The Shires are probably our most successful Country artists and just before lockdown last March, they released album number four ‘Good Years’ but had to put their tour on hold. The tour has been put back to 2022 but they are going to treat their fans, and hopefully some new fans, to an exclusive live gig to be streamed on Saturday, April 10th via Stabal. You can find out more here.
Ben Earle and Chrissie Rhodes make up The Shires and have built up a huge and loyal fan base in this country and across the world. They were the first U.K. Country band to score a top 10 album when their debut release, ‘Brave’, charted at number 10 in 2015. It’s follow up, 2016’s ‘My Universe’, broke yet another record for the fastest selling British Country album at the time of release. Back in March of last year ‘Good Years’ was battling Lewis Capaldi and Niall Horan for the Number One album slot. Sadly, the top spot eluded them but it was still their fourth top ten album out of four. It’s a mystery why such an obviously popular and successful songwriting duo aren’t ever recognised with the various awards that are always so focussed on pop, but they are happy with their hugely successful shows and are very popular overseas, especially in Nashville, home of Country music. In 2017, they were the first ever British act to win a CMA Award, winning the Global Artist Award for a Country act outside the US. They have played the Grand Ole Opry and the Bluebird Cafe and have opened for some of the biggest acts in Country music as well as headlining The Long Road Festival in its inaugural year.
This is a fantastic opportunity to see what all the fuss is about and I was lucky enough to speak with them about the gig, lockdown, and what they hope to bring to audiences this weekend. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen them live on a few occasions and I can assure you that you will not be disappointed if you choose to tune in. I hope you enjoy our chat.
EP: So, we are here to chat about your exclusive live gig with Stabal. I guess having had to postpone your tour, you must be thrilled to get the chance to play live again?
Ben: Yes, massively. It’s almost a year to the day that we were rehearsing and the band were getting ready for The Country To Country Festival and then we were going to do our tour in April/May time. It’s kind of like losing your identity a little bit, not playing and not seeing each other. We are so used to that. We probably spend more time with each other than anyone else in our lives so not having that after seven or eight years of just playing lots …..just the thought of getting up and playing some songs together; it’s amazing how you get stripped back to the basics. It’s not about how many people are in the audience or whatever. It’s just we want to sing together, it’s all we want to do and so, yes, we can’t wait to do it.
EP: I guess the weirdest thing will be that lack of a live audience, the feedback and interaction that gives you, as a band who thrives on your live performance?
Chrissie: Yeah, we don’t really know what to expect with it really because even with TV specials that you do you’d often get a live audience and definitely for our big live tours we are so interactive with the crowds. There’s always sing along parts, there’s always bits where we get everyone to put their hands up in the air but, to be honest, I think we still need to take the same sort of approach and just sort of have it in our minds that everybody is sat there in their living rooms on their sofas and just try to take everybody out of the craziness of the last year really and just have a whole solid hour of having fun on your sofa. We never would have thought that we would have been the band to be doing an online concert. I don’t think, if the pandemic hadn’t of come along, it would have been something that we’d have considered but with Stabal, the sound that they can create is all really good high quality stuff so we can ensure that everybody will enjoy the show. It’s going to be a really wonderful thing to have in their living room, for sure.
EP: Absolutely, everyone gets a front seat, a front of stage experience whereas at a normal gig that’s not always possible. I’m not the tallest guy, so I live in fear of the tall guy or girl standing in front of me at a gig ( laughing). So, virtual gigs have been forced on you to an extent, but do you think this is something you might consider continuing as not everyone can get to a gig, or going forward , might be scared of large crowds in the near future? After all, if you ran it alongside your normal live shows, it certainly would provide a bonus for fans who can’t attend live gigs and an additional income stream for the band?
Ben: it hadn’t really crossed my mind until you said it but, as you said, it’s a great idea because, for whatever reason, there’s a lot of people who can’t have access to shows. It’s a great idea actually. I don’t know if there’s a way to tie that in. The problem is when you’re live, it’s capturing that sound live. That’s why a lot of those live albums or live experiences that you get on TV or maybe Sky Arts are often mixed again. But, when you go to a show it’s mixed there for you and also you’re naturally doing it with your ears as you focus and you look at stuff. I think if the experience could be guaranteed to be as good as what I know Stabal are capable of then yeah….it’s just I don’t think that’s still doable yet at the level we’d like. But, I think the way we’re approaching this Stabal thing is to not approach it like a pure show; we want to it to be a lot more intimate. Like you said, the front row seat thing. The cameras are going to be close to us so we want to give people a different experience that they wouldn’t have normally so I think in terms of going forward….yeah, maybe if there’s room to do stuff….
