The Shires: Putting a British spin on country
Country music has never really found its audience in the UK. Even Dolly Parton has only managed to score two top 40 singles in her illustrious career, while Taylor Swift was largely ignored on these shores until she "went pop" in 2012.
So it was something of a surprise when a British country act achieved a top 10 album in March.
They are The Shires, a duo comprising Crissie Rhodes (from Bedfordshire) and Ben Earle (from Hertfordshire), who met on Facebook two years ago, after Earle posted a message saying: "Surely there must be somebody out there who likes country music?"
Last week, as they took to the stage at the BBC Music Awards, the group learned the album had gone gold - selling more than 100,000 copies over the course of the year.
They spoke to the BBC about their unusual beginnings, putting a British spin on country, and how Crissie's pet dog nearly ruined their career.
Crissie, what was it like the first time you met Ben in the real world? Did you tell people where you were going in case he turned out to be a murderer?
Crissie: There's a lot of sites that advertise for singers and I had some dodgy experiences so, yes, I told my mum where I was heading…
Ben: I didn't know that!
Crissie: Yeah! I was like: 'Write down the address!' But honestly, I didn't have any worries because he wasn't messing me about. He'd already sent me songs and I absolutely loved them. We just didn't want to wait around.
Were you relieved to find each other?
Crissie: At the time, I felt I was the only person that liked country music in the UK. I couldn't even really tell people about it,. Then me and Ben, we sat down and we were like: 'You know what? We absolutely love the American sound of country, so we want to retain that - but we don't want to be singing about trucks.'
Did you have a list of banned words?
Ben: We didn't talk about it, but I guess we did. We don't sing about cowboys and we don't sing about rhinestones.
Crissie: There was a definite feeling that we needed a drinking song on the album. In any country band, if you don't have a drinking song it's not going to work for you.
So what's yours?
Crissie: Friday Night is our "having a little fun" track.
Ben: Originally it was called Drunk On A Friday night but that was too risque for radio, apparently.
Bourbon is the official drink of country music - so what's the British equivalent?
Ben: Oh gosh, I don't know! It's probably still Bourbon.
Crissie: We sing about G&T in one song, and we talk about milky tea - but Ben doesn't drink Gin and he doesn't drink milky tea.
Ben: But if you think about it, tea would probably be the official drink of English Country music, wouldn't it?
It wasn't a guarantee that your voices would mesh together. What was it like the first time you sang in harmony?
Crissie: It was so straightforward. It's funny when we go and sing with other people now. We've just recorded a song with Ronan [Keating] and trying to get that blend with somebody else can be tricky. Just little things that people maybe don't realise, like trying to come off a phrase at exactly the same time - that's what makes a whole song.
I understand that you owe a lot of your career to Crissie's kitchen...
Crissie: We do, yeah! We recorded so many videos there. Every song is pretty much played acoustically in there. When we first met our manager we did a little showcase for him in my kitchen.
Ben: Tell the dog story…
Crissie: [Laughing] Okay, so we were in the middle of the showcase for our manager. We'd literally just met him, and my dog had eaten something that did not agree with his tummy. We were in the middle of singing a really heartfelt ballad, Black and White, when all of a sudden, our manager jumps up in the air and goes: 'Oh my God, get that dog out!' And he had let rip, basically, and it stunk so bad. We had to stop the song.
But that didn't put him off?
Ben: He's very special! When he first met us, he said: 'I know nothing about country music but I know the Radio 2 market and I believe that you guys have a unique thing - so give me a year and I'll try to get you a record deal.' And then seven, eight months later we had a deal with Decca, which was unbelievable.
It's been a pretty rapid rise since then.
Ben: In a good way, we were really desperate. We really wanted this - to be getting on stage and playing to thousands of people a night because two years ago we were playing to five people in a pub. I really remember that very vividly. So we sat in my front room and said: 'It's all or nothing. It's not about making an album that's going to sell 100 copies to our friends. It's about wanting to be huge.'
It's nice that you're honest about that. A lot of people aren't.
Ben: You're right - but the thing about music, and I think Crissie agrees, is that you want to reach as many people as possible. So that's what we wanted to do, and we did it.
Why do you think this record has done so well when the UK seems to be slightly embarrassed by country music?
Ben: There's so many reasons. For a long time, Nashville and the south of America felt very alien to us. They were old-fashioned and extremely religious - and there still is that element, but country music has become much more progressive.
I think also, as British people, we're quite self-deprecating and country is the opposite of that. It's quite heartfelt and really honest. But people are being more open now in general. If you look at all the artists that are doing well in the charts, whatever the genre, they're all writing really honest songs.
The title track from your album, Brave, really exemplifies that. What was the inspiration?
Ben: I wrote that with someone [else] and I think, at the time, we wrote it about her dad who had depression. But the whole point of the song was saying you don't have to be so strong all the time. It's ok to be vulnerable, and I can be there for you.
Crissie: The lyrics from that song have helped people through really difficult times in their lives. People close to committing suicide, people getting through open heart surgery. It's just so nice that they take the time to message us and say: 'Your song has helped me get through this.'
What's the bravest thing you've done with The Shires?
Ben: For me, it was walking on stage at Hyde Park. In 2014, we played Proms in the Park for Radio 2 and I was literally a wreck. Inconsolable. They literally pushed me on stage and I got through it. And then a year later we did it again and it just felt much, much better. I spent a lot of time working on it, feeling good on stage. But that for me was a big brave moment.
Crissie: I feel like I haven't been really brave this year. Most of the time when Ben's panicking, I'm pretending. I'm showing no fear and saying: 'Yeah, this is absolutely fine.' If I give off that I'm really nervous, then he's going to go into full-blown panic mode.
What's full-blown panic mode like?
Ben: It's horrible. All artists - apart from Crissie, who's the most stable person I've ever met - are just a bit unhinged. I think you have to be to make music. You have to be introspective and have some issues.
When you look back at this year, what's been the highlight?
Ben: It's funny because I sat on the sofa a couple of days ago and went back through our Facebook events and was shocked at the amount we've done. Playing at Glastonbury and The Grand Ole Opry were both incredible, amazing, once in a lifetime things but I only suddenly believed it last week, I think.