On the scenic road that wiggles along St Lucia’s mountainous west coast, it looked like just another viewpoint. Sheer cliffs, vistas of sparkling blue ocean, a simple rum bar painted in gaudy colours.
Only one thing was odd — the country music blasting from the bar’s mighty speakers: George Strait, proudly singing All My Ex’s Live In Texas.
What was going on? Aren’t islands like this meant to be all about reggae, soca and steelpan? That is the cliché, but St Lucians clearly didn’t get the message.
Beach paradise: The Sandals Grande St Lucian resort in Gros Islet on the island of St Lucia
‘We’re setting up for a party,’ explains the bar’s owner, Paula, ‘and we’ll be playing country all night. Everyone here loves it.’
It’s true. Turn on the car radio and there’s Alan Jackson singing If Tears Could Talk. Drop into the Massy supermarket and shoppers are picking through the yams to anguished tunes by George Jones, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.
On a noticeboard we find a flyer advertising ‘A Grand Country and Back-in-Time Dance’ to raise funds for a cancer patient.
Where did this love for songs about broken hearts and pick-up trucks come from?
‘In the early Forties the United States set up two military bases here,’ explains Steve Anius, a DJ who hosts a weekly country music show on Radio 100 Helen FM.
Singer Ellie Goulding, who is a fan of the island of St Lucia
‘This was the sound they played, which we’d listen to on AM radio.’
One base was in Rodney Bay, now the main tourist area, while the other is today’s Hewanorra International Airport in the far south, which my wife and I flew into.
There was a time when this taste for country went underground because it was considered ‘white folks’ music’.
‘I had a record shop and customers would sneak the albums out under their shirts,’ says Steve.
But now this passion is out in the open, with all ages attracted.
One reason is that country is free from the yelling, swearing and violent lyrics that characterise some other popular music styles.
‘People who go to country dances are polite and dress neat,’ says Steve, ‘and they do a waltz related to kwadril, our traditional folk dance.’
And even though we’re in a tropical landscape of volcanic peaks and rainforests radiant with parrots and hummingbirds, country’s bittersweet songs about dusty roads and ‘achy breaky’ hearts still strike a chord.
As we drive around listening to such tunes, I’m struck by the vivid beauty of an island with both French and British influences, reflected in place names such as Smuggler’s Cove and Vieux Fort.
St Lucia’s twin peaks, the Pitons, are what makes it stand out from other Caribbean destinations. Hideaway five-star centres, such as adults-only Jade Mountain, Sugar Beach and A Viceroy Resort, offer terrific views of this World Heritage-listed attraction, inspiring celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow and Ellie Goulding to visit.
St Lucia’s twin peaks, the Pitons, are what makes it stand out from other Caribbean destinations
In nearby Soufriere, home to the world’s only ‘drive-in volcano’, we tour a crater with steamy sulphur springs, burnt rocks and mud baths.
Surrounding us are green and forested hills that are ideal for growing cacao — Hotel Chocolat sources its beans here on the Rabot Estate. Its panoramic restaurant, Boucan, uses chocolate in innovative ways, such as a marinade for scallops and to make a rich gravy for beef fillet.
Many visitors, especially families, head for the Rodney Bay area in the far north-west — the popular choice if you like to be in the thick of the holiday whirl, with plenty of shops, restaurants, beaches and activities.
This is where we track down our first taste of St Lucian country dancing at Twist, a rustic wooden bar in Grande Riviere, just inland from Choc Bay. Here they play traditional country every Sunday.
It’s a friendly, open-air affair with a concrete dance floor, two-for-one on all drinks, and bar snacks that include jerk chicken and souse (pig trotters in broth). Johnny Cash booms out over the mango trees as cockerels strut and a passing fishmonger summons customers by blowing on a conch shell.
Once the ladies arrive, well turned out and ready for action, the party starts. ‘Very civilised,’ my wife reports after she’s invited to dance.
The men always lead, but how, I wonder, do they learn in the first place? ‘Because a woman just grabs him,’ comes the reply.
And you don’t have to take a taxi down the back roads to get two-stepping — country is also part of the entertainment offered at major hotels, such as Sandals Grande St Lucian in Gros Islet. Here, super-smooth ex-policeman ‘Cowboy’ Shervon Sealy often performs in the lobby in Stetson and boots.
It’s not long before his audience is dancing — and that includes the staff, who join in with gusto.
In the early Forties the United States set up two military bases in St Lucia, pictured
This huge all-inclusive resort is so obsessed with nurturing romance it feels like a round-the-clock Valentine’s Day, but no one seems to mind how country songs wallow in disappointment with lines such as, ‘I’m just one kiss away from loneliness’ and, ‘Did I really shave my legs for this?’.
Shervon’s a polished karaoke singer worth catching, but nothing beats a live act. Down at Anse Chastanet resort in Soufriere, the L. M. Stone Family Band plays every week, and when we arrive Dad’s wearing a big black hat and belting out Rhinestone Cowboy.
Backing L. M. are his three sons and a daughter, who reveals a voice like a hurricane when she sings Stand By Your Man.
When he takes a break, L. M. tells me how he learnt to sing in church, then got into country because his stepfather cut sugar cane in Florida and brought the music home. He’s toured Germany and Sweden and won a contest in Nashville, where he was the only black face among 50 entrants.
‘Country’s as big in St Lucia as reggae is in Jamaica,’ says the star, and, as we twirl around the floor to She Took Everything But The Kitchen Sink, I can only agree.
Seven nights at all-inclusive Sandals Grande St Lucian Spa & Beach Resort costs from £2,611 per person including flights and transfers (sandals.co.uk, 0800 597 0002).