So it's cheering to see the O2 pretty much crammed to the rafters for the Country to Country festival, or C2C, or "the Grand Ole Opry comes to Greenwich", as Whispering Bob regularly reminds us from the stage.
Country to Country is the first of its kind, a joint venture between the O2 promoters and the Country Music Association in Nashville, who've sent over a selection of the A-listers they think we're most likely to get on with. The artists seem genuinely stoked to be here: Tim McGraw has sold 40m albums, but he's never played the UK: "Can you feel the spirit of country music moving all over you?" he asks the audience. "Over there? Down the middle? Give me a 'Hallelujah!'" He and Darius Rucker, the most successful black country singer since Charley Pride, have released UK singles to coincide with this gig, and tonight the highest tiers of the O2 twinkle with Stetsons: there are middle-aged couples, young people in plaid shirts, and girls who've come for Carrie Underwood on Sunday. The arena changes character, feels warmer: it makes you realise, not for the first time, how small is the layer of music that gets "hyped" in the UK.
McGraw is married to the country singer Faith Hill, and he starred in the movie Country Strong alongside Gwyneth Paltrow; he's also a Democrat who keeps threatening to run for office in his native Tennessee. To look at, he's a kind of goth-Gestapo-cowboy in ankle-length leather coat, leather trousers and leather Stetson: he has advanced biceps that enable him to flip, on one arm, into the audience. But his songs are homely, with Bruce Hornsby-style piano and wistful lyrics about "country boys and girls gettin' down on the farm" (Down on the Farm) and lessons learned from that long hot summer with the one that got away.
Country music's self-consciousness – that strict lexicon of blacktops and broken hearts – repels as many people as it attracts, but it's as much a fantasy to the majority of Americans as it is to us in Britain. And that's the point: every person here is immersed in the romance. There are stalls selling bootlace ties, holsters and DVDs on how to rein your horse correctly. McGraw's songs may be constructed from cliches but they seem to contain an intensified experience of the world. Darius Rucker used to be in Hootie and the Blowfish, and his lyrics celebrating the simple joy of having a wife and (in one case) some shoes are genuinely infectious, almost evangelical.
The real drama takes place on Sunday afternoon, with a fascinating "comeback" (she didn't really go away) from LeAnn Rimes, whom we first saw on Top of the Pops as a shy 15-year-old singing her humungous hit How Do I Live. Since then she's fought a lawsuit against her dad (she claimed he swindled her out of $7m), and recently became Nashville's scarlet woman after a very public affair. Her new song, Borrowed, is a jittery but defiant account of the scandal ("I know you're not mine, only borrowed/ And I don't want to give you back"), and afterwards the applause goes on far longer than she clearly expected. I don't think I've ever seen a pop star trying not to cry on stage before: nowadays you're under contract to squeeze out a few tears (Rimes and Carrie Underwood are so different from Taylor Swift, the "Queen of Country Pop", with her oversharing and personal speeches). Underwood, who is from Oklahoma and won American Idol in 2005, recently rattled her Republican fans by coming out in favour of gay marriage. She combines classic country music storytelling with tremendous pluck, and does a particularly good line in cheatin' songs – Two Black Cadillacs tells the tale of two women who plot the murder of their lover and come face to face at the side of his grave.
But wait, what's this horror? Every reporter in the O2 licks their pencil point and scribbles disapprovingly as the O2 becomes a superchurch, with images of stained-glass windows and shafts of godly light beamed on the back wall for Carrie's cautionary hit Jesus, Take the Wheel. It would be a real shame if the organisers came under pressure to make C2C any less "country" next year. It's just a bit of religion, people… get over it.
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