The Hippo


Apr 26, 2019








Frankie Ballard. Courtesy Photo.

New England Country Music Festival 

When: Sunday, Aug. 6, 1 p.m.
Where: Redhook Brewery, 1 Redhook Way, Portsmouth
Tickets: $15 to $85 at

New England Country Music Festival hits third year

By Michael Witthaus

 When the first New England Country Music Festival launched in 2015, its creators waited nervously to see if the region’s perceived love for country music would bear out. The show, held at Redhook Brewery in Portsmouth, was more than a success, right down to the weather. The following year, it got even better. 

In 2017, the third edition stars Frankie Ballard with supporting acts Michael Ray and William Michael Morgan, and advance sales are moving at a record pace. 
“It’s only grown,” promoter Amanda Morneault said recently of the all-day, family-friendly event. “At a month out we’d distributed more tickets than we had attendees last year, so we are smooth sailing.”
Between them, the three acts topping the bill have multiple Top 10 country hits. Ballard did it three times on his debut CD Sunshine & Whiskey, with “Helluva Life,” “Young & Crazy” and the title cut all charting. His 2016 disc El Rio was named one of Rolling Stone’s 25 best country albums of that year. 
Ballard has a vintage style, but a rock ’n’ roll heart. He grew up in Detroit listening to classic rock, and his newest single is a cover of Bob Seger’s “You’ll Accompany Me.” He embodies Tom Petty’s observation in a recent interview: “Today’s country music is 1970s rock.”
“We actually wanted him last year so the fact that we were able to make this happen in Year 3 was even bigger,” said Morneault. “He is a really great guy to work with, and I’ve always loved his music.”
Ray has matinee idol looks — he recently appeared on the hit series Nashville — to go with songwriting, playing and singing talents that have many talking about him as the next Luke Bryan. “He has ‘Kiss You in the Morning,’ his first No. 1 hit, and then ‘Think a Little Less’ was also No. 1,” Morneault said. “He just released ‘Get to You,’ which will climb, too. … He has all-star power, and we’re really lucky to get him. By next year he might be out of our budget.”
A 24-year-old native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Morgan dropped his first album, Vinyl, in 2016. It went to No. 5 on the U.S. country charts and yielded the No. 2 hit “I Met a Girl.” Morgan appeals to purists, with plenty of twang and pedal steel guitar.
A big part of the festival’s first two years were regional acts given a chance to hit a bigger stage. That continues, with a luminous undercard including Timmy Brown, Jimmy Connor, Casey Derhak and Paige Davis.  
“Timmy is phenomenal, a little bit older but he has a great band with him and just released a single,” Morneault said. “He is opening for some bigger artists and he is in high demand. I tried to book him for other local shows and his calendar was full.”
Connor is a returning favorite. The 17-year-old singer-guitarist got a career boost when Hunter Hayes noticed him holding a sign that read, “Can I sing with you?” at one of his concerts. Hayes became a mentor. 
“Any time Hunter Hayes comes to the area, Jimmy plays with him,” Morneault said. “Jimmy played a solo acoustic set for us last year, and we asked him back right away for a full band performance.” 
Massachusetts-based Davis is a rising star at 16 years old. In April, she won the New England Music Award for 2017 Country Act of the Year. Derhak is the most local act appearing, with no possible competition. He was born at Pease Air Force Base, now the site of Red Hook Brewery, the festival venue. Several of his songs have been recorded by other artists, and he recently moved to Nashville. 
“He is definitely one to watch,” Morneault said. “I would not be surprised if he crosses over from country to more on the pop end of the spectrum.”
Fingers crossed for good weather, the lucky third festival looks more than promising for Morneault and Harbor Agency partner Chris Whynock. 
“This is definitely an all-star lineup,” she said. “We are working really hard to get everything buttoned up so we can enjoy the show.” 

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