Say what you like about social media, but it's the future of band formations. Just ask singer-songwriters Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes, who make up country-pop duo The Shires – before becoming the first English country act signed to Universal Music Nashville, the pair met via Facebook.
“Ben posted a status saying ‘there must be a female country singer out there who wants to sing with me’,” recalls Crissie. “Then a mutual friend introduced us and we literally met up the next day. It was so great for both of us to finally meet someone else who loved country.”
Now, with debut album, Brave, dominating the UK country scene, The Shires have come a long way from their fledgling Facebook meet-up, but it didn't take long to hone their sound.
“We are on the pop side of country – new country,” explains Crissie. “Lady Antebellum and Civil Wars are huge inspirations for us, especially when it comes to harmonies.
“We have a real country sensibility when it comes to how we approach songwriting. Storytelling, honesty and that beautiful simplicity in the lyrics that Nashville writers are so famous for is something we really focus on in our songs.”
You might associate country solely with the southern states of America, but make no mistake, it's starting to take over the UK – and Ben and Crissie couldn't be happier.
“It’s a really exciting time,” says Crissie. “Even in the two years we’ve been together, loads of new UK artists have started coming through. Bob Harris and BBC Radio 2 have been amazing supporting homegrown talent, like ourselves.
“Country 2 Country have been great too, supporting UK artists by giving them the opportunity to play on the pop up stages at the O2 in front of thousands of country fans. UK country is really developing its own identity, too, sound-wise.”
Over the following pages, The Shires pick 10 essential pop-country albums.
1. Lady Antebellum - Own The Night (2011)
“This is on our pre-show playlist to get us fired up. Lady A are a huge inspiration for us, and absolutely incredible.”
“Charles [Kelley] came into our dressing room at the O2 and celebrated with us when we had just found out our album Brave had gone top 10. Such a special moment for us and great to share it with him.”
2. The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow (2011)
“You can feel the chemistry and tension between them in every song, especially Poison And Wine and Barton Hollow.
“It’s such a beautiful album – you just close your eyes and it takes you to another place.”
3. Taylor Swift – Fearless (2008)
“You couldn’t have a pop-country list without Taylor Swift. We saw her on the Red tour at the O2 and she was phenomenal.”
“We could have picked any of her albums, but Love Story is on Fearless, and lyrically that song is so brilliant. It really propelled her internationally as well.”
4. Kip Moore - Up All Night (2012)
“Hey Pretty Girl was the soundtrack to a lot of late-night motorway drives for us in our early days of touring. Lyrically, the story is amazing and the last verse kills us every time.”
“We have been lucky enough to write with Kip and he is one of the most genuine, talented and focused musicians we have ever met.”
5. Kelsea Ballerini - The First Time (2015)
“This album was released this year, and shows how much country has changed and is constantly evolving. There are a lot of programmed drums and ‘noises’ – very unusual for country.”
“Still, at the core and heart is great songwriting and heartfelt lyrics. Secondhand Smoke – about her parents – is a real heart-wrencher.”
6. Shania Twain - Come On Over (1997)
“Hit after hit, after hit! Some people would spend a lifetime trying to write this many, and she did it all on one album!”
“We both remember Shania being all over the radio when we were growing up. Any Man of Mine – although it's not actually on this album – is a particular favourite of Crissie’s!”
7. Eric Paslay - Eric Paslay (2014)
“He’s actually a successful songwriter for other people including Lady Antebellum, and his self-titled debut album is one that, as a writer, you just wish you had written. A song like She Don’t Love You that is so deceptively simple is timeless.
“Every song on here you could sit and play on just a guitar or piano and they would still hit as hard. This album is a real favourite of Ben’s.”
8. LeAnn Rimes - I Need You (2003)
“What an amazing voice and vocalist – a huge inspiration for Crissie. Can’t Fight The Moonlight, But I Do Love You and I Need You were always on the radio when we were younger.
“It’s so inspiring to hear a real singer, with so much control and a such a beautiful tone.”
9. Fleetwood Mac - Rumours (1976)
“What can we say that hasn’t already been said about this album? A huge inspiration for us.”
“We have actually been covering Dreams over the festival season, and it’s the one song everyone knows every single word to. Such an amazing band.”
10. Ward Thomas - From Where We Stand (2014)
“Our good friends, UK twins Ward Thomas – we did a co-headline tour with them in November 2014. Their energy and love for life is so infectious and it really comes across on their album.
“It’s great to see another UK act doing so well, too, getting such great support from BBC Radio 2 and really pushing UK country forward.”