In 2012, country music was about Need You Now, Cruise and Taylor Swift’s album Red. Country2Country was but a twinkle in the eye of the Country Music Association. Indigenous country music in the UK, to me, was all show bands in the Irish tradition. It was still uncool to love country.
Ten years on, we know what has happened. The Country Music Attendees Facebook group (‘politics are to be avoided’) has over 10,000 members who turn up whenever US visitors come over to promote country music, be they heartthrobs like Chase Rice, guitar wizards like Keith Urban or modern-day outlaws like Ashley McBryde. Next year, Country2Country turns 10. It’s as if the CMA had a plan of their own to turn the UK on to country music, with Radio 2 and especially Bob Harris promoting the genre and the many new acts making waves in the USA.
And so to Ben and Crissie, whose fifth album as The Shires makes them the most durable contemporary UK act. Their back catalogue is full of ballads and toe-tappers which are essentially pop songs with meaningful emotional content and a dash of banjo. Daddy’s Little Girl, Brave and Sleepwalk are songs which show empathy with the listener and are produced immaculately. They are perfect for a mature Radio 2 audience between 35 and 54 who love adult contemporary pop music, and are regularly playlisted alongside Steps, Westlife and Kylie (yes, Radio 2 is basically Smash Hits FM now).
As with any act deep into their career, nobody is going to become a fan of the pair who have not already got into them. I thought the first Shires album was too ballad-heavy and preferred third album Accidentally On Purpose which included Echo, Guilty and the Ed Sheeran-penned Stay The Night. In 2020 Good Years came out in a very bad year and the duo are only just getting round to touring it: notable on that album were collaborations with Lauren Alaina and Jimmie Allen, which seemed to be a manoeuvre to get fans of those American acts to become aware of the duo, who remain the UK’s answer to Lady A. It cannot be forgotten that their US deal with Dot Records collapsed at the worst possible time.
While in Nashville, they heard Cut Me Loose, a song by Lizzy McAvoy. Having recorded it, they left the tune off the second album My Universe and it finally finds a home on album five. It sounds like a contemporary country-pop song, with some banjo buried in the production. Lindsey Rimes, a frequent collaborator with the band, puts a commercial sound underneath the harmonies.
The album’s lead single I See Stars is, by design, bland and inoffensive and singalongable. All the same, it is immaculate, as is euphoric second single Wild Hearts. I would declare it to be ‘country tango’, a syncopated meet-cute in a bar which falls into the same musical tenor as Beats To Your Rhythm and A Thousand Hallelujahs.
Sparks Fly shares a title with the Taylor Swift song and the sound of about 10 Lady A tunes: ‘If you wanna keep the fire alive, you gotta let the sparks fly’ is a familiar take on a love song. Forever Tonight is a funky slow jam with some fine diminished chords and a lyric where the pair declare ‘it’d be kinda nice waking up in your arms every day’.
The album’s effortless title track is also about love and stuff, as Ben tries to be a better person for his beloved, who is ‘right at the top’ of his plan. Side by Side and Sky Dive are two more patented Ben Earle wedding songs, with lush melodies, strong imagery and some sustained piano chords leading to Disneyfied choruses. When It Hurts is another declaration of love with an understated arrangement that proves Ben can really write a pop ballad.
The duo’s tourmate Eric Paslay and Jennifer from Runaway June add some Nashville chaser to the mix on A Bar Without You, where you can tell Americans are involved because two Brits are singing about ‘a two-dollar dive’ rather than a Wetherspoons. They also tackle a familiar country theme of having little money but a lot of love on Baby We’re Rich, a likely radio single.
Plot Twist may be a career song; written with Beth McCarthy (a former Voice contestant), it is literally a three-minute movie with Crissie singing of ‘pieces of my heart I won’t get back’. She pulls back for the chorus, where ‘happy ever after ain’t too good to be true’ and she doubts the comfort and cosiness of love.
It reminds me a lot of Cartwheels by Ward Thomas who, unlike The Shires, have had a UK number one album. All three of the last three Shires albums have gotten stuck at number three, with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Craig David and Niall Horan standing in their way.
Given that there are a lot of 100%-ers (music and lyrics by the same person), there are parts of this album that make it seem like a Ben Earle solo project conceived while off the road. Contractual obligations mean Crissie has to sing too. Peggy I’m Sorry – which is unvarnished by big production or Crissie’s voice and is marked as ‘demo’ on the album itself – is dedicated to Ben’s grandma who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. I am positive we’ll see a band version on a deluxe edition of the album, but the sparse arrangement of just a loop and some block harmonies fits the song. Ben sings from the heart about not seeing his grandma as much as he ought to, but ‘can’t bear to see you this way’.
As long as Ben and Crissie want to be playing venues like The Palladium, their label will continue to support their music, as will Bob Harris, who will play tracks from the album on The Country Show which will stand up with the best of what is coming out of Nashville. It’s to the duo’s credit that the singing and writing are of that standard, and the acts trailing in their wake (such as Kezia Gill and Morganway) will learn a great deal from the pair.