In this four-part series, I’ve looked back over big albums released in the early part of 2020, as well as those by bands touring albums which came out at the end of 2019. For the final part, I will look at some impressive albums by acts based in the UK: Ags Connolly, Twinnie, Two Ways Home and the Top 3 album by The Shires
It is very rare indeed for UK country acts to release albums. They must be on a major label, bankrolled by the likes of Sony, Warner or Universal; they need to be playing venues like the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the Sage in Gateshead; and they need to be part of a marketing plan.
Album acts bring people into the genre and prompt a closer examination of what’s going on in the scene, which is populated by fantastic live acts who cannot afford to produce and market a full album. The first months of 2020 have seen three major-label releases, while I also love a 2019 release which has gained traction. Those four albums are indicative of the breadth of music – poppy, traditional and a mix of the two – that make up the UK country movement.
The 2019 release to mention is Oxford-based singer-songwriter Ags Connolly. If you’re on the hunt for something more traditional, with acoustic instruments and a voice than can come from a hollow in the South of America, Ags is your chap and his album Wrong Again is your tonic. Interviewed in 2014 by the magazine Country Music People, there was a pull quote: ‘If you’re expecting to hear something like what is called country now, that’s not what it’s going to be.’
Ags was in his lane, while acts like The Shires (to be discussed below), Laura Oakes and Ward Thomas were in theirs. As with Ashley McBryde and Brandy Clark, John Prine exerts a big influence on Ags, who wrote on Twitter: ‘One of the great American writers of our time, or any time.’
Of course there were more traditional bands across the country, and line-dancing clubs; the UK wing of the Americana Music Association was just getting going in the mid-2010s, though Ags remains adamant that he is country, not Americana. (Defining the latter term is impossible but acts like John Prine and Lucinda Williams are in it.)
His album Wrong Again has a champion in Bob Harris, who admires Ags’ ‘modern day traditionalism’. Great, truthful lyrics on the album abound over ten songs with three or four chords, whose titles alone evoke country music: What Were You Gonna Do About It, Indian Sign (‘I played this whole country in a 20-year-old car’) and Early Morning Rain (‘I’m a long way from home’) are four of them. Sad Songs Forever, naturally, is a major-key romp led by fiddle and pedal steel.
The arrangements and instrumentation are sublime: there’s pedal steel all over The Meaning of the Word, which is set to a oom-cha beat; accordion brings melancholy to Lonely Nights in Austin; there’s a neat fiddle solo in the middle of Wrong Again (You Lose a Life), and a punchy bit of electric guitar punctuates Say It Out Loud.
Ags has a little bit of a whistle in his voice, as if he’s chewing on some corn, which adds to the authenticity of his sound. It’s an ambient country album that will fit alongside any great singer of the last 70 years. Catch him on tour when you get the chance to do so.
After a crowdfunding campaign, Two Ways Home were able to release their first album, Break The Silence, in February 2020. It showcases the sweet harmonies of Lewis and Isi, who can do uptempo and slowies inspired by country songwriting, though the arrangements are sometimes more pop/rock. The groovier tunes on the album including the opening pair of Broken Hearts Club (which has some great woahs) and Speed Of Anything, as well as the toe-tapper Out on the Road. All there were singles released with promo videos which you can view on Youtube.
The bluesy pair Standing Still (‘are you lost in the crossfire of hope and broken dreams?’) and Prove Me Wrong show that Two Ways Home can do Southern rock-inflected tunes; the former cranking up into a muscular chorus, the latter starting with the chorus and containing the hardest guitars on the album. Nostalgia – ‘for something that ain’t mine…I must be colorblind’ – is a majestic ballad with understated production written with Katy Hurt and her guitarist Gab. Katy is yet to release a full-length album but her EP Unfinished Business is terrific.
Tattoo is the best song here, lyrically and musically: it’s a country lyric because the band bring to life all sorts of tattoos (‘on your shoulders hope and glory/ The wings on your back are taking flight’) while adding a melancholic middle eight. The big song is the closing track, The Ocean, on which Isi takes lead vocals while singing about devotion. It’s their ‘wedding song’ and demands that the listener waves a lighter aloft.
