Black Deer 2019 – GIGsoup interview with co-founder Deborah Shilling

This weekend sees Black Deer, the UK’s first major country and Americana festival, return for its second edition, following a successful first year last year. GIGsoup spoke to co-founder Deborah Shilling about this year’s event – wherein she gave us a heads-up about how the festival has expanded this year, her thoughts on the much discussed issue of fair representation of women in the festival scene and challenged the widely held misconception that the UK ‘doesn’t really do country music’.

How are preparations coming for Black Deer 2019? Were you pretty confident after last years event that the festival would return for a second year? When did you get final confirmation on returning?

We’ve been non-stop plotting and planning for this year since Black Deer 2018. We were really happy to see Super Early Bird tickets literally fly out the day after the festival and with so much positive feedback, that for us confirmed it to us! Black Deer is a long term commitment and we want to be at the heart of the music festival calendar for years to come.

Are you expecting a lot of returning customers from last year? For those coming back again, what changes and expansions can they expect from this years event?

There are many people coming back to BD this summer who have also invited their family and friends and we can’t wait to see them! Our fan reviews from 2018 were exceptional so we’ve had our work cut out – but we’ve booked even more artists, added stages, made changes to camping areas and improved every area of the site to offer a great experience for everyone coming to Black Deer this June.

Many people seem to think the UK country/Americana scene is, by nature pretty limited! Will this years festival have many home-grown acts and have you had much interest from British country acts? Is ‘British country music’ something of an oxymoron?

The UK Americana scene is thriving and probably the fasting growing genre in Europe. We had over a thousand applications to play Black Deer through our band submissions and the standard was incredible.  The UK’s biggest country act The Shires is on the bill and the lovely Wandering Hearts and Morganway who are making their own waves in the British country scene. Oxymoron?  It was the Anglo-Celtic immigrants who bought their folksongs, ballads, dances and instrumental pieces to North America and whose sounds combined with those created by the country folk they met, particularly Afro-Americans.  This music may have originated here but now resonates across the globe.

Country/Americana is still considered a bit of a niche in much of the UK – could someone with limited experience with the genre dip their toe with Black Deer – or is the event more for established country/Americana fans?

We can honestly say that the appeal is incredibly broad. Heavy blues, Bluegrass, folk, Rockabilly, honkytonk, country, gospel, oldtime, zydeco, Cajun – there’s so much great music its insane!  It’s a brilliant opportunity to discover incredible musicianship.

Of course, Americana and country are both somewhat vague genres, with many musicians having elements of these in their music. Are there guidelines Black Deer uses to establish which acts would fit the festival bill, or is it more of a case-by-case basis?

Americana by its very nature is indefinable – but artists who use the truth for the basis of their work fit our bill. Roots musicians tend to be storytellers with acoustic instruments and authentic backgrounds and they’re who we’re interested in. But you’ll also find heavier blues straight from the palm desert at Black Deer with The Roadhouse stage (curated by Desertscene London, promoters of Desertfest), gospel music at Sunday brunch and intimate acoustic sessions with Whispering Bob Harris and Under The Apple Tree.

Black Deer seems a family friendly festival by all indicators. Has anything been added this year for the children/families in attendance?

Our Young Folk area is like a festival within a festival and most fan reviews from last year focus on how good a fit Black Deer is for families. There’s fun to be found at every turn with the emphasis being on giving them endless opportunities to explore. Whether that’s through music, craft, or the great outdoors. We’ve also launched a competition to find budding young stars of the future to come and play on the Papermoon Stage, dedicated to our Young Folk –

Black Deer is the only UK festival I know of with an all-female founding team – though there may well be some I’m unaware of! Artists have reported rarely dealing with female promoters – why do you think this is and what could be done to bring more women into this line of work?

We’re not sure why more women aren’t promoters, it’s just a matter of time before this is the case certainly.  As promoters there’s a huge amount to deal with especially as we run our own production too. We have men and women on the team and chose people for their skill and if they ‘fit’.  Some of the women are young mums and are working pretty much full-time for us, we understand the need to juggle work and kids and the day to day having been through motherhood ourselves, so we are happy to be flexible with working hours as long as the job gets done.  Good honest hardworking lovely people are at the heart of Black Deer and hopefully that shines through. In answer to the last question, anyone who wants to get into this line of work just needs to take a step forward and learn the ropes regardless of whether they’re male or female – just do it.  Neither Gill or I have ever encountered any barriers in our work to prevent us doing what we’ve done as women.  

Women in festivals has of course been a major topic of late – a reported 18% of performers at UK festivals last year were female, with many festivals pledging 50/50 performer ratios, female only stages and festivals and so on. I’m curious if there are any such pledges for Black Deer, and what you think of these kind of ‘quotas’ at festivals – are they the best way to ensure a more diverse line-up? How do you think country/Americana as a whole fares alongside other genres in terms of opportunities for female performers?

We hit that quota in 2018, for our first year as part the PRS Foundation’s Keychange initiative. It is something we are mindful of and have tried really hard this year to hit that quota again, although we’ve encountered a lack of female touring artists able to commit this year. For us it is all about the talent, the storytelling and the heart that makes Black Deer so unique and there’s plenty of amazing artists, both male and female, that fit the bill – it’s mainly down to availability. For other genres like metal and stoner rock for example it’s pretty hard to find many female artists so it’s not always down to the promoter.

Anyone who looks online at Black Deer will be intrigued by the food side of the festival. Please tell us more about the barbecue side of the festival this year?  Is it similar to last year or has it expanded?

Live Fire will be bigger and better – we have an incredible line up of chefs from the UK and abroad, showcasing their skills and masterclasses. We have a fast paced BBQ competition called Cookout where teams are pitted against one another in various rounds held throughout the weekend, with only one being crowned ‘Grand Champion’ at the end of the festival. We’ve introduced a vegan and fish round into the meat mix so there’s plenty for everyone whatever their taste. Plus when the Live Fire BBQs are wiped clean at the end of the day, the stage opens up to a series of varied entertainment, talks and panels, acoustic performances and cinematic experiences to keep everyone entertained late into the night.

Black Deer 2019 will take place from 21-23rd June at Eldridge Park, Kent, with Band of Horses, John Butler Trio and the UK’s biggest country act The Shires set to headline. Kris Kristofferson, Ryan Bingham, The Mavericks, The Dead South and many more will also be appearing across three days. Look out for GIGsoup’s review and pictures!