UK Country stars The Shires' acoustic tour heads to The Wedgewood Rooms: ‘We're really fired up about this tour' | Big Interview
There’s bad timing, and then there’s putting out your new album the week before the world goes into lockdown.
Good Years, The Shires’ fourth, came out on March 13 last year, and there were big plans for the pair.
Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes are arguably UK country’s biggest act, and their legions of fans sent the album straight to number two in the charts.
As Ben recalls, things were going well: ‘Right before the lockdown we were in Nashville playing for our new label,’ they’d moved from Decca to BMG for Good Years, ‘we were playing a showcase, it was all amazing, but there were rumblings of what was happening in the world.’
When they came back they were due to be the first British act to play on the main stage of country music festival, Country To Country, at the O2 in London – they were stepping in at the last minute for an act which had dropped out.
It would be the perfect launch for the new album.
‘We were only asked like seven days before, so we had to pull in every favour, get the tour bus, bring the full band back in who hadn't played any of the new songs – we hadn't all played together for a while.’
But the festival was pulled on March 12, the day before it was due to start.
‘When the show got cancelled, in a horribly poetic moment Crissie and I were in a hotel literally opposite the O2, the Radisson Blu, and we were sitting there looking over at it, thinking: “We're supposed to be playing there today...”
‘It was just awful.’
So instead of heading out on tour and promoting the new album, the two headed back to their respective homes (their relationship has always been musical rather than romantic).
During lockdown Ben became a stay-at-home-dad to his then four and two-year-old sons while his wife, a teacher, did her job.
‘I should have been on tour in May 2020, but I went instead to being at home doing home-schooling.’
As a result there is a definite air of unfinished business around Good Years.
The pair are easing themselves back into things with an acoustic tour in ‘intimate venues’, including our own Wedgewood Rooms, before heading back out into bigger venues next spring.
‘It's really unresolved for us,’ Ben admits. ‘Normally you go through the whole writing process and the recording, and then the pay off is always going out live.
‘You put in all this work, and then… It's really odd – it feels quite unfulfilled.’
The band last played The Wedge back in 2015, shortly after the release of their top-10 charting debut, Brave.
Six months later they were back in Portsmouth, playing the much larger Pyramids Centre and they have continued to grow their audience over the years.
‘We're really fired up about this tour and coming back to the Wedgewood Rooms,' says Ben.
‘I love the smaller shows and being able to see everyone's faces, we're just desperate to come and play – we just want to get out and play some songs!’
The current tour will see them performing with a stripped down version of their full band.
‘We're going to have our drummer with us, and a guitarist who plays banjo and mandolin and stuff. We did it with this line-up before a couple of years ago and it worked really well, and it was great fun.
‘And it's how we started out. I think the last time we came to The Wedgewood Rooms was the first full band tour we did. Before that we did it acoustically and it was literally just the two of us back then.
‘And that's how the songs were originally written.
‘We love singing together and our fans love it too – we're definitely excited for it.’
Did he and Crissie see much of each other during the past 18 months?
‘It's the longest time we've gone without seeing each other since The Shires started. It was maybe four months at the start, which is really strange.
‘We'd have the odd joint interview to do every now and again, and we'd see each other on Zoom, but it was really weird.
‘In a way, it was good for us, because we got to really reflect on everything that's happened to us in the last eight years, and also to really rekindle your,’ he pauses, fishing for the right word, ‘hunger, I guess is the word I'm looking for.
‘We still love it, but it does change your relationship.
‘When we started everything was new – it was all really exciting. It's still amazing now, but you know what to expect.
‘It’s been going from venue to venue on the tour, to the writing room, to the studio, you're in a plane, you're in a hotel, and you don't ever stop.
‘Actually having some time to stop has been pretty important.’
The week before Good Years came out, a Shires greatest hits album was also released.
When The Guide mentions that, it’s clearly a subject which the singer/guitarist is a bit miffed about.
‘The truth of that is, because we moved labels – it's a horrible dirty secret – there's always a clause in the contract that the label can release a greatest hits, and they didn't even tell us about it!
‘It was crazy, we had no idea, so our album was slated to come out and they basically piggy-backed on the back of that.
‘We saw it on Amazon and it was scheduled a week before our new album was due out. And I always hated that photo – you can print that – it was the one photo I said I never wanted to be anywhere!
‘Fair enough, it's in the contract but they could have been a bit more open about it. Just be professional about it.
‘I think we might even have found out through a fan, actually.
‘They sent us a message saying: “I've just ordered your greatest hits”, and we thought it was a joke. But it's amazing to think there are enough songs to justify it.’
Ben and Crissie have already started work on album number five.
‘We've been doing it virtually with our producer in Nashville. Actually, just before talking to you I was sending parts to him and listening to parts. It's an odd way of working.’
They are working again with producer Lindsay Rimes who also did their last two albums.
‘I've always done demos, but over the past 18 months, I did use the lockdown quite effectively. I think everyone's been quite surprised by how good the recordings got that I could do in my little shed at home,’ he laughs. ‘Most of those parts are the bed of the record now.’
Given their success at home, cracking the home of country music – America – is the next natural goal for The Shires.
‘That's why the lockdown was so sore in a way – we'd been booked to play at this big country radio conference in Vegas that April.
‘The plan was to do C2C, the album would come out, we'd go to Vegas, and then we were going to go on tour.
‘We've got our own radio show with Apple now, and we interview a lot of US acts on that, and that has seemed to change the perception a bit. It does seem like the last hurdle for a UK act is to really break out there.
‘An Australian act has done it, Morgan Evans, he's had a number one out there, and he's brilliant, a lovely guy as well. But the UK hasn't happened at all yet.
‘I think they're a lot more open now, with the streaming stuff, with Apple and Spotify and Amazon – there are a lot of UK acts on the big playlists now, which would never have happened before.
‘I think it will happen, it's just a matter of when, and of course we hope it's us first!’
The Shires are at The Wedgewood Rooms on Saturday, October 23. Tickets £27.50. Doors 7.30pm. Go to wedgewood-rooms.co.uk.
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