All night a shuffling Kassi Ashton looked perilously close to slipping off her stool, crashing into the mic stand and ending up legs akimbo on a perfectly polished Sage Two stage. Ironically, however, one of country music’s rising stars is on the way up, rather than on the slide, and the part she played on a wonderfully revealing night of music and memories went some way to explaining an increasingly rapid career trajectory. 

On the same night Ashton was confirmed as one of three recipients of the inaugural CMA KixStart Scholarship – an award that guarantees industry support across the board – the 25-year-old singer songwriter fused serious sass with a sense of endearing vulnerability. Whether raising a smile or raising the roof, this alt country queen has all the tools to take her bittersweet music to the next level and put Uber drivers everywhere firmly in their place.

The hilarious tale about her best friend’s fateful cab ride – to the soundtrack of Ashton’s current single Taxidermy – was one of many joyous anecdotes freely shared by four of the finest new talents on the country music scene. On reflection, to describe Chris DeStefano as ‘new’ might be stretching a point as the celebrated songwriter has been a few times around the block…and back again. But he’s still new to being the centre of attention and, as the main man, up front and personal, he looked and sounded like a natural: solo single Wide Open suggesting the time is right to perform his own songs on his own terms.

Ashley Campbell was back in the North East after appearing at 2017’s SummerTyne Americana festival and Glen’s gloriously talented daughter delivered another spine-tingling set rich in tear-jerking emotion. Breaking out the banjo, a joyous version of Gentle On My Mind might well have been the most emotive song Sage Gateshead has heard all year. Campbell’s sweet tone is seriously addictive and one of country music’s brightest talents clearly looks the part – but it’s the genes, rather than her jeans, that make this artist extra, extra special.

And so to the tiny but mighty Tenille Townes. Taking the lead as host for the night, the small-town Canadian packs an almighty punch and it’s no stretch to picture her belting out U2 and Shania Twain from the back seat of her parents’ car as a keen and impressionable kid. Townes might have let the battery on her semi-acoustic guitar run down but there was an energy and a spark underpinning songs like Somebody’s Daughter, Jersey On The Wall and White Horse. Six strings and a few carefully chosen words are all this special lady needs to graduate from the intimate setting of the Songwriters’ stage to theatres, arenas and beyond.