large train out of wood to tree climbing and zip wiring. I saw many a browbeaten parent dumping their brood in the extensive kids area before skipping off to the beer tent. The festival’s certainly not only about kids though, the age spread is pretty broad, young groovers to old timers, albeit I’d say the majority fit loosely into the middle-aged and relatively well-heeled bracket.

What else? Well, the rural-idyll setting is exceptional, quite stunning, the weather was again excellent (it seems God is onside as they’d been heavy rain for the full week beforehand), the attendance was well up on last year, the vibe was hugely good natured, the camping areas were lovely if on a bit of a slope, the loos were fine and there were – unusually – enough of them, and the festival staff were friendly and helpful to a man/woman. What’s not to love? I’m most definitely planning to steer my steed back into the Deep South next year.

Published on 09 July 2019 by Neil Del Strother

Recent News More news

  • New Artists Revealed for Black Deer Festival

    Black Deer are proud to announce that The Shires will be adding to the ultimate celebration of Americana and country in Eridge Park this June

  • bluedot Announce Sustainability Programme

    Forming part of a commitment to continually innovate and advance the sustainability of the festival as well as discuss with audiences the fragility of planet earth, bluedot

  • Bluedot Reveals Family Line-up for 2019

    The award-winning festival that fuses music, science and culture at Cheshire’s iconic Jodrell Bank Observatory – has today announced its family programme to an already jam-packed line-up.

  • Shindig Festival 2019 Preview

    A small festival with a big soul. Isn’t that exactly the sort of feeling that will compliment the frenzy as we head into summer?

Upcoming Festivals Browse all

  • Kendal Calling

    25 July - 28 July 2019

    Kendal Calling returns 25th-28th July 2019. Kendal Calling is an intimate, award winning, independent festival held in the beautiful Lake District. It features some the finest contemporary music...

  • Camp Bestival

    25 July - 28 July 2019

    Camp Bestival - the baby sister festival to the multi-award winning Bestival ('Best Medium-Sized Festival' UK Festival Awards 2005/6/7) and now an award winner in its own right Where on earth would y...

  • Port Eliot Festival

    25 July - 28 July 2019

    After hosting the now-legendary Elephant Fayre music festival at Port Eliot from 1981 to 1986, Lord St Germans began a new festival at Port Eliot in 2003. The festival was founded by Peregrine St Germ...