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INTERVIEW: Luke Thomas – Nashville Live’s Musical Director talks all things Country

Transporting audiences into the heart of downtown Nashville, Nashville Live takes spectators on a journey through the country music history books with some of its biggest stars. Featuring music from classic artists such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton; to more recent performers such as Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks, Nashville Live is a celebration of the biggest legends of country music and the stories behind their hits. Ahead of the tour, Musical Director Luke Thomas spoke to The Reviews Hub’s Fraser MacDonald about how the idea came to be.

Can you start by telling us a little bit about the concept of the show? 

The idea behind it is a night at the Grand Ole Opry. We want to give the feel of a live radio broadcast. We will do all the Bill Munro bluegrass tunes of the 40s and 50s and we’ll not go much further forward than Shania Twain and The Dixie Chicks. We’ll have plenty of Johnny Cash, Dolly [Parton] and Kenny [Rogers], Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn – all the country legends! We’ll also have some Garth Brooks and a few more modern turns too.

And the cast are all West End stars in their own right, aren’t they?

Yeah, we have four frontline singers who are all familiar faces from the West End. Robbie Durham is playing Johnny Cash; he played him in Million Dollar Quartet and if you close your eyes, you’d swear it was the man himself. We have Lisa Wright, who was in Sunny Afternoon – the Kinks musical – and she was actually a country singer at the start of her career. Helena Gullen is an incredible fiddle player and she’ll be doing a few songs too. Chris Grahamson, the announcer, is a voice-over artist and a West End star of his own right. We also have a really great band behind them all so when it all comes together, it’s great.

How do you choose what material makes the cut?

It’s probably a lot easier than people think! I’ve been involved in country music for the last 15 years, so I feel I know what works and what doesn’t already. But we also decided to choose some of the most popular artists that our audiences would love. I mean, George Jones, for example, was massive in the States but not that well known in the UK, so it’s trying to get the balance for audiences. Once we had chosen the artist, we then looked at what songs people would want to hear and would work best amongst the others. It was then scripted and we decided to include a few period adverts; we took some Southern country adverts that we sourced online and we’ll recreate them live to really give the feel of a night at the Opry. 

You’ll be aware that Glasgow, where the tour starts, has its very own Grand Ole Opry so the music clearly has worldwide, lasting appeal. How do you think the music has stayed relevant through the years?

I’ve been really lucky to have been involved in country music for the past 15 years and I’ve noticed it grow. There is always the 60+ audience who remember it first hand, which is your theatre audience, so you might not get a lot of 20-year olds traditionally. But with a massive surge in events like Country to Country and the Nashville TV show, there’s been a huge increase in young people getting involved in country music. So it’s perfect timing for an event like this, that blends the classics and some of the newer stuff. In the last few years, country music has grown tenfold which is fantastic to then bring a show that showcases the very best of country.

The venues you’re taking the show to are all concert halls rather than theatres. Was that a conscious decision with a view to attract more than just a theatre-going crowd?

The beauty of taking the show to a concert hall is that theatres predominantly have a week run of a show rather than one-off events. For us, we’re playing venues where you can go to a proper gig so that should hopefully bring in a new audience for us. 

Finally, what’ll you be up to when the Nashville Live tour finishes?

Well, I’m a session musician in my day job so I’ve played for artists like Jess and the Bandits, so that takes up most of the year. Either playing live or in the studio – it’s coming up to summer festivals so I’ve got a lot of festivals to play. I also book American artists to come over and play in the UK. I’ve been running the Country on the Clyde festival as a supplement to Country to Country in Glasgow too which is great fun. So it’s safe to say that I’m keeping pretty busy! 

Nashville Live opens on 7 June at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (tickets available here), then touring 

Fraser MacDonald | Image: Scott Rylander

The Reviews Hub

The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.

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