Campfire Tales: The Shires interviewed

“What Mumford & Sons did for folk, we wanna do that for country.” That right there is some mission statement from Ben Earle, one half of The Shires. And whether you’re onboard with the whole Mumford & Sons thing or not, there’s no denying the impact they’ve had on the music buying public with their folky, rootsy singalongs. Whilst country music is making something of a comeback in the UK - after years of being ignored and being thought of as miserable songs sung by old people about dogs and whiskey - it needs a younger, maybe cooler act to lead the charge back into the national consciousness.

The Shires are one of those younger acts, and we caught up with Ben to see how their year has panned out. Due to a technical issue the other half of the duo, Crissie Rhodes, missed out on the chat so it was left to Ben to answer the questions. Luckily he was in the mood: “I’m talking a lot today!”

If you know one fact about the band it will be that they first met via Facebook, something that’s surprisingly rare, especially in this traditionally traditional genre. “I know the Civil Wars for example met at a songwriters workshop or convention, which I guess was the Facebook of its day for songwriters, but in terms of purely social media I’m not sure of anyone else.” But it worked out better than Ben could have expected - “To meet someone like Crissie was so lucky. When I put that post out I had no idea that a) someone would suggest someone as good as Crissie, and b) that we would live so close. We live literally 25 minutes away from each other which is just crazy.”

Despite their own feeling that “a lot of it was just a pipedream,” things moved fast from when they finally met in March 2013. Despite being told “there’s no market for country,” it all clicked once they were introduced to their future (now current) manager. “He just got it straight away. He said 'give me a year and I’ll get you everything you want,' - and he did!” It helped that the duo had a shared vision right from their first meetings. “I said to Crissie what my ambition was, and her ambition was exactly the same. We were very clear we wanted to do it the old fashioned way. We wanted to get a record deal, and go out to Nashville, and write with amazing people.”

And things really did go from there; their trip to Nashville “was just incredible”, their first interview being with Bob Harris was “really surreal”, and then people started to know their music. “The big thing for us was when people started coming to our gigs and singing the lyrics back to us. When we started out we were just trying to impress people, we were trying to convince them to like country music!” The change in status isn’t just limited to their own band either. “Country in general, has moved on massively [in the UK] over the last year. The fact that we’re doing this tour with Ward Thomas and selling out 400-600 capacity venues people would’ve been like 'yeah, never!'”

The number of dates on the tour hasn’t increased but the size of the venues has. “Our last tour, we did 100-200 capacity venues and our manager said 'I’ve got to be totally honest with you guys, this is a real gamble, nobody might come!' Happily that wasn’t the case. This time around it’s a co-headlining tour with the Ward Thomas twins, inspired by TV. “On Nashville, there was a storyline where the two main characters go a on a co-headline tour. We were laughing about that.” But the similarities end there. “They fight for who’s going to be headliner,” something that the bands avoided by agreeing to swap the top slot each night. And despite talking about sharing a tour bus they couldn’t make it work, plus “they’ve got a lot more energy than us!” (laughs). As you might expect Ben is very complimentary about their tour mates (“They’re great”, “a bit more twangy than us”, and “[The opening night of the tour] they opened with this a cappella song and it was just absolutely beautiful.”

For Ben and Crissie this is their first chance to tour with a full band. “It’s really exciting as we get to play the up tempo songs that we’ve never played before. You can see people moving a bit more and dancing.” And Ben feels this tour is the start of something bigger for country music in the UK. “I saw a few of the fans last night [at the Birmingham show] and I asked a lot of them 'Are you a country fan?' and they’re like 'Ah no, we heard you / Ward Thomas on Radio 2 and thought it was great, we’re not into country but are listening to more now'. It’s nice, it feels like we’re getting this wave moving. It’s definitely coming.”

One way to get that wave really moving will be with the arrival of their much anticipated debut album, which was originally due in September. There’s no hidden reason, just the band being “massively, overly ambitious”. Ben reassures that the record is ready. “It was done in the middle of April in terms of recording, then it went through mixing in May and June and we were all aiming for September”, but they’ve chosen to hold off on the release because “We just haven’t done enough so that everyone knows about us. We want people to be making a choice whether to buy our album or not because they know about us, and not just because they’re country fans.”

And that ambition has left the duo very much in charge of their own destiny. “We honestly have had so much control to the point where I feel I’ll be taking responsibility if something goes wrong!” Although Ben laughs at that point it doesn’t disguise the pressure that the band must feel, especially as literally everything has been their choice. “[The writing partners] were all set up by my publisher; we picked the songs for the album; the singles, it has been a consensus but it’s always been the one we wanted; we got to choose the photographer; the video scripts, they had a lot of trust in us.” Happily for Ben, as well as his background in the industry, his partner in crime is knowledgeable about the music they were creating. “Crissie has loved country for a lot longer than I have so she really knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the songs and how it should be done.” Even the songs that they haven’t written were sourced by them. “I saw a girl in a bar in Nashville playing a song in a writer's round, and I went up to her and said 'I love this song, can we record this?' And she said 'yes'.”

Nashville itself was an experience for the pair; Ben’s abiding memory is about the quality of the musicians and their songwriting. “I was always massively nervous about going out there as I’d always heard that the bar is just so so high - and it is. They write a song a day out there. That’s just the culture, whether you’re busy or not, you just write one song a day.” The most impressive thing however were “literally the best ever” session musicians, who worked from “the original demos, some done in my bedroom with Crissie, some of them on a dictaphone and an iPad” with the drummer who “wrote out all the scores” and the rest of the band that “listen to the original demos just once, in a room, just before they go in, and then they all go in and play it live.” That all made it quick recording fifteen songs in three days.

Another Nashville expectation was met with the mantra that “it’s all about the song” and the people in the industry in the town are all about the song. “Everything comes back to the song. That’s why you have so many artists who are just a guy and a guitar. It’s literally all about the song, which is what I love about it.” That and the mantra “'Don’t bore us, just get to the chorus'” - it’s something that’s been done in pop songs over here [in the UK] for ages but I hadn’t heard it put as succinctly as that.”

It’s that combination of old school Nashville and the more modern day country pop (“We’re definitely in the modern new side of country, like Lady Antebellum, on the more poppy side”) that serve the band so well and gives them the best chance of continuing to fulfill their ambitions. The current tour is the next step to the big time, but the album release in early January will really test how far this driven duo can travel.


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