Three years ago, Ian Berry went to visit his grandparents, who’d retired to the Caribbean island of St Lucia. “It was their 60th wedding anniversary,” says the film-maker from Portland, Oregon. “So my whole family was there. My dad and I were talking one day and he happened to offhandedly mention that country music was really popular in St Lucia. I thought he was joking, because I’d been there a few times and I’d never heard anything. But he said, ‘No it’s true.’ And he actually leaned back in his chair and turned on the radio on the shelf – and out of the radio came George Jones! I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
St Lucia isn’t the only Caribbean island with a liking for the sounds of Nashville (last year, Kenny Rogers told the Guardian about his popularity in Jamaica) but it’s undoubtedly the most fervent in its devotion. In St Lucia, country isn’t so much a genre of music as a national obsession. There are buses named after Jim Reeves songs and radio stations that have been known to play 20 George Jones tracks in a row. There are dozens of country and western karaoke bars and club nights, running endless competitions to find the best local singer who can approximate a southern American twang. And there’s the St Lucia country festival, which kicked off in the late 90s with appearances from Tammy Wynette, Don Williams and the Charlie Daniels Band. In Dancing the Habanera Beats (In Country Music), a study of the island’s musical taste, sociologist Jerry Wever recounts a popular local joke suggesting that when police on the neighbouring island of Martinique want to catch illegal immigrants from St Lucia, they only have to put on a country and western dance, then arrest everyone who turns up.
Moreover, St Lucians are remarkably picky when it comes to the actual music: like northern soul fans turning their noses up at funk or disco, they’re uninterested in latterday Nashville stars, obsessed instead with country made between the 1950s and the 1970s. “They just don’t think modern country is really country at all,” says Berry. “It just sounds like rock music to them. They’re completely loyal to that old-fashioned aesthetic, they’re extremely diehard. Not just the old people, but the kids too. You go to a karaoke bar and you see teenagers singing old Tammy Wynette songs. It’s fascinating.”
Hot Watts, the radio DJ who hosts saucy phone-ins to country music backing. Photograph: Ian Berry
A year after his discovery, Berry returned to St Lucia with a crew to film Make Mine Country, a feature-length, Kickstarter-funded documentary about the phenomenon. He’s hoping to finish editing it within the next month, but the rough cut he shows me is fascinating. There are scenes of St Lucians in church on a Sunday, singing God-fearing country songs. There are testimonies from a rural mother of 14, whose home seems to permanently reverberate to country played at deafening volume; there’s a gravedigging Elvis fan and the excitable Hot Watts, a middle-aged radio presenter whose style is not a million miles from that of a Jamaican sound-system DJ. He bellows over the records and stops particularly popular tunes midway through, putting them back to the start with the words: “When it’s nice, you play it twice! When it’s sweet, you repeat!” The big difference is he’s not playing reggae or dancehall: he’s playing lachrymose George Jones songs.
More startling still is what DJ Hot Watts gets up to when his country show ends. He hosts a late-night phone-in called Big People Talk, where – over the sound of romantic country ballads – he offers impressively forthright advice on matters sexual, encouraging listeners to call in while they’re actually having sex and describe what’s going on: “Have you stuck your penis in? Ring in and tell me about it!”
There is also LM Stone, St Lucia’s best known homegrown country star, a stetson-wearing former construction worker who models himself on George Jones and has won acclaim outside the island (the Tennessee Country Music Alliance named him traditional country artist of the year in 2003) but nevertheless makes his living performing John Denver hits to slightly bemused-looking tourists in the island’s big hotels.
“When tourists come to St Lucia,” says Berry, “they tend to stay in all-inclusive resorts. They just sit on the beach and drink their mai-tai or whatever and don’t really explore the rest of the island. So I think tourists see him as more like this curiosity, this oddity, rather than evidence that there’s this huge phenomenon out there. When we went to film LM Stone at one of the resorts, in the intermission they have what they call an entertainment group, all dressed up in cowboy gear with boots, belt-buckles and hats. They get onstage and play records and teach the tourists how to line-dance. It’s extremely weird, you know, watching American tourists being taught how to line-dance by St Lucians.”
Big in St Lucia … George Jones and Tammy Wynette are radio favourites. Photograph: Redferns
The situation is certainly improbable, but it’s not inexplicable. The prosaic reason for St Lucia’s love of country is that the US military built a base there in the 1940s, and the US Armed Forces Radio Service began broadcasting what was then still called hillbilly music across the island. According to LM Stone, its popularity was further bolstered by St Lucians, including his stepfather, who went to work in Florida in the 1960s and 70s cutting sugarcane. They returned home, he says, “with records by Hank Williams, Charley Pride, George Jones, then played them day and night”.
The reasons for its continuing popularity are much debated, though. Berry points out that its fans are most prevalent in the island’s south. “It’s rural there, extremely poor and very, very Christian. And those are pretty similar circumstances that you find in much of the southern United States, the birthplace of country. It’s the music of poor, Christian, rural people.”
Jerry Wever, meanwhile, has noticed country’s similarities with kwadril, the traditional music of St Lucia, often made with fiddle, banjo and guitar. The Texas two-step, he points out, bears a marked resemblance to kwadril dances. In answer to anyone who finds it odd that black people are responding to a music usually made by white artists for a white audience, and associated by some with redneck racism, he suggests that country has been artificially “whitened”: it has deep roots in African-American blues, the banjo originates in Africa, and there’s a rhythmic similarity to the Afro-Caribbean habanera beat (a point underlined by the fact that St Lucians dance to both types of music in a similar style).
Island beat … sun-kissed St Lucia. Photograph: Alan Copson/Getty Images
Nevertheless, St Lucia’s love of country is not uncontroversial: there are suggestions that it’s a sad example of cultural imperialism; that its popularity is a relic of the island’s colonial past, when St Lucia’s traditional culture was denigrated; that its popularity has prevented the island from coming up with its own indigenous form of pop to rival reggae or soca. There have been protest calypso songs called things like Country and Western Take Over and Too Many Country and Western Junkies.
You can understand why – but the arguments didn’t cut much ice with the country fans Berry met. None of them thought there was anything unusual about the island’s love for country. “Whenever I asked,” he says, “they kind of resented the question. I don’t think they saw it as any sort of imperialism. Everyone in America assumes without questioning that, for the most part, country is for, by and about white people: it’s redneck, white trash music. And St Lucians are the exact opposite. That’s not even a factor for them – there’s no undercurrent or overtone. They just see the music for what it is.”