The title track, written with underrated UK artist Joe Martin, sees the duo trading lines over a country shuffle as they dance around the silence that their love will break. Again the middle eight (actually a middle six!) is gorgeous, proving that the pair know how a song is structured, and there’s room for a few bars of guitar solo. It’s a promising debut from two very lovely musicians. Look out for my feature on the band from 2019, which I’ll pop onto this site soon.
I’ve spent time in this series talking about a band’s place in the market and The Shires are market leaders. They were the first to break through, thanks to huge support from BBC Radio 2 and Bob Harris, and have played illustrious venues at home and abroad, including popping up at CMA Fest in Nashville. Their music must appeal to a broad fanbase, putting them in the pop-country bracket that holds the likes of Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town, which is not just a lazy mixed-groups comparison.
The Shires put out their fourth album Good Years on what has turned into a very bad year. Their UK tour to promote the album has been postponed, and when Country2Country was cancelled the duo were unable to fill in as main stage replacements for Old Dominion. A Greatest Hits set had been put out to gather the best of their first three albums to prepare new fans for Good Years.
The song New Year was premiered on Bob’s show and impressed me with its emotional depth. It’s a slushy song that hones in on the moment one year ticks into the next and, brilliantly, is a major-label credit for Kaity Rae, who will barring catastrophe become one of the great songwriters in the UK country movement. She also wrote Tattoo with Two Ways Home. Meanwhile, Cam gives them Lightning Strikes, the album’s poppy opening track.
Fingersnap percussion runs throughout People Like Us (‘cos I like us just the way we are’) while Better Place starts with a hookup and ends with a desire to ‘stay with you all of my days’. The ballads, so often saccharine and lachrymose on the first two Shires albums, have been improved thanks to the production of Lindsay Rimes who, as well as producing the band’s third album, has worked wonders with Thomas Rhett and Kane Brown. This makes Good Years the most complete Shires album by far.
Country music listeners like their alcohol and, as if seeing a gap in the market, The Shires sing Thank You Whiskey (‘Pour it on the rocks, we’ll be alright’), which should be a single and will certainly impress live venues whose punters will see the association and head to the bar to ‘raise a toast to the highs and lows’.
One complaint is that the ‘woahs’ are somewhat overused; Independence Day’s entire middle eight is guilty here. Another cavil is that the production is right in the middle of the road but, as discussed, this is an album that had a shot at being the UK’s number one. It peaked at three, which is pretty good going. It wouldn’t be awful if The Shires represented the UK at Eurovision – country act The Common Linnets did very well for the Netherlands – and their music sounds like all things to all people.
The Shires sound great. Both singers can sing – not such an essential part of being a singer in 2020 – and are especially good on About Last Night, a song about the first spark of romance which would appeal to Lady Antebellum fans; in fact, it sounds like ten Lady A songs in one. Ben has, I think, been instructed to sing more like Charles Kelley, of whom he is a long-time fan, which gives his voice more depth and heft than on earlier Shires albums.
The album’s other ballads include On The Day I Die (‘You better dance, don’t cry’) and the nostalgic Only Always. ‘Do I ever think about you still that way?’ goes the chorus, with a gentle mandolin high up in the mix. Closing track Crazy Days has real strings on it, something beyond the reach of many UK country acts. With more investment from major labels, the likes of The Southern Companion and Jake Morrell will follow Laura Oakes, Kezia Gill, Ward Thomas, The Wandering Hearts and The Shires onto the Radio 2 playlist and into the hearts of millions. Laura’s new five-track EP is on streaming services now, while Kezia’s single Another You is her best yet.
Kezia performed that track as part of the Radio 2 Country Festival, headlined by The Shires, which aired in lieu of the Country2Country coverage. Twinnie and The Adelaides were the other UK performers; the latter have also played a session for Michael Ball’s Sunday brunch show, while Twinnie is on the current Radio 2 Playlist with her single I Love You Now Change. It’s country in the way that Ingrid Andress and Kelsea Ballerini are: a little bit smart with the lyrics, elegant in the delivery but pop music in all but name.
