Bedfordshire-based CC Smugglers have come a long way since starting out as ‘guerrilla buskers’.
They’ve performed with artists including Old Crow Medicine Show, Seasick Steve and Bruce Springsteen and are now one of the most popular bands on the UK country music circuit, blending their vocal harmonies with a bluesy style and high energy on stage.
I caught up with CC Smugglers frontman Richie Prynne in the middle of their recent UK tour. Read on for more about Richie’s writing process, their latest single Dirty Money and what would be on their career bucket list…
You put out your new single Dirty Money earlier this summer – can you tell us a bit more about that?
That song’s existed for a few years and we’ve done all sorts of different arrangements with it. When we first started out five years ago we were doing a vocal harmony thing, inspired by chain gang-style harmonies. But none of us lads in the band are from particularly well-off families. We’re not totally in poverty especially compared to around the world but we don’t have a huge amount of money. When you’re trying to make it as a musician you have to do a lot of work for not a lot of money. My mum has always told me when I was growing up that you don’t need money to be happy – it’s easy to forget that and you think you need to have stuff or cash to make you happy but they’re not necessarily related at all. It’s funny, a couple of guys in the band have said to me ‘why are you writing a song saying you don’t need money when actually we desperately need it to make an album or even put fuel in the van’. We do need capital to run the business but we don’t need money to be happy – it’s just as important to remember they’re separate. So that’s where that song came from.
You’re crowdfunding your album at the moment – why did you decide to take that approach?
Ever since we started we were street performers and buskers so it’s the same as I was saying about the live shows – we’ve always been able to make a connection with the audience. Right from being on stage and performing we’ve managed to foster that. We’ve got a really good relationship with our fan base on social media and I think that’s something that gives us a lot of power to be able to stay independent. We’re not your standard kind of band in country – the music that we play is kind of quite niche in some ways. We don’t want to have to water it down to be able to get on to the radio.
You’ve played a lot of festivals abroad – do you find you get a different reaction from fans in different places?
With a festival crowd you kind of have to win the audience over but it’s a big stage and we’re good at that – we know exactly what we’re doing. Whereas now touring the UK we’re mainly playing to our existing fans. That’s the difference I think, really. We’re absolutely capable of winning fans over – a festival crowd is our bread and butter. But the tours are lovely – we’ve got people who we’ve won over and then there are returning people year after year.
You’ve mentioned how the band got started as buskers. Do you find that’s helped you hone your craft in terms of winning over the audience?
A hundred per cent. That’s where I learnt the trade. You’ve got to grab a passer-by’s attention and make them stop walking and hold it there for as long as possible. Then once you’ve got them you’ve got to say to them ‘add us on Facebook, buy a CD’ and be able to do that all within a few minutes before they lose their attention and walk off and keep shopping. And to be able to do that to people who are not signed up or haven’t bought a ticket – and then once someone’s bought a ticket or at a festival you can use all of those techniques. It all applies. When we played with Old Crow Medicine Show right at the beginning, I was chatting with them and they did the very same – they were buskers, and the frontman said ‘the kerb is life’s great equaliser’. Because it doesn’t matter how famous you are, when you’re standing on the street and playing and no-one knows who you are, all you’ve got is your performance to win them over. So if you can start there you can apply that for the rest of your career.
You’ve opened for Bruce Springsteen and Seasick Steve as well as Old Crow Medicine Show – what did you learn from those experiences?
To play with people you’ve listened to since you were a kid and your idols will never stop being an honour, ever. Old Crow Medicine Show literally came and got us from standing outside their venue playing on the street for their fans queuing up, and they said ‘come and get on stage with us’. So that was like we’d gone right from the very bottom to playing in front of 3,000 people in a sold-out venue. So that was a huge shock and that really gave us a taste of what we were looking for.
When we played with Bruce Springsteen it was the other end of it. We’d spent all those years working our way up to that point and it was still a massive, massive deal for us. We had our own dressing room and we were backstage hanging out with some really big stars. But to see his show… I could relate to his showmanship. He was in with the audience, talking to them and getting amongst the crowd and shaking people’s hands during the performance, and he never lost that. He closed the gap between the audience – he didn’t just stand there on stage doing his thing but really connected with the audience. But he was still doing what we do now and what we learnt right at the beginning, and that I think is the secret to a really good showman. It was the same with Seasick Steve – the audience have to relate to you.
You do most of the writing for the band – can you tell us a bit about your process and influences?
It can be anything really. Writing for me is just something that I do. It takes all sorts of guys and sometimes it can be like a diary entry for me to get my emotions out. Sometimes I can tell the story of something around me. It depends on the occasion really. We’ve got a song called Lydia, and when we were doing that Old Crow busking thing about five years ago now a guy came up to us and said ‘can you just write a song on the spot?’ I said ‘depends how much money you’ve got’ and he said ‘I’ll give you a tenner’ so I said ‘right I’ll do it’. He said ‘my girlfriend has just got on a train to come to this show’ – it was one of their first dates – ‘and she’s got on the wrong train, she’s on the way to Bristol and there’s no way she can get off it, and she’s really upset so can you write her a song?’ And her name was Lydia. So we wrote that song on the spot and we carried on playing it, and we still play it now. And this week he messaged our Facebook saying ‘I’m the guy you wrote that song for’. They’re bluegrass musicians so they’re going to record a video of them singing the song. So that’s another example of narrative storytelling.
If you had a bucket list for the band, what would it be?
I would like to play on Later With Jools Holland. I’d like to have an album that charts, and I would like to be able to pay all our musicians to pay their rent and buy enough food every day. I’d like to be really well recognised, the tour dates to be full up and I’d like to be able to pay all the musicians a really good wage. But Later With Jools Holland, that’s what I’d really want to do.
What’s next for the band?
Once we’ve finished touring we’re going into the studio and we’ll do this album, then we’ll be promoting it across spring, releasing it at the end of spring and touring it across the summer. And because it’s a pre-order campaign every pre-order that gets done right now, when the album releases in the spring all of those pre-orders will come out on the same day. So we’ve got a high chance of that album actually charting. That’s what we really, really want to achieve. And then hopefully off the back of that we should be playing some really great shows.
To pre-order CC Smugglers new album head over to https://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/cc-smugglers-new-album.