Chrissie: I think it’s interesting. I think especially that the pandemic has highlighted a lot of anxieties and a lot of fear for people going to shows because they’re scared of crowds and so if there’s a way, now that there is the technology rolling out to do so, we could still do the live show with a live audience and know that perhaps there’s an option for people, at home, maybe in America, maybe in Australia, that want to tap into a show that we’re not necessarily doing in their part of the world. It could open up some doors for other countries or for people that are frightened to get into crowds but love music so there might be an option for that going forward….
EP: I’m sure there will be an anxiety hangover for people regarding crowds and closed in venues going forward so it might offer, as you say, another option going forward. Especially because we get so limited access to Country music in the U.K. all year. Was it strange to release your last album right at the beginning of last year’s lockdown and then not get the chance to tour that and integrate those songs into your live repertoire, even to see how they translate live ? The Stabal gig will be your first opportunity to play those songs live …
Chrissie: It was really strange and it still is that we haven’t been able to perform these songs live. You really get a taste of which songs are really connecting with the audiences; we often meet a lot of fans after shows and backstage and around when we’re out shopping and around where we’re performing and we hear the stories, what those songs mean to them, how they connect, and we haven’t had that option just yet. We haven’t performed it in a big live setting, we haven’t had the big stage lights and the full band sound to create that show for those songs yet but I think it just fuels us with excitement to know that it will happen one day soon.
EP: I was kind of hoping that you might turn up at the Long Road Festival in September to be honest….
Chrissie: Even if we’re not playing the festivals I’ll probably just be at them to absorb some live music because it’s been way too long…
EP: All the way back on ‘ My Universe’ you co-wrote a song with a favourite singer of mine, Kip Moore, when you guys met at C2C, are there any plans for any more high profile co-writers?
Ben: With the pandemic, we’ve had the opportunity to do a duet with Lauren Alaina, so we took that and Lauren jumped on that. We’ve know her for a few years, not super close but close enough to message and stuff, and we’ve hung out and had some great times at C2C, and in Nashville too. So, she duets on one of the songs. We’ve got another duet coming up but we can’t mention names but it’s going to be great and it’s going to happen fairly soon. That’s been recorded. That’s the great thing about these days that we can go back and revisit a song and people are releasing different versions of songs, duets; we’ve got all the parts and if we know an artist we can get them to jump on a song and do a different version. That’s what I love about all music, but particularly Country at the moment. There’s so many collaborations going on. What I’ve noticed personally is that the US artists are being so much more receptive to doing UK stuff ; I don’t feel like we’re the not so cool cousins anymore. You look at Ward Thomas with their song with CAM out at the moment, us with Lauren….there’s loads of UK artists on the playlists as well. It’s a really good time and hopefully this next album, when we come to do it, hopefully we’ll get some more definitely.
EP: Do you feel that the UK Country scene is really picking up a head of steam because it frustrates me a little that we never see Country music in the singles charts here despite it being such a popular genre, unless of course your name is Taylor Swift (laughing) and fans strangely don’t perceive that as Country. You guys always have such good album success. Are Country fans in this country album buyers more or is it a question of airplay? Is that frustrating?
Chrissie: Radio 2 have been great. Every time we’ve had a single out those guys have always backed us and so have the Country stations, and to be honest a lot of the local regional radios will always support us as well but, like you say, trying to get into the singles charts is something we never thought would be a thing for us because of all the big pop acts that are already there but with the album and the fact we can climb the charts with the album, that’s always been an amazing achievement which we never thought would be able to happen for us so we’re really pleased with that. The fans in the UK are the best. They listen so attentively and they love to listen to all of the songs and they listen to a whole album as opposed to just singles. We feel very lucky to have such a wonderful bunch of fans over here.
Ben: I don’t find it frustrating, I just find it very interesting that when we first came out, our first album, we were the fourth best selling new act of that year across all genres. There was a James Bay, someone else and someone else, big people, but we were the fourth with the size of the venues we were playing too. We’ve kind of fallen in this crack where we’re not pop enough to ever be considered for a Brit award of any kind or the Mercurys or something like that. So I sit and sometimes think there’s this whole side of music that just isn’t considered in that way, for some reason. Like Chrissie said, it’s never really bothered me because we have our own success and we play these huge venues like The Albert Hall. People are often surprised by how many albums we have and the level of shows we do but I just find it really interesting . What is interesting too is that with the way streaming is picking up generally for all genres, there is a lot more interest and a lot more visibility of who we are and a lot of music that I think in the US they call adult contemporary. Over here we don’t have that tag which would include folk and more mature singer songwriter stuff. There just isn’t a place for it , there’s no one that recognises it which I find kind of interesting.
