‘Whispering’ Bob Harris tells Tim Hughes why he is setting up the perfect music festival

It is a perfect spring afternoon in an English country garden.

Blossom bursts from bushes and birds chirp in gnarled apple trees, drowning out the distant hum of traffic in the distance.

But this lawn, on the edge of Steventon, is no typical garden, for beneath the twisted boughs of those fruit trees is a piece of rock & roll history – ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris’s home studio, called, quite reasonably, Under the Apple Tree.

Inside the low-slung building is an Aladdin’s Cave of vinyl, CDs, photos, Americana and mementoes from a life spent at the sharp end of rock, pop and country. Oh, and a huge mixing console at which he records his radio shows.

“Have you heard this?” he says, beaming widely and picking up a CD from a pile near the door and removing it from the case.

“They are called Monster Truck and I absolutely love them…”

Suddenly the place erupts into a raucous cacophony of thrashed guitars, yelled vocals and battered drums.

“Aren’t they great?” he smiles.

Broadcasting legend, Bob – former Old Grey Whistle Test presenter and friend to the stars – has been championing quality new music since the 70s, a role that continues today with his custodianship of two cult BBC Radio 2 shows.

It’s a life vocation which has seen him hanging out with John Lennon, George Harrison, Marc Bolan, Queen, Brian Wilson and Led Zeppelin. Oh, and David Bowie –even joining him to sing on his classic tune Memory of a Free Festival.

And it is partly that song, and the freewheeling ethos of al fresco partying, that has spurred him into doing one of the few things in the music industry he had, until now, never turned his hand to: holding his own festival.

The Under the Apple Tree roots festival is inspired by the friendships he has made in the business, both in Nashville, where he is feted as a hero of country music, and at home where he is acknowledged as a national treasure.

Over the course of the over the Spring bank holiday weekend, May 27-29, it will feature sets by New Yorker Gretchen Peters, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter and, we can exclusively reveal today, Cool for Cats stars Squeeze.

They join a bill which bristles from talent from Ethan Johns, Squeeze’s Chris Difford (who plays his own set and curates a songwriting stage), Gemma Hayes, Danny & The Champions of the World, Hunter & The Bear, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Boo Hewerdine, Scott Matthews, Sonia Leigh, Keston Cobblers’ Club, Judith Owen, Liam Bailey, Nell Bryden, Martyn Joseph, Ward Thomas, Judie Tzuke, Kimmie Rhodes and Oxfordshire’s Thea Gilmore and The Dreaming Spires.

Almost everyone on the bill has worked or recorded with Bob – many of them firm friends.

“Someone suggested I have a festival here in the garden, and that planted the seed,” he smiles, relaxing beside a large microphone, in the chair where all the magic happens.

“We thought about it, and then decided to jump, and see what happens – and from then on it has been all hands on deck.”

He settled on a wooded site at Silverstone in Northamptonshire. Then came the process of picking artists.

“I started with a wish list of people I really liked, and got in touch with them. Then loads more people contacted me,” he says.

“My first port of call was Martyn Joseph, Thea, Danny & The Champions, and, significantly, The Dreaming Spires. I really wanted them to be part of this.”

The Dreaming Spires, brothers Robin and Joe Bennett, also from Steventon, were instrumental. Bob curated his own stage at their own festival, Truck, which takes place at nearby Hill Farm.

But admits it is a mighty leap to running his own gathering.

“We have got four stages across three days,” he says. “It’s brilliant and scary in equal measure. It’s so massive and the organisation is phenomenal.”

Making it family affair, his son Miles will run his own Under the Apple Tree sessions, filming and recording artists after their main stage sets. The sessions have become a popular aspect at other festivals including local gatherings Cornbury and Fairport’s Cropredy Convention.

There will also be a pub stage – the site encompassing its own hostelry.

“There’s a proper pub on the site which we’ll be commandeering,” he laughs.

“We are beside a bluebell wood, next door to the racing circuit on a site which appears custom-made for what we want.”

And should the weather be less than kind, revellers will be protected with a rain-proof cover, capable of sheltering 5,000 people.

“The festival can hold 35,000 people but we are not expecting to have anything like that in our first year,” he goes on.

And his highlights? He is far too polite to single out individuals, but admits he is delighted with his headliners. “Beth is a good friend and I am delighted she is coming,” he says. “I saw Gretchen at the Americana Awards and she said she is going to fly over just for this. Then we have Beth Nielsen Chapman, who has got a new album and will be performing it for the first time at the festival.

The Oxford Times:

“We’ve known each other for 25 years and she is a friend, like all the artists. They are all people we know either as friends or after performing in the studio.

“We also have Chris Difford, Squeeze, and Ethan Johns, who I am thrilled can play. Then there’s Ward Thomas, who I have seen rocket.”

He admits there’s another motivation. "This year I turn 70,” he says. “I am hoping this festival becomes a legacy for me.

“But the whole idea is really to enjoy it and to create a lovely atmosphere that people will feel comfortable in.

“And to generate a good vibe, you’ve got to be happy and relaxed in yourself. And I am."

The Under the Apple Tree roots festival takes place in Silverstone from May 27-29 For tickets go to undertheappletreefestival.com