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Fate is a curious thing. One small twist here, a turn there… Before they became The Shires, singer-songwriters Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes had met a series of dead-ends. Now they’re the UK’s most successful country music export, with four top 10 albums and hundreds of thousands of tickets sold around the world.
The fact that Nashville has embraced The Shires with open arms – from a record deal to a history-making award from the American Country Music Association – is testament to the duo's authenticity. Debut single “Nashville Grey Skies,” a playful song about Britain needing its own country scene, caught the attention of broadcasting legend Bob Harris in 2014. Achieving a place on the BBC Radio 2 A list, its soaring harmonies and uplifting sound offered an early glimpse at the alchemy that transpires when Earle and Rhodes join forces. Career milestones followed like pieces of a jigsaw fitting into place: supporting slots with Little Big Town, The Corrs, and Carrie Underwood (during her Cry Pretty UK tour), playing C2C Festival, a sold-out headline tour and the release of their spectacular debut album, Brave, which became the first-ever top 10 album by a UK country music act. Another three top 10 albums followed: 2016’s My Universe (featuring fan-favourite “Daddy’s Little Girl”, about Rhodes’s late father), 2018’s Accidentally on Purpose, and 2020’s Good Years, each one soaring to No 3 in the UK.
As it did for so many, though, 2020 brought fresh challenges. The Shires had been booked as the first-ever British act to play the main stage at C2C festival – about to board the plane from Nashville to the O2 Arena in London – when live events were brought to a devastating halt. Always keen to seek out those silver linings, Earle and Rhodes decided to use this unexpected free time as a creative reset. “We were in rehearsals joking how we’d end up on the street busking, then a couple of months later we were like, 'Seriously what are we gonna do?!'” Earle recalls. In between the bread-baking and home-schooling, he found himself in his home studio, rediscovering some of the songwriter identity he’d lost amid so many fruitful collaborations over the years. The result is immediately apparent on Ten Year Plan – The Shires’ fifth album, and one of the most enthralling, soul-stirring country albums of 2022.
It opens on “Cut Me Loose”, a colourful blast of country-pop euphoria that recalls early classics by Taylor Swift and Lady A. “I’m getting dizzy from the runaround/ Wasting time trying to figure out/ What your game is all about,” Rhodes sings, before the embers catch and the chorus bursts into flame, licks of pedal steel forging with percussion as thunderous and joyful as wild horses on the run. It’s a song where Rhodes is given full rein to show off her astounding voice, belting out the chorus with raw passion. “If you listen to our first two albums, we sing everything equally,” she explains. “As the years have gone by, there are certain songs where one of us takes the lead, and that’s the case here.”
Ten Year Plan takes all of The Shires’ biggest influences and condenses them into one cohesive, confident record. “Where country music is now really reminds me of the songs I grew up with,” Earle says. The deeply affecting “Skydive” demonstrates Earle’s affinity for an exquisite, Coldplay-style anthem. Piano notes freefall gracefully, like autumn leaves dancing in a soft breeze, as the duo’s voices come together in perfect harmony: “You jump, I tumble into the blue/Wherever you go, I’ll follow you.” Then comes the build, piano and guitar surging upwards, towards the horizon. “Sparks Fly” brings in a folk flair with a propulsive banjo riff and a fantastic sense of space in the production; it’s a song built for stadiums.
One track that means a lot to both Earle and Rhodes is “Plot Twist”, written with London-based artist Beth McCarthy. Performed over soft strums of acoustic guitar, it encapsulates the nervousness that creeps in when we know we should be at our happiest, because we can’t help but think the rug is about to be pulled from under our feet. “It’s how I feel about The Shires,” Earle admits. “We both had false starts – I got signed, Crissie was on The X Factor – and I can’t help but have this mentality of, ‘How long is this going to last?’ On “Plot Twist”, he gives this feeling more of a romantic slant; the slight tension in the harmonies create a yin and yang, as one offers comfort to the other’s anxieties. “It’s my favourite on the record, and musically it’s quite different for us – quite Civil Wars-esque – pushing the boundaries of what country music is,” Earle says.