EP: It’s always a confusion to me because the US artists that come over always seem blown away by the level of audience here and the level of interest in Country music and yet that doesn’t translate fairly to recognition of the quality of the UK acts in that genre. Country music gigs and festivals sell out here irrespective of size of venue and size of artist. As a fan of Country music I do find it frustrating that music fans pigeon hole the entire genre with its huge spectrum of styles. There doesn’t seem to be a chance to cross over and win awards unless your name is Taylor Swift, who I love as an artist, but has essentially just won a Grammy for best album for a record which is essentially folk/country music. I just wondered how you felt as artists given that the U.K. country scene is a really healthy part of our music scene and yet there’s no home appreciation for artists that are achieving great things Stateside. Why isn’t there a Country Brit ? ( laughing)
Ben: Yeah (laughing) lets send them a letter!
Chrissie: I did X factor before we were a thing and I remember them saying to me on that show that there was only ever one place for a Country artist, and I was up against a girl called Megan McKenna at the time and we were completely different. As you know, the Country genre is vast really, there’s so many different styles to it and I couldn’t really get my head around that. I knew that was a tv show but I just thought why is there loads of room for pop acts but only one for a Country act. Country has really taken off for all of us now but at the time it wasn’t a big thing at all back then.
EP: Going forward, with the Stabal gig that you have lined up, what are your hopes for the take up. Are you interested in the size of the virtual crowd, do you think it will be similar to one of your hugely popular live gigs?
Ben: Not at all, the genuine hope is that people really enjoy it because we wanted to do something that would be an experience. We didn’t want it to be one camera set up in the room. So, whether it’s five people watching it, or just my Mum and Chrissie’s Mum, or a crowd of I have no idea how big, we just wanted it to be a really good experience so that people feel that the value is great and that people see us and feel like they’re with us again. Like Chrissie said, we have to imagine that they are there on their couches because we miss it and we miss the connection. There is such a great connection between us and our fans but also the collective experience that I think this pandemic has made people realise is so very important. If you just go to work everyday, if you just go home or you stay at home all day doing your work and you don’t have this outlet of music, sport or whatever it is, movies maybe, then life is kinda boring. I think we just want people to enjoy it, genuinely, honestly.
EP: Do you think the silver lining of the pandemic has been that we have learned what’s really important to us outside of our day to day existence. It’s made us really appreciate and need live music more than we ever thought possible. People are as hungry for live gigs as you are desperate to do one. What are your thoughts?
Chrissie: In my head I’m thinking that we are going to be so busy. When this is all over , all musicians, as much as we’ve had this time off, we need to cherish the moments off right now because I think when it all gets back to some kind of normal again it’s going to go crazy busy. I think people are just going to want to live again and experience as much as they can and I think live music is going to be a big part of all of that, for sure.
Ben: I hope it changes our psyche slightly as a nation because when you look at the way Sweden invests in their arts, the way France supported a lot of the arts sector, and I don’t want to get too deep about it but I feel like our sector hasn’t been supported as much as it could have been . My wife’s a teacher and that is essential, it’s essential to have teachers. My sister’s a supermarket worker and that is essential work but it doesn’t mean that what we do isn’t important and I think people might see us sat here saying “art is important” but it really is. Think about all the memories from Netflix in the last year, the music you’ve listened to on streaming, it’s really important. I don’t know if we will but I just hope that people start to consider what we do as not a luxury. We have a lot of fun but I hope people start to believe that art, all art, is really important. I hope people realise that and grab every opportunity they can to enjoy it.
EP: I think it’s been so rewarding to see how many artists have been prepared to stay connected with their fans and support us as a nation by doing stuff on line, maybe on IG life or Facebook, irrespective of how many people tune in. I’ve seen some really good artists with 24 or 25 watchers but every week they’ve played and put heart and soul into it. I’m a big fan of Megan O’Neill, the Irish Country singer, and she’s been tireless. I think those artists have built a real affinity with people who have tuned in and supported each other through a difficult year. You, as artists, have become part of our support bubble and so I hope you’re right Ben that we all appreciate music and art for how important you are to us because I think that would be a lovely post script to this year. Just to finish, I’m sure all your fans are desperate to know if there’s another album in the pipeline ? Have you been madly writing?
Ben : I have been. There’s nothing definite yet but I’d like to make another one, I think Chrissie would to before the next tour but we’ll have to see what happens. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one.
EP: Fingers crossed. Thank you so much for your time and good luck with the show, I can’t wait!
Ben & Chrissie : Thank you.