The Shires - country road for duo who want to make genre cool
The Shires’ story is a very twenty-first century one, with Facebook and the X Factor both figuring, but the success of this duo, Crissie Rhodes and Ben Earle, is built on lessons learned in the old school of songwriting and musical values.
Rhodes had been singing professionally for some ten years, doing the weddings, pubs and corporate entertainment circuit around Bedfordshire when she entered X Factor. She had no expectations of pop stardom because she’s a country singer at heart, but she wanted to try the experience and who knows, she thought, it might lead to something.
Something – something way beyond her wildest dreams - did arrive for Rhodes, although it was after she’d been knocked out of the TV show. While Rhodes was gigging in one English county, Earle was writing songs in another one, not too far away, Hertfordshire. He’d had some good fortune, including a tour supporting KT Tunstall in her early days, but he had been making little headway until he fell in love with country music and decided to write more in that style.
“I was broke and had taken on a day job,” says Earle, “but I’d always wanted to be a singer, singing my own songs and I thought, I’ve got to give this one more try.”
His last chance saloon was Facebook, where in late 2013 he posted a message saying, “There must be other country singers out there.” Rhodes, a friend of a friend, replied and when she came round to see Earle next day, they discovered an instant chemistry.
“Ben sent me over some songs first and I would get half-way through them and think, yeah, we can do this one, and this one” says Rhodes. “And when we sat down to sing together, it just felt right somehow. We did some demos and started gigging together soon afterwards, although some of the early gigs weren’t the greatest experiences.”
“There was one,” says Earle taking up the story, “where we had about five people in this pub in the middle of nowhere and they were just not interested in listening to us. The funny thing is, we were playing the same songs in the same way as we did them on our first demo and that demo led to us signing to Decca Records and getting our first radio session.”
The Shires didn’t just sign to Decca, the company that was once home to the Rolling Stones in the UK reactivated an old imprint specially to welcome them, Decca Nashville, which released hits by Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn in the 1950s and was also the label that Dolly Parton recorded for in the late 1990s.
Their first radio session also packed some prestige as it was for BBC Radio 2’s Bob Harris Country, whose host has been a huge supporter of the duo.
“Right from the start we said we wanted to write songs in Nashville and when we signed with Decca we said we wanted to make our first album in Nashville,” says Earle. “And two or three weeks after we signed we were over there, writing songs, and eight weeks after we signed we were in the studio in Nashville, working with all these amazing musicians. The whole Nashville link is a bit of a coup, I suppose, but it also shows how country music is changing. When you go over there, people don’t talk about country music, it’s just music. But at the same time, they’re really happy that people from other places want to play their music. It’s a little bit like the British invasion in the 1960s, when all these bands were making it big in the States by essentially taking American music back over to America. Mind you, they’re still the best at what they do.”
Cracking the American market would be the ultimate dream come true for Rhodes and Earle and when they recorded their imminent debut album, Brave, in Nashville, they learned a lot about crafting songs that appeal to listeners over there while injecting elements that are clearly and irrevocably British. Their song Made in England is as country as a Buck Owens guitar solo but also extols the virtues of milky tea and fish ‘n’ chips.
“We don’t want to set ourselves up for a fall,” says Earle as the duo prepares for dates supporting Alabama country band Little Big Town this week followed by a headlining tour in April. “But when we recorded Brave we wanted to make the best album we could possibly make at this stage and we didn’t just want to appeal to the country market. We want to take this music into the mainstream charts. The top ten’s our goal and it’s looking possible. Ultimately we’d like to do for country music what Mumford & Sons did for folk – make it cool.”
From The Herald, February 11, 2015.