Perhaps the biggest lyrical curveball on the record is “Bar Without You”. What at first seems like a traditional kiss-off song transpires to be something entirely different. “I could go dancing, have a good time/ See that ‘come on over’ look in a stranger’s eyes,” Rhodes sings. But: “There ain’t a bar without you in it/ Ain’t a drink, ain’t a song, ain’t a passin’ minute/ That my heart ain’t missing you/ Wishing your drink was next to mine/ Baby don’t you forget it.” It’s what The Shires do best: putting a smart spin on some of the more well-worn tropes of country music. “It’s saying don’t worry when I go, you’re always in my thoughts,” Earle says, nodding. “But that’s the point – it does feel like a sad song.” Rhodes notes that the harmonies here play to their strengths, too: “It’s what we do best, the way we layer them together.” Usually, the duo would add extra backing vocals, but saw no need to this time round: “It’s fascinating because we recorded in the shed [at Earle’s home], and so it’s really gone back to just us,” he says.
While The Shires have enjoyed plenty of chart success and recognition among fans both in the UK and overseas, it’s not always been the easiest ride. “The number of people enjoying country music has exploded in the UK, but it still feels like an undercurrent,” Rhodes says. “Even recently, we’ve had people come to our shows and say they were surprised, because they didn’t think country was for them!” Earle recalls one moment when they had achieved the third best-selling album of the year. The first, second and fourth best-selling records were all nominated at the Brit Awards… somehow, The Shires didn’t make the cut. “People almost don’t believe me when I say we sold out the Royal Albert Hall,” Earle says, laughing. “But I’ll take all of [the achievements we’ve had] over anything else.”
Their song “Side by Side” celebrates those moments that seem like more than just a case of “right case, right time”, including their own first meeting. “I live under the flight path in Luton, so at night it’s pitch black and you can see all the stars,” Earle says. “I went out and this thought came into my head, if every person was a star, what are the chances you ended up next to this one person? It’s like that Sliding Doors thing…” By the time she was in her early twenties, Rhodes had already graduated from a music course at university, performed cover songs at weddings and pubs around the UK, and reached boot camp on The X Factor after initially being tipped as a winner. Earle had struggled as a solo singer before trying his hand as a songwriter for other artists. Neither of them had imagined they would succeed as a country act. “Nobody would have known back then that I liked country music,” Rhodes says with a smile. “I didn’t tell anyone! I didn’t know anyone else who liked it.”
All of that changed in 2012 when Earle, who had by then fallen in love with pioneering country artists such as Kacey Musgraves, posted a message on Facebook: “There must be a country singer somewhere.” A friend tagged Rhodes; the next day, she was sitting in Earle’s living room. “He’d sent me some songs and I emailed straight back,” she recalls. “We met up in his little flat in St Alban’s, sat down and talked about all these songs that we loved. It was crazy to find someone who had that same passion to do country music.” For Earle, everything that had been difficult before became easy once he met Rhodes. “I said to her, ‘This isn’t normal, you don’t just get a record deal. You don’t just get on the radio.” But The Shires did.
Almost a decade later, their initial goals now come across as ludicrously modest when you consider what they’ve achieved since. “We wanted to get our music to Bob Harris, and we wanted a thousand Facebook followers,” Rhodes laughs. “At the time that seemed crazy, but Ben was committed to it.” Title track “Ten Year Plan” is imbued with Earle’s natural optimism; a little tongue-in-cheek, but poignant, too. It’s the perfect song to start a new year, one that follows plenty of bumps in the road, all those unexpected turns, but perhaps has brought us to where we need to be. It's a song – and an album – to remind us to be grateful for the things we might otherwise take for granted. Here’s to the next 10 years.