The York-born singer, who I am obliged to say has performed on stage and screen as an actress (The Wife alongside Glenn Close, a brief run in Hollyoaks), turned down the offer to be the female voice in The Shires, and indeed co-wrote a track that made it onto Brave. Her chat with Matt Spracklen for No Chords But The Truth is a great introduction to Twinnie: she is magnetic, opinionated and very good at her job.
Being ‘half Hollywood, half gypsy’, she has called her debut album Hollywood Gypsy. It is Radio 2’s Album of the Week, which means approximately 8.5m listeners have heard tracks from it across the week during Ken Bruce’s mid-morning show and on the Midnight Shift.
Fans of Twinnie have waited five years for Hollywood Gypsy, throughout which time she has released several tracks which have ended up on it. The sombre Social Babies, all about how disastrous social media is (until the Corona era, at least) followed the chirpy Better When I’m Drunk (‘you taste better with a lime and salt!’).
Album and live show opener Type Of Girl, formerly T.O.G., has been given a makeover. The song’s 2020 release came with a brilliant video in which Twinnie plays ‘a fifties stereotype’, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe. The tracks are country in as much as the lyrics are intelligent – ‘Vincent painted a masterpiece, Newton discovered gravity/You’ve got the impossible job of just loving me’ – but this is pop music with drum loops and pop cadences. If it means fans of Twinnie head to gigs by Two Ways Home, so much the better.
Lie To Me, a showcase for Twinnie’s terrific voice, was co-written with Jon Green, who has just had a number one on country radio with Lady Antebellum’s track What If I Never Get Over You. Superhero, another ballad, was written with Lucie Silvas: ‘I guess I’m human after all…I thought I was invincible’ is a raw, very country line. I remember being impressed when I heard it live in London and Blackpool last year, when I saw Twinnie at Nashville Meets London and The British Country Music Festival respectively.
Chasing, with a light dusting of banjo, comes off a lot like a Ward Thomas song in the verse – there’s a gap in the market while the girls are working on their fourth album – but is definitely ‘Twinnie’ in the chorus. The words trip over one another: ‘I should be finding me a nice guy…Rollercoaster taking me high then it’s over’ is her conclusion, and it sums up her love life. The album’s title track defines who she is, ‘smoking at the age of 10’ and able to ‘roll with the crowd’ in whichever company she is in. Telling your life in a song is pretty country.
The new tracks on the album mainly occupy its second half. More is almost a dating profile in song: Twinnie is ‘your puzzle’ who wants something physical with her new beau. ‘Show me that you’re worth it, show me you deserve it,’ she cries. It’s a great pop production. Live favourite Daddy Issues, with its gentle opening section, becomes a hoedown, which is definitely country. ‘Why do good, good women stay with bad, bad men?’ picks up on a theme introduced in Chasing, giving the album a coherence.
Feeling of Falling has a Mumford stomp and is another aspect of Twinnie’s personality in song – ‘it’s a rollercoaster’ is a motif she has already used on the album, but here it describes the uncertainty of ‘the unknown’. It’s relatable and Twinnie wears her scars visibly, in spite of her brilliant stage presence. Album closer Whiplash sees Twinnie ask her beau to ‘hurt me’ like a car crash. It’s an odd metaphor: why not get rocked like a wagon wheel instead? She continues, comparing him to a lethal poison. ‘The pieces fall apart’ picks up the jigsaw metaphor from More.
As befits a stage performer, the ballads are stunning on Hollywood Gypsy, and she hits every note spot on. Given the chance, Twinnie will become a major pop star and we’ve certainly been waiting long enough for a UK-based one of those.
I will not hesitate to compare her to Lizzo, with the same vulnerabilities and vocal excellence. There’s only one Twinnie, though. It’s up to us, the listener, to listen to her.