Interview: The Shires “We always said that if people think we are together, then we’re doing our job right”
Mention country music and most people automatically think of America, cowboy boots and stetsons. But things are changing. There has been a huge surge in the popularity of country music here in the UK. So much so that there is an annual country music festival (Country2Country) which brings a group of the genre’s superstars to play in front of sell-out crowds at the O2 Arena in London. The event has proved to be so successful that, from 2016, they have increased it from two nights to three, and added an extra venue in Glasgow, in a similar manner to the way the Reading & Leeds Festival is arranged.
However, it isn’t just the number of fans that are increasing, but there is also a growing number of UK country artists and bands gaining recognition and success.
The success is not limited to online country music radio stations either, with many getting regular airplay on stations such as Radio 2.
No UK act has been more successful than The Shires, a proudly British duo of Ben Earle and Crissie Gudgin, who this year became the first UK country act ever to break the UK top ten with their debut album Brave.
I managed to speak to them while they were chilling in their dressing room, before their sold out gig at The Sage, Gateshead.
Do you feel under pressure from being the new face of country music in the UK?
Ben: “No, it’s great. It’s not pressure, it’s sort of an honour really, and also quite weird, you know, it makes us feel quite grand. It’s just a really, really exciting time for country in general [in the UK]. We wanted to go top ten, it was always our ambition, but we said that if we ever got close to that, like top 25 it would be nice. We felt that one day it would happen, but we’re so grateful and extremely happy that it did happen.”
Crissie: “Country music is getting huge here now. What makes it so nice is to see fans after our performances who say they’re so glad there is a country act here in the UK who are making waves and getting country music out there and putting it on the map, because it needs it. There are so many people here who are very proud of country music.”
Ben: “And they’ve waited so long aswell.”
Crissie: “Yep… and I’m one of them.”
Do you know whether you get much airplay in America?
Ben: “We recorded the album there, and we wrote there, but we haven’t promoted ourselves there, because it was always really important for us to do it here first. Plus, there’s so much country music there already, why would the listen to two people from the UK? (Me: “Because it’s good music?”) It was so important to do it here, because, like we said, we’re UK country fans, and it’s what UK country fans deserve.”
Is that why the track Made In England was put on the album?
Crissie: “Yes, it is. We felt it was important to put some British identity onto it.”
Ben: “That’s why we’re called The Shires. It was mainly Crissie’s idea. Naming a band is the hardest thing in the world to do, I think”
Crissie: “It is. Especially with this one,” she nods her head towards Ben, “who wanted everything straight away, that day.”
Ben: “The name made sense, because it represents UK country, The Shires.”
Crissie: “We’ve had all the Hobbit references, and the horse references already.”
Ben: “At the first British country festival we played, the Yeehaw festival, the organisers thought it would be a great idea for us to have our picture taken with a shire horse. It all went wrong as the horse went bezerk, so it didn’t turn out to be such a great idea after all.”
Do you think there are any other UK country artists going to come to the fore soon?
Crissie: “Yeah, there’s Ward Thomas, Frankie [Davies] who has supported us before. Pauper Kings have been around for a while. They used to be called the McKay Band. There are so many more people coming through now.”
Ben: “When we started, we never set out to try to be a country band… it’s just what we are. The whole image thing was never important for us. It’s not about stetsons, or what we wear. In any genre, it’s important for people to remember, it’s always about the songs first. Before we had anything, we had songs. Before we had a name, we had songs. So that’s where you start, and that’s why the natural artists are A – so successful, and B – have such hugely long careers, because every part of the process, they just focus on the song.
You played the satellite stages – to full audiences – at the C2C (Country to Country) Festival at the O2 Arena in London this year. What do you think about an idea I am pushing for, that they should add an extra act to the main stage, and as well as having the huge American country artists playing, the opening act of each night should be a British act, like yourselves?
Crissie: “You know what? We kind of said that. We said, we’d really like it if there was a British opening act.”
Ben: “Yeah. We said it for the whole year.”
Crissie: “That’s right. The whole year we were saying to them, It’d be really nice to get a home act on there… it doesn’t have to be us… but… . The reaction we got on the satellite stage, from everyone there, was just absolutely incredible.”
Ben: “I understand why they haven’t done it yet, because those people [the fans] are paying a lot of money for their tickets. We met someone yesterday [at the Leeds gig] who paid £400 for a stage side ticket [at C2C], and they’re paying for these really established American acts, who are hugely successful. Hopefully, if things keep going the way they are, we could be in a position where we could open for them.”
Did you meet any of the big stars when you were there?
Ben: “Yeah. We met Charles, from Lady Antebellum, which was great.”
Crissie: “The moment we met him we had just met Kip Moore, which was really exciting because I absolutely love that guy, we were sitting having lunch with him back-stage, chatting away, and then Charles walked in, and me and Ben were like… Oh my gosh! We tried to act normal, and we walked away like it was no big deal, and we pretended we didn’t know him. Then when we came off the stage, and we’d literally just found out the album had gone top 10, he came and joined us in the dressing room.
Ben: “We were literally just about to pop the champagne.”
Crissie: “Ben got like a minute with him on his own, and said to him, I really like your songs in a completely star-struck way.”
Did the speed of your success surprise you?
Ben: “Yeah… it still does. The things that have happened are just incredible. Going to Nashville, I mean just going there was amazing, so to write there, and record the album there was beyond our wildest dreams. And the top ten thing is still sinking in, it’s still crazy.”
Crissie: “My mum says she tells people about what the two of us are up to, and she feels like she’s lying to people, that it’s not actually real. She’s been there through absolutely everything, carrying all of my equipment to every small gig on a Friday and Saturday night. She’s literally done the slog with me. So to be able to tell people we’re working in Nashville right now, and stuff, she feels like it’s all make-believe.”
Are you doing any festivals this summer?
Crissie: “Yeah. Last year, because festivals like to book up a year ahead, we weren’t really established at that point, so this is our first year of being able to do some good festivals.”
Ben: “We’re doing the Summertyne Festival here [The Sage]. We’re allowed to mention that, because it’s been announced now. We did it last year, and we played in the little cafe downstairs in the foyer.”
Crissie: “There were just people having their dinner. They didn’t really know we were meant to be there at all.”
Ben: “And now we’re going to be playing the main stage, so that’s really exciting.”
Do you ever get fed-up with being asked if you’re an item?
Ben: “Strangely, we haven’t been asked that for a while now. I think people still want to believe in love, and if the two of us sing a song together about that, people want to buy into it. We always said that if people think we are together, then we’re doing our job right.”
The Shires are just two down-to-earth people, doing something that they love, and are genuinely overwhelmed by their own success.
The future, it seems, is bright for country music in the UK, and for The Shires in particular.
Tickets for their appearance at the Summertyne Festival in Gateshead are on sale now.