The Shires: Herts' country music stars
PUBLISHED: 10:28 07 August 2018
The Shires are riding high as the UK's most successful country music act. With strong links to Herts and neighbouring Beds, the duo blend a Nashville sound with home-inspired lyrics
The Shires are the UK’s most successful country music act ever. All three of their albums have charted in the top 10. They have headlined the Albert Hall – the first UK country act to do so – and they will be supporting country queen Shania Twain on an arena tour in September and October that will put them before 90,000 people.
If the story of The Shires had been written as a movie script, it would have been dismissed as far-fetched and idealistic. Struggling songwriter-guitarist and former X Factor contestant Ben Earle, of Flamstead near St Albans, falls in love with country music after hearing American country-pop group Lady Antebellum. He posts a message on social media seeking a country singer
and is answered by Crissie Rhodes, a cover songs vocalist and also former X Factor hopeful who, handily, lives just a few miles away in Shefford and who has, in the words of country magazine Lyric, ‘the voice of an angel’. Ben has always been a talented singer too – he sang a solo at the start of The Queen’s Christmas message in 1999.
Their first show was at renowned local music venue The Horn in St Albans in 2013. After playing small pub gigs around Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire for a few months, their music is recommended to a manager. They sign to a major label, become the first UK country act to sign to a label in Nashville, the home of country music, and go to Nashville to write and record. Their first album, Brave, goes top 10 – the first UK country album to do so – within a year or so of their first shows together and goes on to gain a BRIT Gold disc for 100,000 sales.
This sort of progression is almost unheard of in the British music industry. It usually takes five to seven years to get from pub to chart. Sudden success can come to a pop act from TV, but The Shires achieved it without TV, with no chart singles and in a minority genre.
The instability that often accompanies rapid acclaim has not troubled them though. Five years in, Ben and Crissie have just notched up more achievements: second album My Universe reached number three in the chart and has ‘gone gold’, while third album Accidentally on Purpose, released in April, also reached number three. It has a song, Stay the Night, gifted to them by Ed Sheeran with whom they performed in the US.
The Shires’ magic ingredient – beyond great songs, gorgeous voices and a contemporary look – could be the love of, well, their home shires, that comes through in their music. Their first single, Nashville Grey Skies, says Ben, ‘is about the dream of building our own Nashville here. We want to keep our Britishness. In that song, people don’t drink moonshine, they drink G&Ts. We didn’t want to sing about things we didn’t know or understand, because country music is about honesty and truth.’
When they go to Nashville to co-write with the music city’s big hitters, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire are still on their minds. Visiting the States gave a new experience that sharpened their perceptions of home.
‘We wrote Made in England after our first trip to Nashville,’ Ben recalls. ‘Going to America was fascinating for us because people are so proud to be American. When we came back we wanted to write a song about being proud of where we’re from. Fish and chips, cups of tea. People seem to love it and it’s really important for us to keep that identity because it is who we are.’
The local features that anchor their identity when they are writing in Nashville are mostly of the great outdoors: Ben loves Verulamium Park in St Albans and Rothamsted Park in Harpenden, while Crissie votes for Wicksteed Park in Kettering. Ben says, ‘I lived in St Albans six or seven years ago and didn’t know Verulamium Park. I happened to turn into it when I was out running and discovered this huge park with a massive lake.’
Ben and Crissie are not a couple. Crissie is single. Ben is married and has two children with his Australian wife Vicki. River, their first, was born on the morning that The Shires were due to headline the Acoustic Stage at Glastonbury in 2016. Ben was at the birth, leaving Crissie on tenterhooks at the festival,
(he arrived in time but had not slept for 24 hours). Their second child, Tennessee, is a very recent arrival. He was due the day before Accidentally on Purpose was released, which obviously would be a very big day for the band, but considerately waited eight days to join his brother.
With Flamstead facing glamorous competition from Nashville and Vicki’s home city Sydney as a place to raise the kids, where does Ben think River and Tennessee will grow up? ‘We have great options!’ he replies. ‘We love going to Nashville, but I’d love him to grow up here in Britain. Nashville is a great place to live for a while, but I miss home too much to stay there.’
Nearby Whipsnade Zoo is already a big draw for the family. Ben also enjoys being able to eat well locally, citing The Fox in Harpenden and L’Olivo in Wheathampstead among their favourites.
With a supporting role to Michael Buble in Hyde Park as we went to press and with festival dates right up to the Shania Twain tour through to October, The Shires may see little of their home shires till autumn. Here’s hoping that their longing for home turns into more great music.
Catch The Shires live in tour
6th Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh
24th Thame Showground, Thame
25th Chepstow Castle, Chepstow
27th Towersey Festival, Thame
7th & 8th Stanford Hall, Lutterworth
9th The Long Road Festival, Stanford Hall, Lutterworth
Supporting Shania Twain:
19th & 21st The SSE Hydro Arena, Glasgow
22nd Manchester Arena, Manchester
24th Barclaycard Arena, Birmingham
26th & 27th 3Arena, Dublin
29th SSE Arena, Belfast
2nd & 3rd O2 Arena, London