Perhaps one day there’ll be a film made about The Shires. The pair’s second album My Universe is not out until October 7, but their story already has the makings of a Hollywood movie.
The affable duo – Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes – made history last year with debut LP Brave, which saw them become the first homegrown country act to reach the Top 10 of the UK Albums Chart. The Decca release has gone on to be certified gold, selling a devilish 127,666 copies to date, according to the Official Charts Company.
That the once-unlikely dream came true was a collaborative effort. “Someone said, Wouldn’t it be great if it was the first ever UK country Top 10 album – and we just laughed,” recalls Earle. “But then it became a thing. Country 2 Country [C2C] week happened and Decca did some incredible promotion, and we started thinking, Maybe we could do it.”
Rhodes elaborates: “Social media just went berserk for it. Everybody in the UK country scene backed us. People really got behind us.”
Fittingly, the news that 9,516 first-week sales had propelled Brave to No.10 was confirmed at C2C 2015.
“We were just about to pop open the champagne in our dressing room when Charles [Kelley] from Lady Antebellum came in and said, I heard you guys have gone Top 10! I’m the biggest Lady Antebellum fan, so the whole thing was amazing.”
Decca Records MD Rebecca Allen tells Music Week: “The scene was set perfectly by Taylor Swift putting Nashville on the global map, along with the hit TV Show Nashville and media supporters of country music like BBC Radio 2 and the C2C Festival.
The audience was there and it was growing. The Shires came along with incredible, radio friendly songs and joined all the dots.
“Decca were also aggressive in their marketing and promotion of the band. We quickly spotted the glaring omission of any UK country act ever making a dent in the UK charts and we went for it.
“It’s amazing how many young artists and bands are now coming out of the woodwork and declaring their love for all things country here in the UK and citing The Shires as their influence. There really are some exciting new acts coming through.”
Since its first edition at London’s The O2 in 2013, C2C has rapidly become the most important date on the European country music calendar. The Shires performed at the event in 2015 and 2016, serving as “ambassadors” for the latter.
“You block out your calendar each year for that event as a country fan,” notes Rhodes. “That first year, I just couldn’t believe that there were so many country fans in the UK. It was an absolute hit, but people were turning up in Stetsons, boots and check shirts. It was an older crowd as well.
“As the years have gone by, that stereotype has almost disappeared. There are many more youngsters now - 47% of 18 to 24-year-olds in the UK are listening to country music now. Every major label’s got a UK country act now.”
The Shires, who are managed by Steve Morton of Union Artists, have mixed feelings about whether they’d like to one day headline Country 2 Country. “It would be amazing,” beams Earle. “A UK act on the main stage would show how far country has come.
The thing is though, I feel like the fans can see us any time in the UK.”
Rhodes adds: “One of our fans tweeted, I absolutely love The Shires, but I can go and see them at my local theatre. Why take the space of another massive American act that we don’t ever get to see over here?
We kind of agree with that. [But] we love being part of it.”
Success equalled vindication for the pair, who both rebounded from disappointments prior to forming The Shires – their name a nod to their British roots.
Earle was signed as a solo artist aged 17 only to be dropped three years later, while Rhodes auditioned for The X Factor in 2013, but exited the competition at the bootcamp stage.
Their fortunes took a turn for the better when Rhodes answered her future bandmate’s Facebook appeal to find a country singer. They have since become close friends. “It sounds like PR spin, but it’s really true,” laughs Earle.
“I had just got into country and put out a Facebook post saying I was looking for a country singer, and then a mutual friend introduced us.”
“We were about 25 minutes drive from each other, which was a bit crazy considering we thought we were the only people that liked country music at the time,” remembers Rhodes.
“What are the chances that we lived that close to each other?
“We looked for other people that were doing country music in the UK and it all just seemed almost like imitation. They were singing in American accents about trucks and rhinestones, and hats and boots. Ben and I got together and said, We don’t want to do that.
We want to appreciate country music from America because we absolutely love it, but we don’t want to be singing in an accent that isn’t our own and we don’t want to be singing about something that we don’t know about.”
“We actually discussed, What is country to you? And for us, it’s the honesty,” reveals Earle. “Country songs are honest and they have storytelling – the lyric is the main thing – and that’s what we did from day one.”
That they encountered skepticism along their voyage into uncharted territory for a UK act increased their conviction that they were on the right track.
“When we first started people were like, It’s never been done. It was almost that the fact it hadn’t been done was the reason we should do it.
“When I first heard country it was like coming home. I was really struggling as a songwriter. I didn’t really fit anywhere. In a way it’s who we are and it was like, We’re not trying to make this music, this is the music we just make and if it hasn’t been done, well, someone’s got to do it.
We didn’t think it would go as well as it has done but we just love it so much.”
“Our first song that went to radio was Nashville Grey Skies and we got so many comments from people going, We didn’t believe that you were British,” grins Rhodes.
BBC Radio 2 has been a huge champion of the band since the very beginning. “It was Radio 2 who first brought this band to my attention,” notes Decca’s Allen. “For a radio station to call you up and tell you how brilliant an act is was intriguing in itself and then I heard the music and it blew me away.”
No exec has been more influential in the band’s rise than Allen. “Rebecca’s the head of the label, but she’s like a friend,” reflects Earle. “She has cried at our shows because she’s just so proud.
“Decca paid to have [Nashville Grey Skies] recorded before we were signed.
They said, There’s no strings [attached], hopefully you’ll sign to us. It was all a big whirlwind.”
Big Machine – home to Taylor Swift – also declared an interest, but Decca held a key card in its favour. “Decca just wanted to get going straight away,” says Earle. “We didn’t want to sit around for a year or two and then get forgotten about.
A lot of promises get made in those situations, but Decca stuck to every single one. They sent us out to Nashville literally two weeks after we’d signed.”
Inevitably, the challenge now is to follow a hit first album with an even bigger smash. “The pressure’s different this time around,” acknowledges Earle. “I don’t know how realistic it is, but to go No.1 would be unbelievable. Top 5 would be incredible, but No.1 would be our wildest dreams come true.”
“Ben and Crissie really have delivered a sensational album full of great songs that radio and streaming services are falling over us to support,” adds Allen. “On the first album we took the band to gold, this time around it has to be nothing less than platinum.”
After conquering the UK, what chance selling snow to the eskimos and making it big in America? “What the band and the label want more than anything is for The Shires to become the first UK country act to conquer the US,” reveals Allen.
“Watch this space!” Earle likens the scene’s potential to the British rock and pop invasion of the ‘60s. “People in the industry know us and artists know us [in the US], but obviously the general public don’t know us out there yet.
But I think it will happen, definitely, that’s the ambition, but we’re focusing on here right now.”
“We’d love to go [to the US] with this album,” adds Rhodes. “I feel like we would fit in really well. We’d love to tour more out there and give it our best shot.”
And if there ever is a film made about The Shires, their Glastonbury appearance would provide a perfect Hollywood ending. Earle’s first child, River, was born the morning they were due to headline the festival’s Acoustic Stage.
“We didn’t really want to talk about it. We were like, It’s not going to happen on Glastonbury!” exclaims Rhodes. “To be able to play at Glastonbury is amazing, but to headline a stage and then potentially not be… we didn’t know what was going to happen. We had no back-up plan.”
“He was born on Glastonbury morning – a week late,” says Earle. “I’d been awake for like 36 hours – obviously nothing compared to mum – then I had about five hours sleep, went back to hospital and then drove down to Glastonbury.
“To share that with Crissie was special because we’re good friends now. To headline Glastonbury, but to have a baby the same day… I get teary thinking about it, it was amazing.”