The Shires made history when they became the first British country band to score a top 10 album – but can they repeat that success on the other side of the Atlantic with their new record, My Universe?
Earlier this year, The Shires were booked to play their first headline slot at Glastonbury. But when the BBC caught up with the band backstage, singer Crissie Rhodes had a slightly panicked tone to her voice.
“At the minute it’s just me on my own,” she said, indicating an empty space where her musical partner, Ben Earle, should have been.
“His fiancee gave birth this morning,” she explained, nervously. “He’s on his way. He should be on site soon.”
By the time our interview finished, Earle still hadn’t shown up… but after another nail-biting hour, he made it through the mud in time to strap on his guitar and take to the stage.
Looking back at the festival with a few months’ perspective, Earle can see find the humour in the situation.
“The baby was seven days late,” he laughs. “It was getting closer and closer to Glastonbury and everyone was freaking out. There was no back-up plan or anything.
“Luckily, it all worked out perfectly and it was a really, really special day. We’ve been singing together for three-and-a-half, four years now and it was such a milestone for both of us – but to have the baby on top of that? It was quite surreal, if I’m honest.”
Earle’s last-minute dash to Worthy Farm is the sort of thing you’d expect to see at the climax of a Richard Curtis film. And, should The Shires ever have a movie made of their life, the rest of the script practically writes itself, too.
The duo found each other on Facebook, after Earle posted a message saying: “Surely there must be somebody out there who likes country music?”
After meeting in a cafe (Rhodes gave her mum the address, in case Earle turned out to be “dodgy”) they forged a musical partnership, writing songs in Rhodes’ kitchen, with her dog acting as the sole barometer of their success.
“Our families were like, ‘Really? You’re going to do country music in the UK? That makes no sense at all!'” recalls Rhodes.
But, thanks largely to the support of BBC Radio 2, the band suddenly found themselves with a top 10 album – Brave. They were the first UK country act to ever achieve the feat.
“It was our label who said, ‘Let’s try and go for a top 10’,” says Earle. “And we didn’t think it was going to work. But the whole country community put their foot down and said, ‘This is what we want to hear’.”
The album continued to sell long after its chart debut, and was certified gold last November.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but it just goes to show that if an album’s good, people will tell each other about it,” says Earle, whose gold disc hangs above his fireplace.
“I genuinely didn’t want it in my house but I went away on tour and my fiancee had put it up in the living room,” he cringes. “Now, whenever an Amazon delivery person comes in, they can see it.”
“Mine’s up in my living room, too!” says Rhodes. “There used to be a mirror in the same place, so I keep looking for the mirror, then I see my photograph staring back at me. It’s a bit weird.”
The discs served as a constant reminder – and a challenge – as the band wrote and recorded their second album, My Universe, which comes out this week.
“The pressure on the first album was, ‘Oh gosh, are we going to sell anything?'” says Earle. “Whereas this time, it’s like, ‘Right, we want to be bigger, better, and the very best we can be’.”
The record certainly aims at a wider audience than its predecessor – mostly because the band got the taste for playing to big audiences on tour with The Corrs and Little Big Town.
“We’ve done some huge support shows and we just wanted those big moments – something uptempo for the arenas,” says Earle, who wrote the rousing, percussive single Beats To Your Rhythm as a result.
But it is the album’s quieter moments that impress the most. In particular Daddy’s Little Girl, a heartrending ballad that Rhodes wrote about her own father.
“I lost my dad 20 years ago,” she says quietly. “I was only eight at the time, but it’s never been something we speak about too much.
“Then it just so happened that I went into a session in Nashville and wrote this song. Every word of it is just completely honest.
“It’s good to get feelings out – but it makes you think a lot more. So to have that song and open up more about that situation has been really quite tough on me.
“I just really hope that other people can relate to it.”
Like The Shires’ debut album, My Universe was recorded in Nashville with seasoned country players.
This time however, the band felt better able to push the session musicians around.
“The first time we were completely starry-eyed,” says Rhodes, “but this time around we felt able to say, ‘Could you just tweak it a little bit?'”
“Just playing our music is stepping out of the comfort zone for them, because they’re so used to doing really straight down the line country music,” adds Earle.
“So, like Crissie said, we occasionally had to give them a nudge. Often it was the acoustic guitarist, Joel, who’s so clear and so perfect. Sometimes I’d be like, ‘Joel, that’s really great, but can you play it like I played it on the demo, ‘cos I’m 10 times worse than you.’
“They didn’t get it sometimes.”
So, do the band plan to do the unthinkable, and sell country music back to the Americans?
“Yeah, that’s what we would like to do with this album,” says Rhodes. “We’re very much influenced by American country, but we’ve put a British spin on it. So to be able to take it back to them and say, ‘This is us’ would be incredible.
“To hear our music on a radio station out there amongst Kelsea Ballerini and Sam Hunt and Little Big Town, that would be a surreal moment.”
Earle says he thinks the US is ready to embrace the band’s colloquial version of country – having noticed that Americans have a thing for the British accent.
“I definitely try to ham it up when I’m out there,” he laughs. “I sound like I’m in Love Actually.
“It’s easy to forget that while the Nashville sound seems exotic to us, with its trucks and rhinestones, it goes the other way, too. I met a writer out there called Johnny Bulford, and all he would talk about was Doctor Who!”
Whatever happens, the band are adorably proud of the album they’ve made. Rhodes even admits to blasting it from her car speakers whenever she gets the opportunity.
“But as soon as I pull into our close, where I live, I turn it down so I don’t look too uncool, singing away to my own songs!”
My Universe is out now on Decca Records.
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