Manchester has long been renowned for its varied and vibrant music scene, playing a major part in dance music, indie and all sorts of other genres.
But could it be about to make a name for itself in the field of country?
Picnic Area formed in 2005, when London-born guitarist Andy Callen joined together with vocalist Wayne McDonald and began to write Americana-influenced songs. Later joined by Simon Parkin, Matt Crawford and Paul Manina, their recently-released second album You Know You Want It! has gained a string of positive reviews.
Before heading away for his honeymoon, Andy spared some time to discuss the band’s plans for building on their increasing success.
“This is our first proper album and we’re happy with how it’s going,” he said.
“We managed to pull off a bit of a coup by getting Bill Leader, who had worked with Paul Simon and other folk legends in the 60s, and [keyboardist and engineer] John Ellis on board. We had the benefit of their great production ideas, and it was fantastic working with them.”
The only band member from outside the North West, Andy moved up from London after featuring in a string of indie bands with varying levels of success.
“I wanted to have a change of scene and see how I’d get on – the other people I moved up with went back down to London pretty quickly, but I’ve really enjoyed it,” he said.
“I think looking back we weren’t playing the right kind of music, but it’s just one of those things really – success comes from things being done naturally rather than trying to force it. I much prefer doing what I’m doing now.”
It was in Manchester where Andy first got into playing country and Americana music, having been inspired by the 2000 album Nixon by American veterans Lambchop.
“It was the subversive way they used music that got me,” he said. “They have all the Nashville-style instruments, but the lyrics are intense and sometimes quite dark.”
He added: “I was interested in country music for a long time, but Picnic Area is the first time I’ve been involved in actually playing it.
“When I was growing up my era was punk, but at the same time as I was buying The Stranglers and all the rest I was buying all The Byrds albums - I still listen to quite a lot of punk, but it just feels more appropriate to play country music now.”
Playing in a group of such enthusiastic fans of country has certainly helped pursue the new musical avenue, and the band look right back to the roots for lyrical inspiration.
“On our writing Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and all the other classics are main influences, as you can see on the album,” he said.
“I really love what Wayne writes, and he’s a great front-man for the band, so I don’t mind being in more of a supporting role than I have been in other bands.”
As well as the new album, Picnic Area host their own monthly show, the Picnic Club, at Fuel Café in Withington – the event recently celebrated its fifth anniversary and has carved out a respectable reputation, featuring a mix of up-and-coming acts alongside stalwarts of the Americana scene.
Asked about how the gig started, Andy said: “It probably sounds a bit cheesy, but I had a dream about setting up such a night about five years ago!
“We wanted a regular show for the band but also to showcase a variety of different acts across a range of groups, especially those with an eccentric side – it’s been a great success for us and everyone else involved.”
From Whitefield’s own New York rocker Risa Hall to the blues-tinged tunes of Stalybridge’s Garron Frith, Manchester singer-songwriter Richie Syrett and Scouse country act The Good Intentions – recently featured on ITV documentary 56 Up – the Picnic Club attracts acts across a range of styles.
“The folk scene is pretty accommodating to people with different approaches, and there’s a great sense of community. People come to Fuel to discover acts as well as support their mates, and it’s really grown over the years” said Andy.
“It’s got to the stage where we don’t have to promote it in terms of finding acts – all the nights are full right the way through to December, which is great!”
A monthly performance has been invaluable exposure for Andy and the band, as the demands of day-jobs - Andy currently works as an academic support librarian in Salford University – still limit the ability to tour.
“We did the open mic nights like Chorlton Folk Club, but I’ve just got married, Wayne’s got a young daughter and we’ve all got various family commitments and work to do,” he said. “I suppose I regret not being able to do things like that as much, but at least we’ve our own regular spot.”
As for upcoming plans for the band, Andy hopes to use both the album and the Fuel night to power Picnic Area ahead in the years to come.
“We’ve already recorded a couple of songs for the follow-up, and I’d like to do touring, but the family side of things makes it difficult,” he said.
“We’ll get some gigs and support spots around Manchester and the North West while we record the album, so hopefully we can climb steadily enough.”
Manchester may not yet be known for producing country music, but Picnic Area might be poised to write an unexpected new chapter in the city’s musical history.