The groundswell of interest in country music in the UK is now officially unstoppable. But one of the acts helping to make country in the UK cooler than ever 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.
Powered by Crissie Rhodes’s powerful but subtle and supple vocals and Ben Earle’s perfectly complementary tones and acoustic guitar, The Shires have literally found a piece of country to call their own. They love American music, but they’re proudly British and intensely keen to add some real indigenous flavour to the pot.
On the surface, The Shires have raced from 0 to 100mph in seconds flat. Ask them about any London dates in their first months together and they’ll ask you back whether Watford, St. Albans and Biggleswade count. But behind that first impression lies the story of two musicians who’ve been working towards this moment for a long time.
“We don’t want to be known as just springing out of nowhere, because behind the scenes, we’ve worked really hard,” says Crissie. “We’ve done our legwork, and and the two of us finding each other has just worked.” Adds Ben: “I hate this word, but it was just serendipity.”
Ben isn’t shy of describing his years of dues-paying as a solo singer-songwriter, nor does Crissie deny her time of working the covers circuit as a vocalist, after she finished music college in Surrey and returned to her countryside roots. “I was singing ‘9 To 5’ just as a fun song for people to dance to,” she says, “and there were a lot of people coming up to me saying ‘You sing that song really well, you really suit country.’ I didn’t realise how much I listened to it.
“I’d been writing for nine, ten years, with a bit of minor success,” says Ben, who was born in London and raised in Berkshire and then Somerset for a few years. In the early stages of his evolution, he had supported K.T. Tunstall on one of her first tours.
“I’d reached the point where I was literally broke, and I put a thing on Facebook saying ‘There must be a country singer somewhere.’ But then a friend of a friend mentioned Crissie, she came round the next day, we recorded some songs and and it’s been so easy since then.”
Crissie remembers that Facebook message. “I was like ‘Yeah, send me some stuff, I really like country music.’ He saw my videos that I’d put up online of me singing just generic country songs, Faith Hill, Martina McBride. Ben was so quick sending songs, I literally listened to half of one of them, and emailed straight back. I was sold straight away.” Once they found out that instead of being at opposite ends of the country, they were close by in the ’shires that would give them their name, it was impossible to avoid that word serendipity.
At one local gig, one well-connected observer spread the word to another, and the ball was rolling. “We played this little local festival, and we only had five or six songs,” remembers Ben. “So we did them all, and everyone was like ‘More, more.’ We were like, ‘We haven’t got any more!’ So we played one again, and it went on. We literally played the whole set twice and a half.”
Both are inspired by the old-school workmanship of the best modern country songwriters. “When I was growing up, I loved big songs,” says Ben. “Generally ballads, but quite structured, really well-written songs with that big payoff line at the end of the chorus. I never really realised that was country.” Crissie agrees: “I love the simplicity of the lyrics, the stories that they tell, and the fact you get that progression throughout the song.”
“At the end of the day, all we want to do is write songs and sing them,” says Ben. People will be more than ready to listen, in their country and far beyond.
“I love the simplicity of country music's lyrics, the stories that they tell, and the fact you get that progression throughout the song."
- BEN EARLE