Brittany Kennell

Montreal country queen Brittany Kennell plays the Lasso festival this weekend

“I think it’s going to be a really powerful moment for me. I’m going to be sharing the music I love in the city that I love.”

When Brittany Kennell left Montreal to pursue music education at Berklee in Boston and then country dreams in Nashville over a decade ago, it wasn’t a well-trodden path.

But like the canon that inspired her, Kennell made something out of three chords and the truth. She plied her trade like so many aspiring acts in America’s country music capital, honing her craft as a songwriter and enjoying life’s detours until 10 refined slices of life emerged in the form of I Ain’t a Saint, her confident, funny and heartfelt 2021 debut album. It’s a country release through and through.

The West Islander now lives in Lachine, and instead of returning as a big fish to a small pond, the country music market that seemed so elusive when she left has arrived on her doorstep: after two years of pandemic-related delays, Montreal’s inaugural country music shindig Lasso is finally here this August. Big U.S. stars Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley are headliners.

“It feels like my two worlds are colliding,” said Kennell. “When I moved to Nashville, it was because I wanted to find country music and there wasn’t much here. Now we’re seeing the city embrace it.”

With an extra two years of waiting, Kennell had time to think about that moment when she’ll step on stage at Parc Jean-Drapeau and see all those cowboy hats in the crowd.

“I think it’s going to be a really powerful moment for me,” she said. “I’m going to be sharing the music I love in the city that I love.”

Kennell’s home will always be Montreal, but Nashville will never stop calling. She still visits every few months to hang with friends and partake in songwriting sessions. There’s a businesslike aspect to music making in Nashville, and songwriters of all stripes like to meet up with other writers speed-dating style to see if there’s any magic there.

Kennell even does Zoom songwriting sessions from time to time, and some tracks from I Ain’t a Saint came via a screen collaboration. (Kennell also re-recorded four songs off I Ain’t a Saint in stripped down, traditional Americana style, for an EP released earlier this year.)

“I Ain’t a Saint” (Americana Sessions) by Brittany Kennell

She’s also noticed that perceptions of Nashville have changed over the years. These days, it’s unofficially the bachelorette party capital of North America and the sweaty honkytonks are a necessary pilgrimage. Among others, Taylor Swift played a huge role in introducing the genre to the masses.

“When I first went, people back home didn’t necessarily realize there was such a scene down there,” Kennell recalled. “It’s come full circle. Nashville is such a hot city now. Every week I have someone telling me they plan on visiting and I’ve got my itinerary ready for them to check out.”

Informing people about what’s cool in Nashville isn’t easy. Kennell said new restaurants keep popping up. Not unlike Montreal, rents keep rising there, and while she was once able to balance work and songwriting, today it would be difficult to find an affordable living situation suitable for an artist.

She accomplished a lot in her time there, including a turn on NBC singing contest The Voice, where she naturally joined up with Blake Shelton’s squad, and performed at the illustrious Grand Ole Opry and Bluebird Café. Back home, she often sings the national anthem at Canadiens games. While country artists tend to stick to a lane of either performing or writing, Kennell enjoys both and wouldn’t discount writing behind the scenes should the opportunity present itself.

Returning home as an experienced country act exposed her to something she hadn’t expected: the colourful world of country and folk music fests across the country that have long existed, but thrive slightly off the beaten path.

A major exception is the well-known Calgary Stampede, where Kennell performed recently. Quebec’s equivalent is the Festival Western de St-Tite, just over two hours east of Montreal. Held this September, it’s a big enough deal that Johnny Cash once performed there.

“I didn’t know there were so many great festivals just outside of Montreal,” Kennell said. “I was at the Gala Country (award show for francophone country music) and I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. They were blending traditional country with new sounds.”

A little closer to Quebec City, Festival Country Lotbinière in Saint-Agapit left a big impression on the artist.

“One of the biggest crowds I’ve ever played to was there,” she said. Last month she was at Festival Country-Western de Saint-Gabriel, then it’s off to Festival Western de Saint-André-Avellin.

“They’re rodeo festivals, and they’re a lot of fun,” she added.

The most obvious example of how Quebec’s love of country music was hidden in plain sight all this time, Kennell now lives near famed Lachine line dancing club le Honkytonk. In case you were wondering, this cultural jewel survived the pandemic.

“They do line dancing at the canal, it’s awesome,” Kennell said. “Of course I ended up living near a honky tonk. I haven’t been inside, but I’m on the Facebook group. I’ve stood in front and watched them dance and have fun, so I really need to just jump in there and do it.” ■

“Most Wanted” by Brittany Kennell

This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

Brittany Kennell performs at the Lasso Montreal festival’s Scène de la Prairie on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2 p.m. Weekend passes cost $220/$400 Gold/$535 premium, day tickets $130/$250/$300

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.