The groundswell of interest in country music in the UK is now officially unstoppable. But one of the acts helping to make country cooler than ever on this side of the Atlantic aren’t from Tennessee or Texas, they’re from Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. They look and sound great, and they’re all set to take their country-influenced music to the world. Step forward, The Shires.
The impact that Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes have had over the past whirlwind 18 months has been so great, the UK country music scene really now falls into two dynasties: pre-Shires and post-Shires.
In March 2015, when their debut album Brave became the first British country album ever to enter the UK top ten, it signalled an amazing breakthrough for the English duo and confirmed that the attitude to country music in the UK had changed for good.
By the end of the year, the album was certified gold, as one of only four UK debut albums in any genre to sell more than 100,000 copies during the year. Now it was official: Britain had some home-grown country to be proud of, crafted by artists not from Tennessee or Texas, but Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.
It was only in the spring of 2014, after they signed to Decca, that the Shires’ first single ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ began their adventure in earnest, winning immediate endorsement at BBC Radio 2. Even more remarkably, Ben and Crissie only became the Shires after combining their considerable experience in the spring of 2013. Talk about life in the fast lane ever since.
“It’s crazy to think that three years ago we hadn’t done a gig, and now we’re doing Shepherd’s Bush Empire again,” says Ben of the major UK tour they’ll embark on to support My Universe in November. That’s after a triumphant showcase for the new record in London in July that wowed fans and media alike, and earlier triumphs including their guest slot on the Corrs’ UK tour, a performance at the BBC Music Awards last December and so much more.
This March, just a year after Brave was released, Ben and Crissie’s arrival as British country royalty was complete, as they found themselves on stage introducing US superstars, as official ambassadors of the Country to Country Festival.
Now their dizzy climb is set to to continue with a follow-up album to delight their legions of existing fans and bring them to an even wider audience. Welcome to My Universe, which not only has the Shires in the most confident writing and performing form of their careers, but confirms that their preeminence in both departments is being taken extremely seriously in the very home of country music.
My Universe was recorded in part at Soundstage Studios in Nashville and, like Brave, features Music City’s absolute A-list session players. “I felt a lot more confident in the studio this time,” says Ben, and Crissie felt the vibes of positivity too. “It was this real mutual agreement that we just wanted the best for the songs,” she says.
The duo’s natural elevation to the big league continued in writing collaborations both with several British writing pals, and with some of Nashville’s songwriting elite. It was further validation from a city that’s becoming almost their second home.
Last June, they were afforded the huge compliment of a debut performance at the city’s hallowed Grand Ole Opry. “That was another big milestone for us,” says Ben, and Crissie adds: “It’s the home of country. The circle you stand in to sing is the circle that every legend of country music has been in.”
First off the blocks from Brave is the lead single ‘Beats To Your Rhythm,’ written by Earle with fellow Brit Dan McDougall. It’s another Shires anthem in the making to accompany favourites from Brave such as ‘Nashville Grey Skies,’ ‘Tonight’ and the title track.
Elsewhere, Earle teams with seasoned British writers and hitmakers such as Martin Brammer and Steve Robson, while the Nashville contingent are represented in co-writes with the prolific Brian White, Jeff Cohen and established country star Kip Moore. There are also two songs that are extremely personal, not to say confessional, by each of the Shires, with an emotional depth that only underlines how far they’ve come in such a short time.
The touching ballad ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ was written by Crissie with Cohen, Victoria Banks and Livy Jeanne Richardson, a Canadian country artist in her own right, now based in Nashville. “The three of them all had their dads in their lives, but I didn’t tell them that mine wasn’t still here,” remembers Crissie. “It’s just a very personal song and a tribute to my dad, and how special he made me feel. Playing it at our showcase, apparently there were tears in the audience, so it feels like daughters and dads and everyone will be able to relate to it.”
Ben’s solo composition ‘Everything You Never Gave’ is every bit as heartfelt. “It’s basically about an absent father, because my dad was never there,” he confides. “It’s really important to bear your soul like that, because there’ll be loads of people who relate to it, and to Crissie’s song, and go ‘Wow, that’s me.’ Even if it’s painful, it’s cathartic.”
That lyric is made all the more poignant by the fact that Ben recently became a father himself. In the non-stop world of the Shires, of course it happened right before a gig — only the Glastonbury Festival, where they proceeded to blow the audience away with a headline set on the Acoustic Stage.
So now the new album is ready to become the next instalment in the breathless rise and rise of the Shires. “The whole thing’s a big step up really, the sound of it is just a lot bigger,” says Ben. My Universe is all about the Shires’ universe, and it’s all set to become part of everyone else’s.